Only two months after SEI’s new Strategy went live, at the end of February everything changed – rapidly, deeply and maybe for good. My last work trip was to an OECD meeting in Paris in February, on the topic of border carbon adjustments (a part of the EU’s green deal), and two weeks later I myself fell ill with COVID-19 and self-isolated. In mid-March all SEI’s offices closed, and now, in October, only three of our 10 physical offices around the world have partly re-opened. In our headquarters in Stockholm, we have arranged safe distancing so that up to a third of our staff can be in the office at any one time to allow in-person meetings with each other and partners. Many testify that such human contact is needed to find working energy and momentum – and I couldn’t agree more!

But things won’t return to where they were a year ago. Environmental challenges and crises continue, most recently observed in the forest fires in Australia, Portugal, the US and Brazil, and the small silver lining of last spring’s reductions in emissions, due to lockdowns, brought only a temporary dip on the curve. In many places, development challenges have taken a turn for the worse. This year’s Goalkeepers Report, released by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, finds that as a result of immediate government responses to contain COVID-19 the share of people in extreme poverty has increased drastically, vaccination rates have gone down, and development progress could be set back by a decade .

How is this new reality changing priorities? Broadly, the decision-making context can be divided into three phases. First, pandemic response: governments and development actors have taken immediate measures to control the pandemic and tackle the economic and social consequences of these measures in the short term. Second, recovery: governments and development actors must address the massive economic and social fallout from response measures at the same time as shifting focus onto pandemic preparedness. And third, resilience: to ensure that communities and societies are less vulnerable to future pandemics and environmental degradation (which are closely connected) robust plans must be laid for dealing with ongoing environmental crises in the medium and long term. And it is clear that the phases are interconnected – measures taken in each will affect the success of efforts in the others.

How have we, at SEI, adjusted to make our work as relevant as it can be in these interlocking phases? Has our new strategy enabled us to be agile in the face of the pandemic? Does it remain fit for purpose and ensure that we continue to make productive contributions as priorities shift?

We have defined three broad impact areas in our 2020–2024 strategy – reduced climate risk, sustainable resource use and resilient ecosystems, and improved health and well-being – with 17 specific impacts under these areas. Broadly speaking, our impact areas remain relevant. For example, action on nature conservation and water resources can limit the spread of disease; measures on air pollution and sanitation can reduce human vulnerability and exposure; and supporting industry transitions and avoiding carbon lock-in can enhance economic recovery. But below, we’ll take a deeper look at how effectively both the strategy and our work are making a contribution, using the three phases defined above as a lens.

Response and preparedness

Do our strategic impact areas allow us to be agile in providing policy-relevant analysis, evidence and recommendations which can be used to inform pandemic responses?

Water, sanitation and hygiene services should be a first line of defence in the pandemic, and access to them is also critical for preparedness. But for many, existing challenges in access to these services have increased vulnerability to COVID-19. Our SUMERNET team at SEI Asia swiftly engaged with regional decision makers to make recommendations for ensuring clean drinking water and hand-washing facilities for vulnerable people in informal settlements during regional lockdowns.

Furthermore, inequalities in access must be understood in order for measures to contain the disease to be successful. In our project on gender and social equality in water sanitation and hygiene (WASH), SEI is using systematic review methodology to synthesize evidence on the gender and social equality outcomes of WASH interventions in low- and middle-income countries. By evaluating gender and social equality outcomes, the project will enable practitioners to address vulnerabilities and “build forward better”.

SEI’s long experience of research on air quality is helping to improve understanding of how exposure to air pollution is likely connected to people’s vulnerability to COVID-19, and what measures can be taken to address this. There is clear evidence that air pollution worsens the severity of respiratory infections and makes people more susceptible to catching them.

Air pollution surrounds skyscrapers in Shanghai

Air pollution surrounds skyscrapers in Shanghai. Photo credit: Photoholgic / Unsplash

We also study the risks of increased exposure to indoor air pollution, especially in informal settlements and peri-urban regions. In these areas, lockdowns and distancing have forced many more people to stay indoors, increasing their exposure to indoor air pollution from the use of biomass and charcoal for cooking, which exacerbates health problems. Indoor air pollution arising from a lack of clean energy has two broad implications for equity. First, it mostly affects low-income groups that often live in areas with limited access to electricity and other utility services, such as informal settlements. Second, the use of biomass fuels indoors and the associated pollution disproportionately affects women, children, the elderly, the disabled and people with existing illnesses.

SEI’s history of research into household energy supports transitions away from biomass cooking fuels, with multiple benefits for human health and climate, as well as preparedness for future outbreaks of disease. Our work on air pollution also supports recovery from the pandemic (see below).

Recovery

In terms of transitions away from fossil energy, another issue of The Production Gap report is being launched later this year. It will speak specifically to major changes underway in energy markets – and in government responses to shore up or expand oil, gas, and coal production – linked to a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our work on air pollution also supports a green recovery. SEI has been working with the Scientific Advisory Panel of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) on clean-air responses to COVID-19 . Many parts of the world saw reductions in emissions during lockdowns, but this was not true in some locations, where emissions were not decreased from all sources, for example pollution from indoor heating and cooking. But to understand the specific relationships between air pollution and COVID-19 we will have to wait for further analysis.

We support the development of bioeconomy strategies and plans, including sustainable production methods for biological resources and the addition of value through new products and new markets. For example, bioeconomy strategies include using biological resources to develop pharmaceutical products to combat the pandemic. We also work to strengthen sustainable agriculture, where it is important to grasp the opportunity offered by the COVID-19 recovery to build more food-secure and resilient rural societies.

The transition of industries towards climate neutrality became a hot topic internationally in the years prior to the pandemic and, for heavy industry in particular, it is one of the biggest remaining technical challenges for decarbonization. SEI has stepped up its engagement in the steel, cement, mining and heavy road transport sectors, for example in the LeadIT initiative. In particular, the pandemic connects to this agenda through response and recovery measures, with the transition requiring large investment from both the public and private sectors. We see opportunities to bring about sustainable directions for public recovery funds and are actively working on green recovery policies and finances, for example by hosting forums on the European Green Deal and the recovery.

Resilience

Our work to improve unsafe sanitation systems helps to strengthen the resilience of communities in times of crisis, not least in a pandemic. We focus on inclusive WASH services, which reduce exposure to COVID-19 among marginalized groups and those especially at risk. In our WATCH programme, concerned with water resources and sanitation in Bolivia, our local partners conducted a large survey to look at household access to WASH. The results showed that 50% of rural households lack access to toilets and 40% lack good facilities for washing their hands. This kind of data is critical in the face of the ongoing pandemic, and ensuring access to WASH services must be a key priority in the fight against it.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the importance of climate change adaptation and managing disaster risk and vulnerability. As noted in a recent perspective, extreme weather events have aggravated the impacts of the pandemic. As Cyclone Amphan hit India and Bangladesh, it forced people from their homes and left them flocking to safe areas – a movement in which it is nearly impossible to observe social distancing or basic hygiene measures. These impacts not only make populations more vulnerable to extreme weather and health crises, but also aggravate inequalities, and the destruction of homes and settlements increases the risk of the virus spreading in densely populated areas such as slums and refugee camps.

In terms of sustainable lifestyles and consumption, in richer countries, COVID-19 appears to have accelerated a movement toward more localized supply chains and changed patterns of travel, which can both help reduce the spread of viruses and strengthen communities’ resilience. Trends like these are explored in several SEI research projects. For example, as a result of COVID-related restrictions, participants in the CANDIES project in Sweden are increasingly referring to the need for local produce and self-sufficiency as part of a wider risk strategy. And the pandemic affects perceptions and norms at a household level – a “reset” experience caused by the lockdown is opening a window for more sustainable local decision-making, preferences, lifestyles and behaviours.

Two women, wearing masks, walk in a park in Macau

People walk in a park in Macau during the COVID-19 pandemic. SEI promotes the development of public green space in urban areas. Photo Credit: Macau Photo Agency / Unsplash

Lockdowns have demonstrated the huge value that public green space in cities has for people’s health and wellbeing, providing the only outlet for exercise and recreation for many. SEI is working in Kenya and Thailand to understand how urban development pathways can make our cities more liveable, equitable and ultimately sustainable – work that has taken on greater urgency in the context of a COVID-19 recovery.

SEI research on biodiversity and ecosystems is highly relevant to  resilience building. The pandemic is a stark reminder of our dependence on nature, and the costs that result from a failure to safeguard the health of humans, animals and ecosystems together.

An estimated 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are from wildlife, and measures that support conservation and wild habitats are vital for reducing human pressure on biodiversity and minimizing human-wildlife interactions that can lead to outbreaks of infectious disease. Reducing deforestation is a vital part of this picture. SEI’s Trase tool is helping companies, civil society, governments and investors to track the impact of supply chains on tropical deforestation, and make progress on sustainability commitments.

In Kenya, SEI is collaborating with the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) and World Vision Kenya on research into human-wildlife interactions, with the aim of minimizing human-wildlife conflicts, illegal poaching and the transmission of disease from wildlife, to livestock, to humans. Measures promoted to achieve this include increasing access to water, the removal of invasive plant species, reforestation, and supporting local communities through biodiversity-friendly value chains. We’re also working alongside the Center for International Forestry Research in Guyana to reconcile wildlife conservation with food security in wetland and savannah areas.

Theory of change

It’s also important to examine how our theory of change – the route by which we get to impact – has been affected.

As part of the new Strategy we are investing in more targeted and proactive engagement on global policy agendas such as climate change, sustainable finance, biodiversity and the 2030 Agenda. In the early stages of the COVID crisis, key processes, often around major international meetings, quickly changed or were even dismantled. Meetings were either postponed, such as the Glasgow COP, or in some cases shifted to digital platforms, as with the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. National agendas were upended, at first driven to focus on health and supporting the economy. At SEI, however, we set out to demonstrate how sustainability and the environment are crucial in both these respects, and as the crisis has gone on, climate change, green recovery and sustainable development have featured solidly on the policy agenda in many jurisdictions.

“Our culture is grounded in our development ethos and commitment to resolving sustainability challenges, from local to global.”

— SEI Strategy 2020-24

Through our theory of change we aim to enhance capacities, and the pandemic has posed challenges in delivering on this outcome. We see enhancing capacities as being about “organizational capacity (e.g. to carry out planning and analysis), empowered stakeholders, new networks and coalitions, strengthened institutions, as well as improved, more holistic and inclusive decision-making or planning processes for different actors at different levels”. We’ve had to shift training sessions with our partners in our analytical tools online, and the personal interaction is of course missed.

At the same time, we’re embracing the opportunity to improve our digital tools and make new investments in improving usability and functionality. This was already in our strategy, but COVID-19 has meant we’ve accelerated the effort. To support our partners, we’re providing courses on how to make online training engaging and meaningful. Our tools can also be an effective way to connect communities of practice in these distanced times. The PLACARD Connectivity Hub, for example,  incorporates five European and global platforms on climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development in its knowledge base. The Hub is a state-of-the-art “search and discovery” tool designed to improve collaboration, communication and coordination between the adaptation and disaster risk reduction communities.

Our new Strategy also sets out an aim to improve “decisions, decision-making processes, practices, strategies and planning among actors in public policy, finance, business, and resource management”. This is also an uncertain area. Naturally, a lot of decision making on the environment and sustainable development has been put on hold as governments, businesses and communities scramble to design rescue packages, keep businesses afloat, and support poor and vulnerable groups. That said, SEI has worked directly with governments to tackle COVID-19. Our Africa Centre collaborated with the Kenyan Government in a task force to develop guidelines and operating procedures for managing infectious waste from COVID-19 risk zones, which have now been adopted by the government. We plan to continue this partnership to ensure that health messaging is tailored in ways that resonate with the public.

Organization and people

What about our ability to work productively and continue to deliver? There is no doubt that as the pandemic wears on, people are coming under increasing strain. At the same time, it is clear SEI’s staff and partners have so far been able to adjust and cope remarkably well, and, while it is a struggle for many, we are staying productive and relevant. A few features of SEI’s approach and set up play into this. First, SEI’s work is grounded in our distributed centre structure across Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia. This allows us to stay in close contact with, and be responsive to, changing realities on the ground, even when we’re unable to travel. For example, SEI Africa is moving forward with our programme on environmental diplomacy with the Government of Kenya. Second, all our work is carried out in collaboration with partners. Through our affiliated researchers and external partners we can continue to work in countries and regions that, for the moment, our staff cannot reach. SEI Asia’s local partner organizations in Myanmar continue to work in the field and maintain contact with local communities while international travel to and from Thailand (the home of SEI Asia) is impossible.

Finally, our professional culture includes a passion for our mission and for sustainable development, and our trust-based approach allows a lot of autonomy and agency for our colleagues. Many staff have demonstrated their ability to think and plan creatively even under the taxing circumstances we find ourselves in. For instance, our water, sanitation and health experts in our Africa, HQ and Latin America centres have at short notice put together a programme of work that, together with partners, addresses pressing water and health issues that have either arisen or been amplified in the wake of COVID-19.

SEI’s Strategy and working culture have proven relevant and encouragingly resilient in the face of COVID-19 and society’s response to it. I have described some facets of this here. No doubt there are major uncertainties ahead, but with our extraordinary colleagues and their drive and commitment, along with the way in which the Institute is structured, I feel confident that we can effectively navigate through the pandemic and into the post-pandemic future. Let’s hope that comes soon.

Acknowledgements

Andrew Norton, head of our sister institute IIED, recently wrote a blog on how the pandemic is affecting its approach to “making change happen”, which inspired this piece.

Examples of SEI operations around have been provided by colleagues across the organization. Particular thanks to Kim Anderson, Sukaina Bharwani, Marie Jürisoo, Johan Kuylenstierna, Fiona Lambe, Andriannah Mbandi, Philip Osano, Zoha Shawoo and Cleo Verkuijl.