What we’ve learned by tracking COVID-19 relief financing for two years

By Jocelyn Soto Medallo and Gustavo Zullo

For the past 2 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us all. At the International Accountability Project (IAP), we shifted our work to address the immediate needs of our staff and partners. IAP also integrated tracking COVID-19 relief financing and addressing rights abuses in the name of limiting the pandemic into our existing work. More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world, what is the state of community-led development?

To respond to the urgent needs posed by the pandemic, development banks harnessed their political and financial power, committing billions of dollars to the pandemic relief. Many of the projects were proposed as part of a rapid disbursement or “fast track” modality. While funds were initially broadly welcomed, fast-tracking financing meant that projects were proposed and approved with shorter preparation times, often less environmental and social due diligence, and with substantial limitations on stakeholder consultations — that is, communities were less likely to be meaningfully consulted and provided clear opportunities for engagement.

Prior to the pandemic, the practices of development banks already fell short of fulfilling communities’ rights to information, participation, and development. (Read our assessment of the disclosure practices and policies of the IDB Invest; the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development; the New Development Bank; the United States International Development Finance Corporation; and the African Development Bank.) The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these existing obstacles, placing restrictions on communities’ movement and right to assemble and be meaningfully consulted, and enabling crackdowns under the pretext of the pandemic response. The experiences of communities and human rights defenders under pandemic restrictions were documented in Unhealthy silence: Development banks’ inaction on retaliation during COVID-19.

Communities already suffering abuses from harmful development projects, were made worse off as the pandemic itself spread and government surveillance and restrictions increased. The Network of Communities Affected by International Financial Institutions, a community-led network of people negatively affected by development bank investments in Latin America, has requested direct reparation for damages caused by these investments, asserting that they should be first in line for COVID-19 relief:

“Projects financed by (development banks) have contributed for a long time so that the diverse communities in our region are subject to enormous socio-environmental damage that is currently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. . . .With these vulnerabilities generated by your investments, we have had no way to deal with COVID-19. We are more exposed than the communities not affected by your projects. Not only have we been displaced from remote places and in rural areas towards crowded cities, but there is no health care in most of the affected territories.”

It is precisely within the pandemic context that tracking and influencing these projects remains essential for holding government and corporate actors to account — to ensure that the recovery from this pandemic is centered on and built alongside the visions of those directly affected by these investments. And yet we know that without safe access to early and accessible information, affected communities are unable to meaningfully participate and contribute their vital knowledge and expertise to bettering project outcomes and avoiding adverse environmental and social impacts. This gross lack of transparency and accountability around these investments has made the task of monitoring the development banks and government response — and opportunities for engagement — both challenging and necessary.

“The pandemic has laid bare the frailty of our countries’ public health systems and profiteering by the private sector. What’s more, citizens have been left in the dark with these investments, often unable to track how the money was spent,” states Nadeen Madkour, Safeguard Policy Analyst at the NGO Forum on ADB.

COVID-19 DFI Tracker

In response to this gap in transparency, the IAP and our partners have tracked the responses and activities of the development banks monitored by the Early Warning System.

From 1 January 2020 to 31 January 2022, the Early Warning System has published and shared information on over 1,530 known investments proposed by the largest and most influential development banks as part of their operational COVID-19 response — a total of at least $167 billion USD across at least 136 countries.

The only centralized and public platform to provide both granular-level project documentation and top-level analysis of COVID-19 financing, the COVID-19 DFI Tracker tracks disclosed projects by the most influential development banks in the world. The regularly-updated interactive COVID-19 DFI Tracker centralizes this information and provides financing trends by region, development bank, sector and the recipient of the funds (whether the direct recipient was the public sector or private sector). Project level information was then distributed by the Early Warning System team to civil society organizations most likely to be impacted.

COVID-19 DFI Tracker for South Caucasus & Central Asia Region, also available in Russian.

As the COVID-19 DFI Tracker has illustrated, these investments are in every region and in virtually every sector and industry. While many investments have been to governments to strengthen their response to the pandemic, substantial resources have also been directed to private actors to mitigate losses and liquidity issues arising from the pandemic. Notably, even some public sector recipients of financing funneled funds through financial intermediaries or provided support to private sector development.

Additionally, a collective of more than 20 groups worldwide, including IAP, developed national level case studies for 20 countries on COVID-19 relief financing. To underscore the shortcomings of the development bank-funded responses, the Coalition for Human Rights in Development and other partners assembled these analyses with relevant recommendations into the global report, “Missing Receipts”.

And throughout all this, business as usual continued, with development banks proposing and financing infrastructure and energy projects that pose significant environmental and social risks.

As governments and financiers emphasize support to health care, there is less attention towards the effects of harmful projects that are being implemented,” states John Mwebe, IAP Community Organizer in Africa . “Communities have experienced more violations as governments push forward projects that hitherto met community resistance. It’s now a common practice by governments to criminalize community efforts towards stopping the harm disguised as measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.”

In the past two years, the Early Warning System team shared project information with our networks of civil society and community groups and hosted 29 webinars and online trainings. These activities inform partners’ own analysis of and advocacy on their governments’ response to the pandemic through development financing. Through direct one-on-one meetings, project by project outreach and webinars, the International Accountability Project and the Early Warning System team supported partners in accessing and using the EWS data.

The COVID-19 DFI Tracker, which had an enhanced redesign in late 2020 to make regional trends analysis more accessible, has been viewed over 12,000 times. The Global Investigative Journalism Network featured the COVID-19 DFI Tracker in its guide to Tracking World Bank COVID-19 Funding.

EWS data has built a strong foundation for evidence-based advocacy that will continue into 2022. Recognizing that a broader number of civil society and community groups will continue to monitor projects as they are implemented, IAP published the Tracking the COVID-19 Response Toolkit to explain how to analyze and track COVID-19 relief financing. The Toolkit will be translated into regional languages and further distributed in 2022. The Toolkit is meant to be used alongside IAP’s Community Action Guide series, which provides community organizers training and tactics to reinforce their own community-led development campaigns.

The COVID-19 data provided by the Early Warning System and staff and partner expertise have supported a breadth of advocacy activities, building the foundation for continuing local, national and international advocacy. Here is a sample of IAP’s activities since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020:

  • In Armenia, the EWS data is being used by the Center for Rights Development in their analysis of government spending on healthcare in response to COVID-19.
  • In Asia Pacific, IAP, NGO Forum on ADB and the Coalition for Human Rights in Development hosted a webinar to highlight trends for Asia-Pacific tracked by the Early Warning System, and findings from the three country studies in India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, continuing to support advocacy to make the Asian Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and their borrower and clients more transparent and accountable in their COVID-19 response.
Investments by IFIs in Brazil in 2020
  • In Brazil, with our partners Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC) and Instituto Maíra in Brazil, the EWS data was used in a report, available in Portuguese and English, that shows how development bank funds during the first year of the pandemic were not properly focused on the most at-risk populations and only poorly related to projects concerned with climate and environment issues.
  • In Colombia, the EWS data was used to study investments related to austerity and will be featured in the upcoming report, How International Financial Institutions support the drop in social (and environmental) expenses in Colombia.
The criminal system in Jamaica and investments of public financial institutions in times of COVID-19

Since the start of the global pandemic, the development bank pandemic response has been characterized by a gross lack of transparency. However, more than ever, within the context of the pandemic, development banks must ensure that communities’ rights to development and access to information are respected. After all, the right to information is not a checkbox — it is the foundation for truly sustainable development.


Jocelyn Soto Medallo is the Deputy Director at the International Accountability Project (IAP) and is based in Washington D.C.

Gustavo Zullo is a Researcher at the International Accountability Project (IAP) and is based in Brazil.



International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.