This paper reviews emerging evidence of the impact of COVID-19 on governance and conflict, using a “governance and conflict first” approach in contrast to other research and synthesis on COVID-19 in the social sciences that tends to be structured through a public health lens. It largely focuses on evidence on low- and middle-income countries but also includes a number of examples from high-income countries, reflecting the global nature of the crisis. It is organised around four cross-cutting themes that have enabled the identification of emerging bodies of evidence and/or analysis:
- Power and legitimacy
- Effectiveness, capacity, and corruption;
- Violence, unrest, and conflict;
- Resilience, vulnerability, and risk.
The paper concludes with three over-arching insights that have emerged from the research:
(1) The importance of leadership
The evidence points to three areas in particular that help to explain success or failure with regard to leadership:
- The need for leadership and, importantly, the political systems in which leaders
operate that have both the capacity and the will to deal effectively with a complex,
- The need for leadership that is agile, adaptive, and capable.
- The need for trust in leadership
In short, when it comes to governance and conflict, the evidence on COVID-19 is clear: better politics is needed, not just better leaders.
(2) Resilience and what “fixing the cracks” really means
Resilience has emerged at the heart of arguments about what is required to “build back better” after COVID-19 and concerns the capacity of individuals, communities, systems, and states to absorb, adapt, and transform when confronted with shocks. Looking through a resilience lens highlights the importance of addressing vulnerabilities and risks, and of building capacities. Yet despite increasingly seeing resilience discussed with regard to COVID-19, evidence has not yet materialised on how to translate the insight that resilience needs to be people-centred – emphasising social capital, social cohesion, wellbeing, sustainable development, and inclusion into different contexts in a way that is both politically and technically feasible, nor what the appropriate role for external actors in this is.
In order to do this, a better understanding is needed of how to change the political, economic, and sociocultural incentives that undermined resilience in the first place or prevented necessary actions to be taken – in other words, the political action and inaction that created vulnerabilities or ignored them until it was too late.
(3) Why better ways are needed to add up all the “noise” when it comes to COVID-19 and evidence
The evidence in this paper shows how some early analysis has not held up over time and that there are a number of areas where there is little consensus so far on what is being observed. A more systematic way is required to assess – with some healthy scepticism – what evidence and/or intelligence is telling us in terms of events, trends, and junctures, something Armon (2020) talks about as “separating signal from noise” (drawing on language found in intelligence studies). This is important for building better strategic preparedness systems and for more systematically mapping:
- what COVID-19 has caused;
- what COVID-19 has exacerbated;
- what COVID-19 has just made more visible; and
- things that have just happened at the same time as COVID-19.
Finally, there is not yet a shared framework for how to connect our evidence and strategic thinking on COVID-19 with other huge global challenges and transnational threats: climate change, artificial intelligence, organised crime, tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, transnational extremism, hostile state actors, cybersecurity, food security, future of energy, future of work, changing geopolitical landscapes, and so on. Neither do we have a clear sense for where COVID-19 is the most pressing issue versus where it is further down the list of threats and priorities. However, this is vital for better decision-making and also for helping to avoid projecting fears from one context to another, potentially shifting resources from areas where they would be better focused.