COVID-19, poverty and inequality

Why we need the volunteering for development approach as a capability response.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the worst in 100 years, continues to take a severe toll on human lives across the world. Although it spread in developed countries to start with, it extended to the rest of the world more rapidly by April 2020, posing a massive response challenge to fragile national health and economic systems, whilst stretching their governance imagination.

A poverty relapse due to the pandemic

World Poverty Clock data1, World Bank estimates and IMF forecasts suggest that the world economy in 2020 may contract by 3% due to the impact of COVID-19, pushing 50 million more people into poverty. The World Bank’s estimate suggests that close to half of the projected new poor (23 million) are likely to be in Sub-Saharan Africa, with about 16 million in South Asia.

Interestingly, 22 million of the projected new poor are expected to be in middle-income countries such as in India, Bangladesh and Nigeria, amongst others. The estimate also projects about 10 million new extremely poor people in fragile and conflict-affected economies. It follows a similar regional distribution pattern observed through the UNDP's multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) survey, which estimates over one billion MPI people living in middle income countries. These figures and trends point to a growing inequality.

A more startling estimate in a study by Andy Sumner et al (2020: 6) presents a dismal poverty relapse scenario, in which between 420 and 580 million people are expected to become poorer in 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19.

Worsening global inequality

Global inequality has been exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19. A Brookings study suggests that the year 2020 would wipe out the poverty reduction gains achieved in the last decade (Kharas and Hamel, 2020). In a conservative estimate, it suggests the baseline for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could well be 2020 instead of 2015, leaving only ten years to achieve the targets set out for 15 years. The study highlights the twelve countries most likely to see an increase in poverty head counts of over 1 million due to the impacts of COVID-19. Except Brazil, all twelve countries are in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As many as 60 countries are now believed to be off-track to meet the SDG target of eradicating poverty.

A question that naturally emerges is that while almost all developed economies are projected to have a negative economic growth in 2020, why is the pandemic anticipated to inflict the highest and most severe social and human impact in the global south, particularly in the least developed and emerging economies?
The answer may lie in understanding the relative capabilities that countries (systems) and communities have in managing and overcoming shocks, spikes, and vulnerabilities.

The capability gap problem

The global analysis and indicator of comparative development between countries, and by extension people, is measured against gross domestic product (GDP). This categorises countries into developed, emerging and least developed economies. That is a problem argued extensively against in development economics in the last 10 years, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) leading the way.

We know now that with economic growth comes increasing inequality. Wealth creation without building people’s capability, particularly those who have the highest deprivation, vulnerability and marginalisation, has led to a world where only a fraction of people and corporations control the sum total of global wealth. The UN's World Social Report reveals that income inequality within countries, including in most developed countries and China and India, has grown substantially between 1990 and 2015. The share of income of the richest 1% of the global population has increased in 46 out of 57 countries where data was compared.

What is capability?

The foundations of the well-being measurement and indicators are explored in the works of Amartya Sen on what constitutes people’s capability. He brings about the distinction between what he calls income poverty and capability poverty (2000: 91-92). The capability approach emphasises two dimensions:

  1. Functionings (e.g. availability of good health care)
  2. Freedom of choice (e.g. accessibility and affordability of the available quality, basic healthcare).

The capability approach has increasingly been applied and evidenced in the OECD countries, and focuses on creating opportunities, awareness and mobilisation for poor, marginalised and vulnerable people to be able to access basic rights such as education services, healthcare, employment and social protection without barriers.

The world will continue to witness increased shocks, spikes, and vulnerabilities, some of which will be as completely new as the novel coronavirus. Poorer countries and communities, more so in fragile spaces, will continue to remain highly vulnerable. The ones that will differentiate and mitigate poverty relapse and higher inequality will be due to the relative capabilities of those communities and countries.

We at VSO argue that the answer to reducing poverty, inequality, and vulnerability lies in adopting a capability approach that empowers the poorest, most vulnerable, and most excluded people. It’s an approach that overcomes structural barriers and exercises development choices, and strengthens systems and institutions to hold them to account for the delivery of quality basic services to the people.

At VSO, we apply a volunteering for development methodology to help primary actors (poor, marginalised and vulnerable groups and communities) to lead, influence and achieve their own development goals.

Why volunteering for development?

Volunteering for development is a human capability approach to sustainable development and social justice that VSO applies as its social impact methodology. It includes intertwined core pathways such as social inclusion and gender, social accountability, resilience, community engagement, partnership, and volunteering leadership. It aims to address the underlying structural causes of poverty, inequality and vulnerability. It seeks to:

  • Build the voice and choice (agency) of the most vulnerable and excluded groups of people (who we refer to as ‘primary actors’) to take up their own development actions, remove their own social barriers, and hold the systems (state, market and civil society) to account to enhance their capabilities. 
  • Support strengthening of systems to be inclusive, responsive, and resilient to deliver quality basic services to the communities, especially the poorest, most excluded, and most vulnerable people. 
  • Facilitate a network of global citizenship through groups of volunteers from communities to international level, that act as an effective channel between the people and the systems to influence policies and practices in favour of the poorest, most marginalised and most vulnerable people of the world.

How does the volunteering for development methodology work?

The volunteering for development methodology has two interlinked key capability enablers. One is a set of core approaches including social inclusion and gender, social accountability, and resilience and the other is a relational approach to volunteering. By applying them as the fundamental enablers, VSO’s programmes create the necessary conditions that help primary actors transform their social positions and economic situations.

The relational approach primarily works on the agency, empowerment, assets, and action (including influence) of people, akin to what the capability approach advocates. When these capability conditions are created, people start to exercise their freedom of choice and increase their access to basic rights such as education, health, and livelihoods services. A 2015 action research analysis covering evidence from VSO’s own work in Asia and Africa, Valuing Volunteering, demonstrated that volunteers help communities build their agency and empowerment through inclusive participation, create innovation, and generate social action, amongst other behaviours on the strength of their relationship-building practices.

Volunteers work in multiple settings, from the community to local and national authorities. They connect primary actors with the duty bearers/stakeholders (primarily the state and the market) that are responsible for providing quality basic services to the primary actors.

A growing body of evidence from VSO’s programmes in emergencies and conflict contexts in countries in Asia and Africa suggest that volunteering for development actions, for example Sisters for Sisters mentoring in Nepal, Cyclone Idai response in Mozambique, integrated vulnerability mapping and actions in Northeast Uganda, and peace building and social cohesion work in Mindanao, Philippines, have built more inclusive and resilient capabilities - both at the community as well as at the system levels.

The below figure describes how the volunteering for development methodology is designed to build capabilities of the poorest, most vulnerable and excluded people, enabling them to achieve wellbeing indicators.

Enablers Relational volunteering • Inclusion • Participation • Innovation • Collaboration • System influencing • Social action Relational volunteering VfD pathways • Social inclusion & gender • Social accountability • Resilience • People’s voice • Partnership • Volunteers • Safeguarding V4D pathways Impact Well-being outcomes • Access to qualitybasic services • Enjoyment of basic rights Well-being outcomes Outcome Primary actors’ agency & empowerment • Active citizenship • Intra-community inclusion • Holding systems to account • Availability of services & entitlements Primary actors’ agency & empowerment

A global workforce to improve capability

A million people around the world volunteer, 70% of which is in an informal capacity, contributing directly in their own communities (UNV, 2018: x). This is a powerful resource that needs a much deeper and better understanding of its contribution to nations’ development outcomes.

Through OECD’s Better Life Initiative, countries have started to see needed policies to understand the importance of wellbeing measurements (OECD, 2020) that directly reflect on improvement to people’s capabilities. This is the time for donors and national and international frameworks to adopt a volunteering for development methodology aiming to plan, build, and measure capabilities of the poorest, most vulnerable, and marginalised communities. This will enable them to manage and overcome emergencies such as COVID-19, and continue to improve their chances of realising their rights under the Sustainable Development Goals.

1World Poverty Clock had been estimating about 600 million in poverty in 2020 as against it currently does at close to 690 million people. See:


Kharas, H. and Hamel, K. (2020): 'Turning Back the Poverty Clock: How will COVID-19 impact the world’s poorest people?', Brookings

OECD (2020), 'How's Life? 2020: Measuring Well-being', OECD Publishing

Sen, A. (2000): 'Development as Freedom', Anchor Books

Sumner, A., Hoy, C., and  Ortiz-Juarez, E. (April 2020): 'Estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty', United Nations University World Institute for Development and Economic Research

UN Volunteers (2018): 'The Thread that binds: Volunteerism & Community Resilience State of the World’s Volunteerism Report'

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