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Understanding the Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Canadian Humanitarian and Development Sector: A Presentation of Research Findings

Understanding the Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on the Canadian Humanitarian and Development Sector

Held on Wednesday October 7, 2020

Presented in collaboration by: 







Webinar Summary

Jenine Otto and Dr. Andrea Paras

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an uncertain future for the Canadian humanitarian and development sector. A University of Guelph research team recently studied the pandemic's impacts on the Canadian humanitarian and development sector. Dr. Andrea Paras, Associate Professor in Political Science, led the research team, which also included Dr. Craig Johnson, (Director of the Guelph Institute of Development Studies), Dr. Spencer Henson (Professor of Food, Agriculture, and Resource Economics), and Research Assistants Asa Coleman and Jenine Otto. Recently, Dr. Paras showcased several of the team's findings in a webinar along with expert panelists Dr. Rebecca Tiessen (Professor, University of Ottawa), CAIDP President Jean Lowry, and moderator Dr. Steffi Hamman (Assistant Professor, University of Guelph). 

           The team employed mixed methods of qualitative and quantitative research to identify the challenges caused by the pandemic and the response strategies of Canadian humanitarian and development organisations. The team contacted 745 organisations between July 8, 2020, and July 31, 2020. A total of 151 survey responses were received, providing a 20.3% response rate. Following this, from August 1, 2020, to September 11, 2020, thirteen interviews were conducted and coded in NVivo. The data highlighted trends within the sector since the onset of the pandemic. Research collection included data from organisations of various sizes, funding sources, and areas of work to provide an overview of the many organisation types in the Canadian sector. This research produced an evidence-based overview of the pandemic's main impacts and the innovative ways organisations have responded.

           The final report identifies several challenges experienced by the sector. The webinar presentation focused on three challenges: funding loss, program suspension, and the amplification of pre-existing issues. First, the findings indicate that 60.1% of organisations have experienced a loss of funding due to the pandemic, with an average funding decline of 26.4%. Second, the webinar highlighted how 39.7% of respondents have suspended program delivery, with a greater percent of Small and Medium Organisations (SMOs) reducing their program delivery budget. Research determined that SMOs were also more likely to suspend "Many" or "Several" programs than large organisations. One of the most important findings of the study is that education, gender equality, and environmental sustainability were determined to be the areas most impacted by program suspensions. The pandemic's 'double impact' on education and gender equality in particular has damaged historical progress and negatively impacted organisations' ability to address these issues. Third, the research found that the pandemic has amplified pre-existing development issues, with one participant stating, "If we change everything that we do… to focus on the pandemic, but not look to see how [our] organisation fits in the big peg of this whole situation, it will cause problems…. We need to focus, but not lose sight of [our] mandate as an organisation." 

           The webinar shared some of the response strategies documented in the full report. An important finding of the research was that only 17.2% of respondents indicated that their organisation had implemented a feminist approach in their pandemic responses, with the majority of these undertaking a gender-based analysis of pandemic-related programs and services. Additionally, 30.4% of participants indicated their organisations had made new investments in digital infrastructure, such as remote work arrangements, online fundraising, and online program delivery. In addition, limitations to international travel have increased organisation reliance on local partners. However, current charitable sector restrictions are a challenge to localization. One research participant noted that "…regulations in Canada hamper us tremendously for giving funds to people. The burden of accountability, direction, and control – until that changes, it'll be hard for any charity to change." 

Following Dr. Paras' summary of the research, the other two panelists shared some commentary on the research findings. Dr. Rebecca Tiessen, Professor at the University of Ottawa, noted concerns regarding the suspension of gender-related programming amid the disproportionate gendered impacts of the pandemic. Dr. Tiessen also highlighted the need for future research to investigate why the pandemic has hindered NGOs' ability to target such issues. Jean Lowry, CAIDP President, then discussed Canada's historically low ODA commitments and the traction lost in the development sector since the onset of the pandemic. She noted that the complexity of multiple layers of crises is a significant concern for the sector, given the pressure to divert existing resources to pandemic response.   

The pandemic's challenges have demanded a reimagined approach to the sector. The University of Guelph research report concludes with a discussion about the sector's future and how it needs to adapt in the pandemic context. Although the pandemic has shaken the sector, it provides an opportunity to re-build, diversify, and improve its resilience. As one research participant explained, "It's hard when you've done your career in one way and suddenly the rug is pulled out from underneath you and you don't know how to do this anymore…. So how do we create space for those opportunities to emerge, right? How do we create space in our minds and our daily world to let those great things come forward? Because I know they will, they have to…. That to me would be a beautiful next step." 


Or access the webinar on Youtube here: 

The full report is available at: The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Canada’s Foreign Aid Sector


Dr. Steffi Hamann is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Development Studies at the University of Guelph. Prior to pursuing an academic career in Canada, she worked for the German development agency GIZ. Her research focus is sub-Saharan Africa, and she has conducted extensive fieldwork in Cameroon and Burkina Faso. 





Dr. Andrea Paras is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Guelph. She is a cross-disciplinary international relations scholar whose research contributes to political science, international development studies, history, intercultural studies, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. She is the Primary Investigator on a current project investigating the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Canadian humanitarian and development organisations. More broadly, her research focuses on the history and politics of international humanitarianism; faith-based organisations in the Canadian development sector; and intercultural studies and international education. She is the author of the recent book Moral Obligations and Sovereignty in International Relations: A Genealogy of Humanitarianism (Routledge, 2019), and has published book chapters and articles in the Canadian Journal of Development StudiesFrontiers, and Intercultural Education.



Dr. Rebecca Tiessen is a Full Professor, University Chair in Teaching, Associate Director/Undergraduate Coordinator and Co-op Coordinator in the School of International Development and Global Studies. Previously, she was Canada Research Chair in Global Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and Adjunct Professor at Queen's University (2007-2013). Her research interests include gender and development, learning/volunteering abroad and the role of Canada and Canadians in the world. Specifically, her work has focused on gender inequality in the Global South, human security, Canadian foreign aid policy, global citizenship and youth volunteer abroad programs. Her research has focussed primarily on countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan).



Jean Lowry has over 30 years of experience, initially working in the environmental sector in Canada and as of 1994 working in international development. She has lived or worked in Indonesia, the Philippines, Guyana, Barbados and Belize and has led programs in Ghana, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Mozambique, Kenya and elsewhere. During her international development career Ms. Lowry has been a consultant or director of many multi million-dollar projects on behalf of the Government of Canada, the Inter-American Development Bank, IFAD, and the European Union. Ms. Lowry holds a B.Sc. in Physical Geography from the University of Winnipeg, and an M.Sc. in Resources and Environmental Management from the University of Calgary. She has been a member of CAIDP for many years and was elected to the role of President in March 2018. Since then she has led CAIDP’s engagement with GAC and others in ensuring that private sector members of the international development community have a voice and an opportunity to work actively towards improvement in service delivery. Since the advent of COVID-19 she has represented CAIDP on the GAC COVID-19 Dialogue Group which provides input and advice to GAC on priority issues and concerns. She currently works for the University of Waterloo as Director of the Risk Management, Economic Sustainability and Actuarial Science in Indonesia (READI) project.