The current global pandemic of COVID-19 is adding new challenges to local authorities hosting refugees. Countries all over the world have imposed internal and international movement restrictions to contain the spread of the virus, while the private sector struggles with the disruption in global supply chains and lower demand for goods. Much needed government responses to the pandemic are having important spillover effects on the world economy, adding pressure on central and local authorities, employees and employers, particularly in those regions previously struggling with the increase in population due to forced displacement and conflict.
Local authorities in the Eastern Mediterranean were already facing challenges deriving from hosting refugees, returnees or IDPs, and some were also experiencing a slowdown in their economies before the COVID-19 crisis. As they are directly working with their population, local authorities find themselves, once again, at the forefront of the global sanitary crisis. While authorities in Jordan, Iraq and Palestine must address the necessities associated with conflict and internal displacement, in Lebanon these challenges are also aggravated by the macroeconomic crisis and deriving deep financial implications that emerged before the unexpected pandemic hit the world. At the same time, the lack of adequate infrastructures and service capacity, manifested in areas such as electricity, transportation, waste management and health facilities, adds more pressure to small municipalities, some of which are located in remote areas in all countries.
The CMI undertook a rapid needs assessment of municipalities in these countries, which are members of its Mediterranean Host Municipalities Learning Network (HMLN). The assessment aims at better understanding the challenges local authorities are facing with this new, unprecedented crisis, and the new short and medium-term needs that have emerged. The purpose of this blog is to share the information gathered through this rapid analysis, in the attempt to establish a dialogue about municipal challenges and needs among local authorities, and to share relevant information with national governments, development partners and actors working in those countries, in order to develop a coherent response to support those at the frontline.
Interviewed members of the HMLN show that most cities are undertaking extraordinary actions beyond their capacity, in areas such as equipment of emergency units, food delivery, extra cleaning and disinfecting, taking care of medical waste. In particular, smaller municipalities have had to take measures beyond their human resources, technical and financial capacity. For instance, the small municipality of Yatta, Palestine, faced the added challenge to provide a physical space for the emergency unit to meet and operate, and to equip the space with internet and electricity, which was not available in all municipal buildings. In addition, other municipalities lamented the lack of available ambulances, nearby health facilities, and human resources to strengthen the waste and medical waste collection capacity – which has in most cases gone to municipal management and tripled to avoid the spread of the disease, such in Greater Madaba, Jordan.
Medical supply aid and municipal finance management are being affected the most in the short-term. While most interviewed municipalities said they were lacking the needed medical supplies, such as ambulances, respirators, sanitizing equipment, protective clothing, they also declared a risk to go into deficit after the COVID-19 crisis. Local authorities are now using most of their available finances to deliver essential services to their populations during lockdown, such as water, bread, and safety kits, to disinfect public spaces, and to put in place social distancing measures, e.g. by applying two-meters distance marks on sidewalks outside of banks or shops. At the same time, some of them (e.g. in Lebanon) were already facing deep financial issues in link with deficiency of financial transfers from central to local authorities. This delays salaries of municipal employees and disrupts the implementation of planned municipal projects, which have been suspended as the crisis started, including those targeting refugees and displaced.
In this context, refugees and displaced populations are among the most vulnerable. Displaced populations often lack a bank account and mobile devices which creates great difficulties to cope with the crisis; in addition, due to lockdown measures, those who had a daily job in the informal sector cannot move now and earn their living.
Despite these challenges, municipalities are already reacting to the crisis. From small municipal actions to comprehensive risk assessments and longer-term strategies, municipalities are showing an extraordinary level of resilience and proactivity. The CMI has collected municipal experiences in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and new local needs in this page.
Beside humanitarian health aid and urgent financial support, municipalities show the need of technical training and guidance to help with the recovery of their local economies in the medium-term. This is mostly sought in the form of guideline booklets and trainings (also in on-line format). HMLN members who participated in the two CMI Capacity Building Workshops on Strategic Planning for Local Economic Development (2018 and 2019) have reported the need of a follow-up training on the themes of emergency strategic planning, risk mitigation plans, guidelines for crisis management, budgeting, implementing national and regional recovering and development programs, and sectorial plans to recover the economy after the crisis. They also show the need to improve their integrated digital infrastructure and the deriving urgent need to provide all municipal services electronically, improve the digital literacy of municipal employees, and their capacity in remote business management plans and expanding the automation of municipal services.
Municipalities recognize the urgent need of recovering local private sector activities. In line with the lessons learned from the HMLN training workstream on private sector engagement, municipalities acknowledge that the private sector is the fuel of their local economies and can create job opportunities for the most vulnerable such as refugees, women and youth, yet the most hit by the COVID-19 crisis. They have expressed their willingness and to learn about how to help recover local private sector activities and the role municipalities can have in the medium to long term. In most cases, their needs to improve the local digitalization process can be coupled with actions to revive the private sector, e.g. by stimulating creation and development of innovative and technological start-up, creating more jobs in the IT sector, partner with private FinTech (financial technology) actors to improve municipal services, etc.
To face these challenges and achieve their needs, HMLN members acknowledged the increasing benefit to continue and expand their exchange with peers. Municipal practitioners expressed their willingness to hear from other municipalities in their same country or in the region, about their experiences in fighting the COVID-19 crisis while continuing to host refugee and displaced populations at the same time.