Promote, improve, inspire: WaterAid Canada’s response to COVID-19

Promote, improve, inspire: WaterAid Canada’s response to COVID-19

While water and soap are considered basic household items in Canada, for many around the world it is normal to live without them. Data shows that 40% of households worldwide do not have handwashing facilities. As a result, handwashing is not a widespread practice, which heightens the risk of spreading illnesses, including COVID-19. Although recent figures show that the pandemic has not yet affected low and middle-income countries to the extent that it has affected high-income countries, concern is growing about the effects of the pandemic in countries that have fewer resources to tackle the crisis. Low and middle-income countries often have restricted access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, and many healthcare facilities are ill-equipped to deal with the scale of COVID-19. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 in these countries, and preventing its devastating impacts, has never been as urgent.

To support the urgent need for WASH, CCIC member WaterAid Canada has channelled its expertise and knowledge to scale up efforts to promote hygiene, improve WASH facilities and inspire lasting behaviour changes to fight the pandemic.

“WASH, a no regrets intervention”

WaterAid Canada in the time of COVID-19

WaterAid Canada has always promoted good handwashing practices as part of its ongoing WASH programming. While COVID-19 has not changed the organization’s priorities, its impact objectives have expanded significantly. WaterAid Canada’s work is centered around four main objectives to reflect the urgency of the pandemic:

  1. Access to water for basic handwashing and cleanliness – providing essentials like soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectant to the most vulnerable people;
  2. Support for service providers – ensuring service maintenance with minimal disruptions;
  3. Reduction of COVID-19 transmission at communal water facilities – installation of handwashing stations in healthcare facilities, densely populated public areas and in rural locations; and
  4. Advocacy – campaigning to governments and authorities for continued, sustained and inclusive delivery of water and hygiene services, during and after the pandemic.

With its 37 years of experience and as a global leader in hygiene promotion, WaterAid Canada is working to support national governments and local civil society organizations to promote hygiene behaviours that will prevent the spread of the virus. WaterAid Canada teams are observing restrictions and assisting partners to ensure that their work does not endanger anyone or contribute to the spread of the virus. In many cases, the organization connects with other WASH agencies to coordinate joint efforts aligned with World Health Organization WASH recommendations. Currently, work is underway in urban and peri-urban areas, with the goal of reaching rural areas soon. The organization is also assisting in the design of hygiene promotion materials that will be disseminated through large media campaigns and amplified in areas that are more at risk than others. Materials intend to familiarize at-risk populations with WHO recommended practices that will prevent the spread of COVID-19.

WaterAid Canada understands tackling an invisible enemy, like COVID-19, is not an overnight endeavour. In an effort to scale-up its day-to-day operations to respond to the threat, it has developed a two-phase response that includes curbing the spread of the virus through hygiene promotion, and support for governments and key decision-makers followed by a reassessment and long-term planning. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 is not an endeavour WaterAid Canada can confront alone – a pandemic of this sort requires prevention, protection and curative interventions from all WASH sector agencies. As such, WaterAid has put together a comprehensive list of 11 contributions the WASH sector can make in responding to the pandemic, in addition to response dos and don’ts for the sector.

Fatoumata Sogoba whashes her hands after she came to the Diaramana Health Centre for an antenatal consultation, Mali.

Fatoumata Sogoba washes her hands after visiting the health centre for an antenatal consultation, at Diaramana Health Centre, Cercle de Bla, Segou Region, Mali. April 2018. (WaterAid/ Guilhem Alandry)

A well-equipped sector is a sustainable sector

It has become apparent that the impacts of COVID-19 will be long and profound, and the reality that awaits us, and more importantly, the most marginalized, is unknown. Safe access to clean water, appropriate sanitation, good hygiene and basic healthcare during a pandemic is crucial. WaterAid Canada has harnessed its expertise, shifted operations, and widened its reach to take on this crisis.

The need for proper WASH practice and facilities in this crisis is vital but the sector also requires long term solutions. WaterAid Canada is committed to protecting the most marginalized from the immediate crisis, while also equipping the WASH sector with human rights-based solutions that will have long-term impacts. Having the resources to prevent future outbreaks and support basic human dignity should be normal, for everyone, everywhere.

*By Arianna Abdelnaiem, Research Assistant at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC).

* This blog is the fourth in a new series by CCIC that showcases leadership and innovation in Canada’s international development and humanitarian sector to the COVID-19 pandemic. CCIC will continue to showcase the stories of solidarity, resilience and innovation from our sector in the coming weeks. We may be physically distant, but our members are more connected than ever in their efforts to combat the impacts of our shared global challenge with strength, humility and grace.

Featured photo: Sashi, a Chikankari worker is pictured washing her hands before she cooks meals for her family in Sadamau, on the outskirts of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India on 20 December 2019. (WaterAid/ Anindito Mukherjee)

Championing debt relief as part of Canada’s global response to COVID-19

Championing debt relief as part of Canada’s global response to COVID-19

Debt relief has been a long-standing sustainable development challenge. Calls from civil society organizations to “drop the debt” and efforts by governments to do so are not new – such as through the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiative. Nevertheless, the impacts of COVID-19 on countries across the developing world have breathed new life into calls for debt relief. Debt servicing crowds out funds for healthcare, education, infrastructure and other essential government investments in people’s welfare. According to the One Campaign, 64 countries globally, 30 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, spend more on debt servicing than in public health.

Prior to the COVID crisis, existing debt burdens were a cause for concern. The United Nations Task Force on Financing for Sustainable Development highlighted unsustainable debt as a key risk in 2020, noting that “44 percent of least developed and other low-income developing countries are currently at high risk or in debt distress.” As one analysis of the situation in Africa shows government debt as a share of GDP grew from just under 32 percent between 2010 and 2015 to over 50% in 2020. Countries such as Cape Verde and Mozambique are recording debt levels over 100%.

In response to this reality, civil society organizations, notably through efforts spear-headed by the UK-based Jubilee Debt Campaign, called for the immediate cancellation of 69 poor countries debt payments for 2020, including to private creditors. African scholars and governments have also called for relief. Experts at the US-based think tank, The Brookings Institute, agree, arguing that there should be a “two-year standstill on all external debt repayments, both interest and principal,” including with relief for middle-income countries. Further, they note that the IMF and World Bank should be empowered during this time to undertake comprehensive debt sustainability assessments for impacted countries to inform further debt restructuring.

In response to this reality, on April 15 members of the G20 agreed to debt relief for least developed countries and other low-income countries for the remainder of 2020, which is expected to free up $US 20 billion for developing countries. What this means is that countries will not be required to make debt service payments in 2020 though their interest will continue to grow and payments will be required later – in other words, the initiative does not amount to debt cancellation. Moreover, the G20 is considering how a new issuance of Special Drawing Rights (think international reserves) by the International Monetary Fund could be made available to help countries deal with short-term liquidity constraints though no agreement was made on this front.

China has stated that it, too, supports the suspension of debt repayments but has not committed to forgiveness in the current crisis. China is a major player when it comes to borrowing in Africa. It is estimated that 20% of African government debt is owed to China. Rather than cancelling debt, China is more likely to postpone loan payments, offer debt restructuring or a debt/equity swap. For China, like other major debtors, debt cancellation or forgiveness could mean funding more debts, as it would improve African government’s debt ratio, creating opportunities for governments’ to borrow more from commercial or other creditors.

So, where does this all leave Canada? Here are three recommendations for the Government of Canada to consider.

Ensure Canada’s COVID-19 response does not create additional debt burdens

As noted by the Jubilee Debt Campaign and others, there is a need to ensure that COVID-19 related investments do not create further debt for countries tackling the crisis. Canada’s first phase of global COVID-19 response funding includes $30 million to address requests for assistance from Canada’s development partner countries. As Canada faces requests for financial and in-kind support, funds should be provided as grants rather than loans to minimize impacts on future debt burdens.

Champion debt relief beyond governments and other initiatives to provide countries with further liquidity

Canada’s track record on debt relief bodes well for championing debt relief as a critical part of the COVID-19 response. At the same time, Canada is not the largest player and the composition of developing country debt holders includes governments, multilateral financial institutions and, increasingly, commercial creditors, complicating debt relief measures. The International Monetary Fund has provided debt relief to its 25 poorest members. There is room for other multilateral institutions to follow suit. Canada can use its position across multilateral institutions to support similar debt relief initiatives. There is also an opportunity for Canada to join European counterparts calling for the allocation of Special Drawing Rights for low-income countries. Moreover, Canada could champion one proposed solution which is to transfer Special Drawing Rights from wealthier countries to low-income countries.

In addition, the World Bank has called on commercial lenders to participate in debt relief alongside bilateral donors arguing that they cannot “free ride” on the debt relief provided by others. Canada can play a role in supporting efforts to deny legal standing to cases suing Southern countries for debt repayment and supporting the World Bank’s call on commercial lenders to participate in debt relief alongside bilateral donors.

Make longer term debt restructuring a priority beyond the current crisis

The need for longer-term debt restructuring cannot be forgotten once the immediate crisis passes. As noted above, countries were already struggling under unsustainable debt burdens before the global pandemic exacerbated already fragile economic and social welfare systems. Canada has been a willing player in past debt relief initiatives as a founding member of the Paris Club (informal group of creditor countries) and participant in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative and Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative. In 1999, Canada established the Canadian Debt Initiative to further forgive the debts of countries to Canada that completed the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiative process. Beyond the immediate crisis, Canada can play a global leadership role in championing the ongoing need to support debt sustainability for developing country partners.


Shannon Kindornay is the Director of Research, Policy and Practice and Erika Richter is the ODA Campaign Coordinator at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

Call to localization in the time of COVID-19

Call to localization in the time of COVID-19

Now in its 100th year of service, with experience in more than 50 countries during times of calm and crisis, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has learned again and again the value of working with local partners to shape and customize programs. Standardized best practices and multilateral coordination are essential in times of complex global crisis, but they are not sufficient to ensure an effective response.

In the case of COVID-19, we are all facing the same microbe impacting the same basic human biology. On one level, this is a medical problem, with likely universal technical solutions. Highly standardized programming may seem to be the most effective and efficient approach to reach the most people.

Unfortunately, our world is too complex for one-size-fits-all approaches, even when we are all facing the same virus. A key lesson of MCC’s century of experience is that standardized responses are damaging and counterproductive if they are not balanced with deep localization of the work. When programs are imposed without local ownership, they are frequently ineffective and even resisted. When local priorities are ignored, project activities and resources are often redirected and subverted. When people’s values and culture are not respected, communities are unlikely to engage let alone change deeply ingrained behaviours.

As MCC and our local partners around the world respond to COVID-19, we are striving to to be a bridge between the global and the local, the academic and the practical, international “best practices’” and what is wanted and needed on the ground. The reality is that COVID-19 will not have the same impact around the world or between groups, and neither should it have the same response. Factors such as income level, displacement, citizenship, age, gender, social inclusion, and access to health care that made communities and individuals vulnerable before the pandemic will be there during the virus’ outbreak

While it often means smaller, more customized projects, MCC has tried to prioritize this understanding in our response to the pandemic. For example, in Mwenezi, Zimbabwe, the community asked that the COVID-19 response be built in a way that would leave the community better positioned to also deal with cholera and other waterborne diseases they struggled with before the pandemic. In Assosa and Bambasi, Ethiopia, farmers asked us to work with them and the government to develop strategies that would also protect the harvest and safeguard the gains that were so painstakingly won over years of community agriculture work. In Nikopol, Ukraine, the local priority was to protect those without homes and the frontline staff who cared for them. In Haiti, while some partners safely scaled back community-facing work, others like our sexual and gender-based violence response partner in Bomon had to sustain and expand work that was made more difficult, yet more necessary, by the pandemic.

Effective, cost efficient programming requires deep local knowledge, adaptation and ownership as well as international best practices and coordination. As Canadian NGOs, we are well positioned to be this bridge and help facilitate sustainable, contextually informed and evidence-based work around the world through our local partners. As a sector, our learnings about the importance of localization cannot be put aside in this time of crisis. It is needed now more than ever.


Photo caption: Emma Themistoc, head of MCC partner SOFA (Solidarity with Haitian Women by its in initials in Haitian Kreyol) in Beaumont, Haiti. These rural offices, called Daybreak Centers, support women who have suffered gender-based violence by accompanying them through legal and medical processes, providing microcredit, and offering psychological and social support. Emma has been a key voice advocating for sustaining and increasing this work during the pandemic, despite the increased challenges COVID-19 poses, recognizing the need to respond to increasing incidents of gender-based violence. (MCC photo/ Annalee Giesbrecht)


* This blog is the third in a new series by CCIC that showcases leadership and innovation in Canada’s international development and humanitarian sector to the COVID-19 pandemic.