From Relief to Recovery: Empowering Local Governments to Adapt During COVID-19

By Lauren Whitehead, Director of Technical Assistance, BRAC UPGI and Nazia Moqueet, Senior Technical Advisor, BRAC UPGI

Country governments are adopting new social protection policies at the macro level in response to COVID-19, but some of those policies are not transferring to the meso level, or do not include input from the local level and risk overlooking millions of people’s unique needs and challenges. Responses need to be better linked to local government and the local community in order to be effective when implemented on the ground. Expanding existing social protection systems and making them more inclusive and adaptive to meet the local context will lead to greater sustainability and resilience in the face of the next pandemic.

Utilising local resources, like what has been done with boda boda drivers to deliver health messaging in Uganda, is one way that governments and non-profits can partner to quickly adapt for COVID response.

Adopting new policies in response to COVID-19

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, a flood of social protection measures has emerged as the primary vehicles for distributing emergency aid and stabilising households during economic freefall caused by the pandemic. At present, 151 countries — almost 80 percent of all countries — have prepared or enacted nearly 700 new or revised social protection measures, more than ten times the pre-pandemic period (Gentilini et al, 2020). This has been done through a combination of new and existing programmes and policies, often retrofitting instruments such as cash transfers and unemployment benefits to cover new populations and deepen support to the poorest and most vulnerable, who are most affected by the pandemic and economic shutdown.

In the Philippines, the government has waived conditionalities on its national cash transfer programme and introduced a two-month top-up. In Indonesia, the government is expanding cash transfer coverage to nine million new households captured in the national social registry (Ibid). These strides are laudable. Yet with great policy comes great responsibility. The most effective policy responses to COVID-19 will be those that respond to immediate relief needs of those most affected and at risk. But they must also pave the way for recovery planning by investing in systems strengthening that both empowers and equips local governments with the means to achieve great ends.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, in decentralised countries such as India, Kenya, and Rwanda, local governments have been instrumental in implementing national social protection programmes such as cash transfers and food distribution for the poorest and most vulnerable households. By leveraging their proximity to communities, knowledge of needs and opportunities in the local context, and a strong network of civil society organisations and the private sector, these institutions complement the role of national governments. For example, in Kenya, county governments implement the national Cash Transfer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (Republic of Kenya, 2017) and manage enrolment and distribution of health cards to their citizens as part of the National Hospital Insurance Fund.

Under normal circumstances, these local governments face significant challenges implementing social protection mechanisms. They often lack sufficient numbers of trained staff, and have low funding, technology barriers, and limited coordination with the national government, among others. These challenges are compounded in the current pandemic as the need for relief and livelihood support far exceed the scope and coverage of existing initiatives. In Rwanda, decentralised local authorities were previously tackling the need to ensure timely and adequate cash transfer payments to poor households in their Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP). Now, additionally charged with executing the COVID-19 social protection response for 20,000 families, local authorities are relying on community committees to help supplement capacity (Gentilini et al, 2020).

In an environment where local capacity could not be more critical to relief and recovery, it is essential to help equip local government with the tools to respond efficiently, effectively, and impactfully, particularly to the needs of the extreme poor. Through our work supporting national government partners to design inclusive policy and programs, and facilitating high quality implementation in collaboration with local government, BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation Initiative has gleaned key lessons on enhancing the ability of local governments to ensure holistic support that reaches those most in need. Strengthening these capacities will be essential during the transition from relief to recovery planning in a COVID-19 world. Following are some of the areas in which local governments can strengthen their capacities.

Factories like the ready-made garment (RMG) workshop pictured above have moved their production into making PPE, keeping local populations employed and adding inputs to the national stockpile.

Local governments require support to conduct rapid assessments to identify the challenges faced by communities and develop a response that is holistic, tailored to the local context, and accounts for heterogeneity in poverty. A robust assessment involves engaging different segments of the population to understand how the current crisis has affected their livelihoods, ability to meet basic needs, savings, health status, vulnerability to gender-based violence, and social capital. Additionally, local actors must map community resources to identify barriers in access to basic services such as health facilities and clean water that are essential for preventive health and hygiene behaviour. Assessment findings are critical in developing innovative solutions where physical distancing is not a viable option and informing coordination between local actors and national ministries to ensure that the appropriate resources are provided to meet the holistic needs of households living in extreme poverty. A recent rapid assessment conducted by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), surveyed 5,471 households in urban and rural parts of Bangladesh to identify the economic vulnerabilities created by COVID-19. The initial results indicate a 70% drop in income across extreme and moderate poor populations and urge policy support for safety nets that address food insecurity.

Delivery capacity

Local governments need sufficient capacity to deliver. Whether human, financial, or technological resources, or technical assistance, with an expanded mandate and larger population to serve, adequate resources to deliver are indispensable to local authorities during this crisis and beyond. Among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, sub-national governments account for 40 percent of public expenditure, but globally only 24 percent (OECD, n.d.). For some, where resources are more locally generated and managed, filling capacity gaps may come more easily. For others, this requires earmarking aid for core needs such as hiring operational and administrative staff and bolstering delivery mechanisms for assessment, distribution, and monitoring activities. There is need for more than just food aid or cash transfers to include skilled teams and technology to distribute it, track it, replenish it, and build on it.

Dynamic monitoring systems

As public services expand, a dynamic monitoring system is required to track funds at the local level to ensure transparency and maximise benefits for the poor. In an environment where multiple partners are engaged in relief efforts and are more reactive than reflective, a monitoring system will hold institutions accountable to the communities they serve. It also allows for adaptations on the ground to ensure that delivery of public services is suited to the needs of the poor. Technology can provide substantial benefits to local governments in social protection and health through the use of digital platforms to transfer cash and geographic information systems (GIS) to track health risks (de Mello and Ter-Minassian, 2020). Digital monitoring systems are particularly important in times of crises when there is rapid change and consistent and timely information can prove life-saving.

Learning between local governments

Data collection is only as good as the iterative process to improve. This could not be truer of local service delivery where monitoring is often channelled into reporting to national government rather than empowering adaptive management of resources at the local level. Like South-South cooperation, learning between local government units (LGUs) introduces a method of peer capacity-building that is rooted in common experience and backed by frontline observation and performance, openly sharing successes and challenges. As the situation on the ground shifts daily, national governments and donors can facilitate coordination and cross-learning platforms for quick and practical knowledge-sharing between LGUs to ensure best practices are disseminated and problems jointly tackled, while reducing the use of resources on interventions that are missing the mark.

Forging partnerships

To maximise reach to marginalised populations, forging partnerships directly between local governments, civil society, and the private sector is critical. By leveraging their wide network, technical expertise, and human resources, NGOs can help local governments reach last mile populations. For example, NGO frontline workers can coordinate with local representatives of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure that health messaging, distribution of protective equipment, and technical support on agriculture reach those who need it most. Similarly, the private sector can contribute financial resources, market linkages, and research capacity to provide innovative solutions to mitigate the impact of health and economic shocks on the poorest.


With the proliferation of new and strengthened social protection policies by national governments globally, local governments often shoulder direct delivery of services to those in need. This presents an opportunity to leverage unprecedented global growth in social protection to build robust systems that outlast this pandemic and avoid repeating history with the next. Starting at the frontline is key.


De Melo, L., Ter-Minassian, T. (2020). The COVID-19 crisis creates an opportunity to step up digitalisation among subnational governments, OECD ECOSCOPE, Accessible:

Gentlini et al. (2020). Social Protection and Jobs Responses to COVID-19: A Real-Time Review of Country Measures, “Living paper” version 6 (April 24, 2020), Accessible:

OECD. (n.d.). Data collection and analysis on subnational government structure and finance, OECD Website, Accessible:

Republic of Kenya. (2017). Kenya Social protection Sector Review, Draft Report, Version 3 (June 2017), Accessible:

Originally published at on May 20, 2020.

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