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.