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Opinions of Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Columnist: GNA

Coronavirus and disruptions in rural development processes

A Town Hall meeting had been planned as part of the review process of the district medium-term development plan (DMTDP), to discuss agricultural development needs, climate change resilience, unemployment and migration issues for the youth when all of a sudden COVID-19 struck and the meeting, cancelled.

We did not foresee this – there was not the slightest inkling about the pandemic, and therefore there was no alternative plan in place. It took everybody, especially decision-makers, by surprise and they are still struggling to deal with its effects.

The disease outbreak has affected every dimension of rural economies, ranging from agriculture, health to water and sanitation. Consequently, it has disrupted rural development planning and implementation processes.

While various policy responses have been discussed to tackle the challenges COVID-19 has brought, research and mitigation measures so far have not paid much attention to the processes (e.g. community consultations) of ‘doing’ development. Yet, these are important in ensuring consistency and quality decision-making at all governance levels.

This article focuses on how COVID-19 is affecting the planning and implementation of agriculture, rural livelihoods and health interventions. Disruptions in development processes COVID-19 has changed the dynamics of rural development. It has taken over potential implementation of interventions on food security, education, employment generation and poverty reduction.

When Ghana announced her first case of the flu-like virus, a substantial percentage of financial resource meant for provision of boreholes, agriculture extension, mid-year reviews and business advisory services was quickly diverted into disinfecting markets and public places, the supply of water and Veronica buckets, personal protective equipment, soaps, sanitisers, and the sensitization of people.

While this response helped the country to tackle the disease spread, it is worth noting that planning and budgeting for 2020 were made without COVID-19 in mind. As such, emergency plans had to be made, and existing budgets re-prioritized to fit in the COVID-19 related activities.

This invariably has affected the government’s ability to continue implementation of existing projects and development activities, especially, but not limited to those meant to enhance livelihoods, improve community water supply and the conduct of participatory experiments on conservation agriculture.

On the practical side, mitigation measures such as physical distancing and restrictions on the number of people at public gathering made Area Council level participatory mid-year reviews impossible. Previously implemented development interventions could therefore not be effectively monitored and evaluated to provide vital lessons for planning the next DMTDPs. Again, with limited office facilities in places where 5-7 planning officers share one small office, some have to take compulsory leave, as physical distancing cannot be practised. This has led to a reduction in productivity and output levels, as few officers take up the workload of the many on leave. Besides, working from home for most officers is not efficient because of inadequate laptops, low internet connectivity and general lack of capability in the use of online meeting platforms (e.g. Zoom, Teams).

District developmental challenges, such as a reduction in trading, agro-processing and an upsurge in sexual abuse that were not evident before, and therefore not factored in the 2020 work plans suddenly emerged, leaving officers with little or no room to design strategic interventions. For instance, a lot of rural women who sell food in schools have lost their livelihoods as the schools remain closed. Household abuse, defilement and early girl-child marriage and pregnancy cases have increased in many of the communities.

These require a second look at the work plans formulated based on results of previous needs assessments, and a shift to sustainable planning to quickly address the ‘COVID-19 induced’ issues. If these actions are not timely, all the developmental gains made so far would be lost.

On the other hand, creative ideas and new opportunities are being generated to address the challenges posed by the pandemic. People are thinking outside the box to see what benefits can be made from the COVID-19 mitigation measures. Thus, tailors and seamstresses are making nose masks, and other entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways of producing hand sanitisers and soaps from locally available materials. This is boosting the local economy, but there are not yet planned strategies to efficiently harness the opportunities to promote youth employment and create livelihoods for the vulnerable.

Way forward

It is clear that planners and implementers are faced with the need for evidence to make the right decisions to respond to development disruptions such as COVID-19 and promote rural transformation. The European Union-funded ‘Resilience Against Climate Change-Social Transformation Research’ project led by International Water Management Institute in partnership with the University of Development Studies, CSIR-Science and Technology Policy Research Institute and University of Ghana-Centre for Migration Studies, is designed to support development processes in Upper West Region.

Research insights from the project indicate the need for directly accessible data on the effects of COVID-19 on rural economies and socio-cultural dynamics, so as to identify potential entry points for an effective policy response. This will ensure that development planning is tailored to the realities of districts, as well as real-time capacity strengthening needs of planning officers.

There is also an urgent call for planning officers to re-strategise their consultation approaches and participatory mid-year review processes. It would be necessary to now engage with many smaller groups, but this also requires more funding and human resource.

The use of community radio stations to disseminate information and discuss issues could be explored to ensure a wider reach, while at the same time being mindful of not excluding those without radio sets.

It is possible to achieve inclusive and sustainable rural development in the face of COVID-19 and other sudden disruptions. What is crucial is to ensure that, DMTDPs incorporate recovery strategies that look beyond the short-term effects and explore emerging opportunities to support job creation and the restoration of livelihoods.

The writer is with the International Water Management Institute, Ghana