An interview with Ekaterina Krivonos, Deputy Director for Programs at the CGIAR System Organization and Chair, CGIAR COVID Hub Working Group on Supporting Country Responses to COVID-19
Q: COVID-19 is a global pandemic. Why is CGIAR focusing on just a few countries?
Ekaterina Krivonos: Countries differ in their epidemiological dynamics, government responses, economic situation, and food system specifics. Accordingly, scientific innovations to cope with COVID-19 must be context specific.
When we launched the CGIAR COVID-19 Hub in July, we did so believing that we can deliver more targeted and coordinated support to countries, as they are responding to the crisis, by leveraging expertise from all corners of CGIAR. This is a global pandemic – affecting all countries in the world, with enormous costs to public and individual health, economies, livelihoods, agricultural sector earnings and food security. What’s more, it is hurting the most those who were already in a vulnerable situation. As CGIAR, we are working strategically to deploy our research activities to benefit people most in need, while considering the complications caused by the pandemic for delivery on the ground.
We believe that the breadth of CGIAR research should be put at the disposal of national governments and stakeholders in these difficult times, to truly make a difference where scientific innovations are needed. This can only be done in a demand-driven way, responding to specific countries’ needs.
Q: How were the countries you’re focusing on selected?
EK: In the pilot stage, we are focusing our coordinated research on support to two countries: Bangladesh and Ethiopia. In both countries, we have solid networks of CGIAR researchers already working closely together, with food system actors and national institutions, and engaging with governments in support of COVID-19 response, recovery, and resilience building.
In Ethiopia, this foundation includes many years of successful collaboration with key national institutions. Multiple CGIAR centers are operating from a single campus under a hosting arrangement between the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Ethiopian government, providing services to national stakeholders and for many CGIAR partners. This critical, long-term mass of CGIAR and partner expertise is not only a key support to Ethiopia’s agriculture and food system transformation, but also forms a foundation for providing urgent support during shocks, such as this one.
In Bangladesh, CGIAR is working closely with local partners and other international organizations to monitor supplies and prices of food, labor and inputs, and to advise on appropriate policies, with an emphasis on mitigating COVID-19 impacts on the most vulnerable members of society.
Q: Once a country is selected, what is the process for conducting the work?
EK: Our first step is to establish a rapid but robust process for consultation with national stakeholders and resource partners to identify the demand and take stock of ongoing CGIAR research that is most relevant to each country. This will inform the research action plans of the Hub for 2021, with clear targets and milestones. Our country teams in Bangladesh and Ethiopia are doing this now, supported and guided by a dedicated cross-CGIAR working group that comprises different technical expertise areas.
Even while that is occurring, however, CGIAR researchers are already providing support, leveraging existing capabilities and bringing knowledge and tools where these are most needed. For example, in Bangladesh, we have been coordinating efforts with UN agencies, especially the Food and Agriculture Organization, since the beginning of the pandemic. On 15 October, the Second Rapid Assessment of Food and Nutrition Security in the Context of COVID-19 in Bangladesh was launched jointly by FAO, IFAD and CGIAR - the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and WorldFish. The assessment provides an overview of the impacts, oﬀering critical reflections and lessons, as well as recommendations and forward-looking ideas about rebuilding a more resilient, economically productive, and modern agri-food system. It is a great opportunity for the CGIAR COVID -19 Hub to co-design and collaborate with the stakeholders to carry out research to implement these ideas.
Q: What does CGIAR bring to these efforts that is unique?
EK: We are starting with modest resources but a solid network of experts across all fields relevant to food systems and national responses to COVID-19: economic modeling, food production and supply, value chains, nutrition, gender, social protection and One Health. This allows us to quickly leverage activities and assets from across CGIAR to help the countries cope with the effects of the pandemic.
Q: What do you hope to gain from this approach?
EK: We are hoping to provide countries with an agile interdisciplinary research response, bringing evidence and key innovations to guide actions on the ground and help food systems run without interruptions, to safeguard incomes, food security and nutrition. In this process, we have to think outside our usual scope, not only in the actual research, but also to make sure that it benefits those most in need during this unprecedented time – farmers who are facing difficulties in obtaining inputs and getting their products to markets due to restrictions, workers who had to move from urban to rural areas in search for new income sources, or households whose livelihoods are severely compromised, leading to poor nutrition. New mechanisms for bringing the knowledge where it can truly make a difference, for example by expanding the use of digital tools, will be key.
Q: If every country’s situation is different, are there lessons to be learned across contexts?
EK: The impacts of COVID-19 are felt worldwide, but unevenly, thus the response and recovery plans of the countries will differ from each other. Actions by governments, for example around social protection programs or agricultural stakeholders, differ across countries. We can draw from these experiences and learn from what works and what doesn’t in different contexts, to help countries cope with risks as the pandemic continues.
Lessons learned from the country engagement within the COVID-19 Hub can help prepare to address future shocks, as well. These inputs will contribute to developing a portfolio of research under the new 2030 Research and Innovation Strategy of One CGIAR which will target risk management and resilience building in food, land and water systems.
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