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boy reading a book in sunset

Nic Spaull Policy Brief – Who Should Go Back to School First?

By Current Affairs, Education

Nic Spaull is a Senior Researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University and a well-respected expert in the education sector in South Africa. He recently released a policy brief summarising the emerging international evidence as it pertains to the question of children going back to school.

His policy brief presents evidence on key considerations in answering this question, including the COVID-19 risks of illness and death in children, children as transmitters of the virus, and the social and economic costs of keeping children at home.

The emerging international evidence is presented from research conducted in China, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, America, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Iceland (who have tested the largest percentage of their population).

Children and COVID-19 risks

There appears to be a consensus among the emerging international research that children under the age of 10 years old are;

  1. Less likely than adults to catch COVID-19, either from other children or from adults;
  2. Less likely to transmit the virus, even when they are infected
  3. Are extremely rare found to get seriously ill or die from COVID-19

These trends were consistent across countries including those in North America, Europe, and Asia. While South Africa is still relatively early in the pandemic, the age-profile of infections and deaths has been consistent with international findings.

As of 2 May, no deaths were reported for persons under the age of 20. And of the positive cases, only 0.4% are aged 11-20 and 0.3% aged 0-10 years.

In sum, young children are low risk when it comes to being infected by the virus and in transmitting the virus.

reading a school book

Impacts of keeping children out of school

Children under the age of 10 are the highest child-care burden in their households. With these young children out of school and at home in need of supervision and care, caregivers are prevented from returning to work and earning an income.

Younger children also have limited capability to follow self-directed learning at home – they may not be able to read by themselves and they often require more active stimulation to learn. Spaull surmises that it is unlikely that any curricular learning is happening at home for the poorest learners in the country. Given what is known about the loss of learning during school holidays, limited access to computers, internet, and learning materials, and a lack of preparation for distance-learning.

See our blog about the digital divide in education.

Current efforts

While the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has been providing COVID-19 Learner Support” via TV and radio, it only targets ECD and Grades 10-12. In addition, it is only available for 1.5 hours per day. This ignores learners in Grades R-9, and households with multiple children in different age groups needing to share access to TV or radio.

Further, it does not appear that keeping children out of school necessarily contributes to flattening the curve. Spaull references a widely cited rapid systematic review on the effectiveness of school closures in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Where the authors conclude that data from China, Hong Kong, and Singapore suggest that school closures did not contribute to controlling the virus. He also cites another study from China that concluded that “social distancing alone, as implemented in China during the outbreak, is sufficient to control COVID-19.”

See our blog on what we can learn from other countries.

Children’s wellbeing is expected to improve if they could return to school, given the receipt of meals, peer interaction and caregivers being freed from childcare to work or relax, improving their mental health and caregiving abilities. In sum, keeping children out of school does not necessarily curb the spread of the virus, and instead, there are more apparent negative implications for their wellbeing, their caregivers’ wellbeing, and for the economy.

chalk board in a classroom

Spaull’s suggested evidence-based approach

Spaull states that “given the practical impossibility of continuing with meaningful learning from home – at least for the poorest 80% of learners, the emphasis for DBE should be making schools safe for learners and teachers to return.”

DBE has decided that schools will return as of 1 June 2020, and re-opening schools is in line with other countries that have had more severe outbreaks. However, DBE plans to start with Grade 7 and Grade 12 learners returning.

Spaull argues that emerging evidence should be followed – based on the evidence of children under the age 10 years being least susceptible to COVID-19 infection, illness, mortality, and transmission, they should be the first to go back. He suggests that in addition to Grade 12 learners, Grades R, 1, 2, and 3 learners should return (rather than Grade 7) and ECD sites should be reopened.

A phased-in approach is suggested with special precautions for teachers and close monitoring of infection rates of teachers and families of returning children. Spaull does, however, acknowledge the administrative complexities involved, including how to manage the risks for adults in the education system, possibly temporarily replacing high-risk staff (over the age of 60 and with pre-existing conditions).

Despite these challenges, the suggested approach would curtail risks to teachers and parents more so than if high school learners returned to school first, would allow many caregivers to return to work and earn an income, and in turn contribute to the functioning of the economy.

The following images have been taken from Spaull’s policy brief.


graph of covid infections by age

graph of deaths from covid by age

By Jenna Joffe

meetings from home

Facilitating Virtual Participatory Workshops

By Workshop

South Africa is entering its third month since Covid-19 reached its people. Despite early action and lockdown efforts, the end of the crisis is still unclear globally. In the evaluation sector, evaluations have either been cancelled, postponed or are continuing by using remote methods only.

Development Works Changemakers itself is continuing with multiple projects using remote methods, engaging in meetings using online platforms and undertaking data collection using telephonic or electronic means.

Evaluation during COVID

Our approach is typically highly consultative and participatory in nature. We closely engage with the client throughout the evaluation process and ensure we gather their input at key stages and on key deliverables. The benefits of taking such an approach include ensuring buy-in and ownership of stakeholders, validating processes and decision making, facilitating skills transfer, promoting learning, and building trust through transparency.

Some key consultative processes incorporated in our evaluations include;

  • Inception meetings at the commencement of an evaluation,
  • Theory of Change (ToC) and Theory of Action (ToA) workshops to clarify the programme logic or as part of design evaluation,
  • Findings validation workshops to share initial evaluation findings and receive stakeholder feedback for incorporation,
  • Final report findings presentations to share the final findings and conclusions,
  • Progress meetings throughout and more.

As such, the move to more remote methods puts the face-to-face engagement to the test.

online meeting room

Working virtually

Many of us are attuned to participating in virtual meetings, given our exposure to these prior to the pandemic and that they run very much like our normal face-to-face meetings. However, something that many of us may not have been exposed to is facilitating a participatory workshop with a client and/or stakeholders.

In probably all circumstances, workshops work best when conducted face-to-face. Workshops are often much longer than meetings, and depending on the subject matter, can be run over a few days. As such, a facilitator needs to be conscious of participants’ body language, signs of fatigue, signs of misunderstanding etc.

To help entrench learning, face-to-face engagement allows for participants to be broken up into groups to work on activities, and for the split groups to present to the larger group. Even tea breaks in between also facilitate networking and sharing of ideas, and for participants to become more comfortable with the group.

As such, facilitating a workshop online requires adaptation, creativity and a new approach.

Good practices for an online workshop

Some good practices one should consider when facilitating an online workshop include:

Familiarise yourself with the platform

Make sure you are familiar with the online platform you are using. If you use a particular platform for the first time when running a workshop, time may be wasted figuring out how to use the tools adequately. Prepare beforehand!

Reiterate house rules

Especially if you are facilitating a large group, you should encourage participants to use the mute button when they are not speaking. If everyone’s microphones are on, multiple noises can become distracting, and this is very likely the case while many of us work from home alongside family, children and pets. If a small group is being facilitated, and participants are not in noisy environments, the mute can be kept off, which can encourage more spontaneous engagement.

Share an agenda

Create and share an agenda ahead of time; this will help participants to focus if they understand how the time will be spent and will help you as a facilitator to keep the session on track. The agenda should include opportunities to engage with participants, as a pure lecture style will lead to participant fatigue.

Be prompt (or early)

Arrive online a few minutes early to test any technical specifications. In cases where the host must be present to allow participants to join, it is even more imperative that the facilitator/host is prompt. Arriving a few minutes early also provides a chance to engage with participants in a more social manner, and set a warm and positive tone for the remainder of the session.

Encourage face-to-face (online)

Encourage participants to use their video. Video helps participants to feel more like they are in the same room and is more conducive to building rapport with one another than a microphone alone. It encourages more interaction and participation as well as accountability – participants are less inclined to multitask and engage in other non-workshop activities.

Being able to see people’s faces allows participants to pick up on non-verbal cues, and for the facilitator to stay on the pulse with how participants are engaging – whether they are growing fatigued and bored, whether they need an energiser or tea break, or whether someone does not understand something.

Check-in with participants

Especially in a time like now, a check-in with participants is a good way to start a workshop. It is helpful to know if there is a low mood that needs picking up, whether certain sensitivities need extra focus, or if some participants may not be eager to participate. It is also a way for participants who don’t know each other to possibly find common ground with one another.

Introduce an icebreaker

In groups where participants do not know one another, an icebreaker is a good starting point. It should be creative, energising or light-hearted, and help participants feel a little more comfortable with one another. When a workshop is aiming for participants to collaborate on a product or deliverable, establishing group rapport and cohesion upfront is key.

Include breaks if needed

If workshops are long, plan regular breaks. It is often more difficult to concentrate at a virtual meeting while only looking at a screen than in real life where there is more visual stimulation and engagement.

Respect is key

Mutual respect must be the norm in virtual meetings for them to be successful. One must be respectful of participants’ time and be fully present. As a facilitator, these attributes should be encouraged upfront and throughout.

meeting applications

Additional tips for online workshops

As part of an evaluation planned earlier in 2020 prior to the pandemic spread in South Africa, Development Works Changemakers had intended a face-to-face ToC and ToA workshop with our client. With the decision to continue with the evaluation using remote methods only, the workshop was to be held online using an online platform.

In this case, we used Microsoft Teams. The workshop went well, with all attending stakeholders inputting on and refining the ToC and ToA. And the final deliverable was approved by stakeholders to be used as a core reference point for the remainder of the evaluation.

In addition to employing some of the points above where applicable, there were a couple of other ways our team adapted to facilitating the remote workshop, and we found these to work well in our circumstances:

Consider access to the internet

Some participants did not have long-term access to working internet. This is not uncommon. According to the General Household Survey (2018) only 10% of South Africans have a home internet connection. The participants were relying on subsidised data, and in cognisance of this, our team agreed to hold an abbreviated version of the workshop.

Core content would initially be covered in a brief session, and we planned for follow-up engagements if the content was not sufficiently covered. The benefit of this approach was that no undue stress or pressure was placed on any participants who were restricted by data usage.

Additionally, participant fatigue was limited due to the shorter nature of the workshop, and the process allowed for participants to have time away from the workshop setting for further reflection.

Share resources beforehand

Our ToC and ToA workshops typically involve an introduction to related terminology and theoretical learning. However, due to the time constraints imposed, our team put some relevant and user-friendly resources together and shared them with participants before the workshop.

This included definitions of terminology related to programme theory, graphic examples of programme theories, and the programme’s draft logic model that would be further refined in the virtual workshop. We also provided a list of questions around the programme to encourage some thoughts and ideas about how best to represent its programme theory.

This “pre-work” encouraged participants to come to the workshop with an understanding of programme theory and to be armed with ideas and contributions; taking full advantage of the limited time. We also ensured that before diving into working on the programme theory together, participants were given the opportunity to ask questions and gain further clarity if needed about the content shared beforehand.

Take advantage of screen share and real-time technology

During the workshop, our team used the screen-share functionality to share workings on Lucidchart, where the ToA and ToC could be amended in real-time for the group of participants to see and comment on. Within the brief workshop, the group was able to revise the ToA. A ToC was then constructed by the lead evaluator based on the ToA developed. The ToA and ToC were then shared with the group a few days after the workshop for their further feedback.

This process worked well, as it gave participants time to reflect further and allowed them to make suggestions that would not necessarily have come to mind in a half-day workshop. Participants shared their feedback with the lead evaluator and where appropriate, feedback was incorporated.

This iterative process enhanced the quality of the input and buy-in of the ToA and ToC. It was found that no further workshop sessions were required, and participants were satisfied with the ToC and ToA produced from the single session and feedback.

The methodology undertaken here may not necessarily be applicable or appropriate for all workshops or evaluations. However, we found that this process was successful in our circumstance. We made efforts to meet the needs of the stakeholders, adapt to the limitations imposed, and at the same time ensure that participants had a voice and were heard.

By Jenna Joffe

For more information and tips on how to facilitate virtual meetings and workshops, see resources below:

wall of postcard face masks

What We Can Learn From Other Countries’ Responses to COVID-19

By Current Affairs

The COVID-19 pandemic has elicited a global response, unlike anything we’ve seen before. There are still no clear and definitive answers for how best to overcome the novel pandemic; the answers are constantly evolving and success is in part dependent on an individual country’s context and capacity.

However, amid some distressing trends, there are countries that are battling the virus more effectively than others. Squashing rapid infection rates, numbers of new cases in decline and serving as models to follow. As noted in Development Works Changemaker’s blog Evidence-Based Responses to the Coronavirus Chaos’ emergent evidence is being used to craft South Africa’s response to the Coronavirus crisis and this is a promising approach in tackling the virus.

While more and more evidence is continuously gathered by the world and sector experts, we can potentially learn from other countries’ best practices as we deal with a fast-changing complex issue.

Global practices

The practices listed below may already be implemented in South Africa or may not necessarily be applicable or possible in South Africa’s context. But they can still serve as thinking points and catalysts for other possible solutions.

sign that the world is closed


As of 21 April 2020, Taiwan’s number of COVID-19 infections sits below 450, a low number despite the country’s close proximity to China where the virus first originated. Experts believe that quick preparation and early intervention has helped spare Taiwan from facing the uncontrollable spread of the virus[1].

Quick response

The lessons learned by Taiwan during the SARS epidemic in 2003 is reportedly one key reason that the country has been more prepared for the virus than many other countries[2]. Taiwan was quick to respond by introducing travel bans soon after COVID cases began to rise in mainland China.

Taiwan took action earlier than most others; it was quick to first screen arrivals from China before closing its borders altogether and to initiate strict quarantine, health monitoring and contact tracing[3].

Community action

Private businesses and apartment communities have also started body-temperature monitoring and disinfection steps in a public area that have helped supplement government efforts[4]. The joint efforts of government and private companies—a partnership deemed “Team Taiwan” have also enabled the country to donate supplies to countries hard hit by the pandemic[5].

Importantly, Taiwan tackled the impending challenge of shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE) early. Taiwan predicted high demand for masks as early as late January, thus the government already began rationing the existing supply of masks then, and implemented a policy that citizens buy a specific number of masks from designated drug stores on a weekly basis[6].

Reportedly, the policy has been replicated in other countries including South Korea (another well-performing country in managing COVID) and France. Further, Taiwan invested approximately $6.8 million to create 60 new mask production lines, increasing the country’s daily mask production from 1.8 million to 8 million masks, an action now called “Taiwan’s Mask Miracle.” The wearing of face masks quickly became routine as early as January in many areas[7].

Data technology

The government has also been using data technology. It integrated the national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database[8]. By merging the databases, it was possible to gather citizen’s 14-day travel history and ask those who visited high-risk areas to self-isolate[9].

It also helps medical workers identify and trace suspected and high-risk cases, including the whereabouts of individuals in quarantine[10]. The Taiwanese government can track citizens through their phones, allowing them to ensure that individuals are adhering to the mandatory 14-day quarantine and are not violating the quarantine rules[11].

The government has also been making efforts to support those in quarantine, including delivering basic supplies (food or books) and implementing a welfare programme that provides a $30 daily allowance to those undergoing two-weeks or quarantine[12]. Experts suggest that this gives Taiwanese citizens greater incentive to report their symptoms honestly[13].

Over the past few decades, Taiwan has also invested in its biomedical research. This capacity has now been leveraged by way of working on a  mass-produced rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19 that can reduce the diagnostic time frame to as little as 20 minutes[14]. Should this be rolled out, it will be a game-changer in improving the number of individuals tested and immediately placed in quarantine before the virus can spread further.

Early leaders

While for many it is not entirely clear why more countries and the global health community did not follow Taiwan’s lead in early 2020, some of pointed out that it is likely due Taiwan not a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO)[15].

The island nation has been shut out from a number of international fora including the WHO as a result of Beijing’s geopolitical agenda to assert its “One China” policy against Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen’s mandate to assert democracy[16]. Had Taiwan had more of a presence and a voice on this global platform, potentially many lives could have been spared.

men wearing face masks

South Korea

South Korea is another nation standing strong in the face of the pandemic, taking action decisively and quickly. It was one of the first Asian countries to follow China’s lead in implementing widespread containment measures.

Comprehensive and innovative protective measures

According to experts, the country has some of the most comprehensive and innovative protective measures in place[17] and is why the number of new infections have slowed down. Even in the absence of stricter measures like lockdowns seen elsewhere. With the exception of closing schools and imposing a curfew in some cities[18].

The country’s testing campaign and intensive contact tracing have helped slow the spread of coronavirus[19]. The country acted early and reportedly has the most extensive, widespread and well-organised COVID testing program in the world, combining this with substantial efforts to quarantine infected individuals and trace and quarantine those they’ve been in contact with and potentially infected[20].

As an example, in March 2020, South Korea was conducting approximately 5200 tests per million citizens. In comparison to the United States, which had only conducted 74 tests per million citizens. The United States is one of the most infected nations globally with no trends of decline in sight.

Preparation is key

Similar to Taiwan’s lessons learned during the SARS epidemic, South Korea also learned the significant importance of preparedness from the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Which saw the tracing, testing and quarantining of nearly 17,000 people and a negatively impacted economy[21].

The MERS experience revealed the major importance of testing to control any viral and fast-spreading epidemic[22] and helped the country to improve hospital infection prevention and control[23]. The experience led South Korea to use testing as a key in its coronavirus strategy, and it became a measure that seems to have set the country’s projections apart from others[24].

Information and communications technology

Another key to South Korea’s success is its use of information and communications technology[25]. Since the MERS outbreak, legislation was implemented that allowed the South Korean government to collect mobile phone, credit card and other data from individuals who test positive in order to determine their recent whereabouts and therefore allowing others to determine if they may have come into contact with an infected individual[26].

Government has also rolled out several smartphone apps that track quarantined individuals, gather data on their symptoms, send emergency texts about spikes in infections in the area, facilitate telemedicine, update on the number and type of masks available, and allow citizens to monitor their own symptoms and contact a doctor if needed.

In addition to contact tracing, technology has also helped the country to test widely and quickly share information with the public about the virus. Including how many people were infected in each geographic area and city in real-time.

Data literacy is essential during these uncertain times.

Commercial test kits

When news of the virus emerged in China, South Korea quickly worked to develop its tests and cooperated with manufacturers to develop commercial test kits. The first test was approved in early February when the country had only a few cases[27].

Other actions include a local monitoring team calling quarantined patients twice a day to check up on symptoms and ensure that the rules of quarantine are not violated. Those who violate quarantine face up to $2500 fines[28].

The country took an all-government strategy. The Prime Minister developed a task force of all government ministries as well as all regional and city governments; the approach ensured that different regions shared doctors and opened their hospitals to each other’s patients when resources ran low[29].

Open communication

The Foreign Minister also noted that being transparent and open with the public helped secure the people’s trust. “The key to our success has been absolute transparency with the public – sharing every detail of how this virus is evolving, how it is spreading and what the government is doing about it, warts and all.”[30]

Testing stations

One interesting measure South Korea takes is offering drive-through testing stations nationwide, an idea that has now been duplicated in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Another novel concept employed is public “phone booths” used by a Seoul hospital for COVID-19 testing, providing easy access and quick testing for those concerned that they may have the virus[31].

On one side of the glass, the patient picks up a handset to have a consultation with a hospital worker connected on the other side of the glass. The health worker then puts their arms into rubber gloves embedded in the booth to swab a sample from the patient, and thereafter the booth is quickly disinfected for the next patient. In total, it is a seven-minute exam, allowing the hospital to test almost 10 times more than it could previously.

While the numbers evident thus far have certainly been promising for the country, whether South Korea’s success will be sustained is unclear, as reportedly new clusters are beginning to appear[32].

masks during coronavirus


The countries discussed above are well-resourced and are therefore well-positioned to make the more difficult decisions to mitigate the spread of coronavirus but concurrently negatively impact the economy. So what about countries that are poorer and developing?

Selective and proactive

One success story is Vietnam, which has shown how the virus can be contained with limited resources[33]. While Vietnam’s neighbours Taiwan and South Korea possess the financial resources for mass testing, Vietnam is driving selective but proactive prevention, deeming the country’s model to be an effective low-cost model[34].

As of 17 April, the country only had 268 confirmed cases (97 active and 171 recovered) with no deaths; an impressive containment given that the country shares a border with China where the virus originated[35].

Aggressive preparation

Vietnam prepared aggressively for the virus before its first case was identified and the country’s success in fighting the virus has largely been attributed to its proactive and rapid action[36]. The country’s early anti-COVID-19 measures included issuing urgent dispatches on outbreak prevention to government agencies, hospitals and clinics in January; and organising a National Steering Committee on Epidemic Prevention when the first case was identified[37].

Global isolation

There were also common policy actions including cancelling of all foreign flights and foreign entry (with any returning citizens subjected to medical checks and compulsory 14-day self-isolation)[38], extensive contact tracing and expanding production of medical supplies[39].

Since the first case was recorded, Vietnam limited movements where necessary, striking a balanced approach between overt caution with precision and fighting the virus and maintaining open economic policies[40]:

Schools were closed after the lunar New Year (with schools gradually adopting online teaching). High-risk villages and communes were initially locked down and the risks contained by enforcing checkpoints in and out of the localities and developing local medical facilities for testing and treatment.

The country was placed under limited lockdown effective April 1, which mandated self-isolation nationally, banning of all gatherings, closing borders and implementing a quarantine policy.

Open communication

Further, by proactively providing information to the public and being transparent, the Vietnamese government gained the confidence of its people and is viewed by the public as an effective source of communication leadership[41].

The Ministry of Health launched a website to share coronavirus-related information and just before the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, they launched the health declaration mobile application NCOVI to help citizens report their symptoms and follow the contact tracing operation[42]. Both platforms not only ease the medical process but also share accurate information rapidly and squash misinformation and fake news[43].

While the above-mentioned responses have certainly played a role in containing the spread of the virus, reportedly a key underlying factor is the government’s mobilisation of nationalism[44]. Vietnam has also leveraged its culture of surveillance to encourage citizens to report if they see any rule-breaking and have police administer fines to those who spread misinformation and fake news[45].

The government reportedly framed the virus as a foreign enemy and called the nation to come together to defeat it, mirroring the country’s history being long-threatened by foreign attackers[46]. Additionally, with large and well-organised military and security services, the country has been in a position to act decisively and swiftly.

coronavirus in singapore

New Zealand   

New Zealand has been showing an effective fight against the virus which has also been attributed to early and decisive action taken by the government[47]. The country identified its first case in February, and by early April, more citizens were found to be recovering than be infected, indicating a decline of the virus[48].

Streamlined strategy

Reportedly, the heart of New Zealand’s success has been due to a strategy including;

1) travel restrictions before any cases were detected in-country[49], including restricted access by those returning from mainland China, all international visitors self-isolating for 14 days, and finally fully closed borders to international visitors;

2) the government pushing early for a level 4 lockdown for at least four weeks, that has seen the shutdown of schools and non-essential jobs and services and prohibiting of many outdoor activities[50];

3) New Zealanders, including immigrants, have received recurring payments from the government to make it easier for individuals to stop working[51];

4) having scientific input into the policymaking process[52]; and

5) a Prime Minister who reportedly is a good communicator, the public have trust in her and therefore are more inclined to follow instructions[53].

It is reported that if New Zealand’s current trends continue, the country will be set to reopen its society quicker than Europe or the United States[54]. Experts report that the early and strict mitigation efforts, very good adherence by New Zealanders to the rules, and widespread testing have prevented an outbreak of the likes elsewhere[55].

As such, because there has been little evidence of community transmission, there have not been unmanageable numbers of patients overwhelming the healthcare system, making it easier to treat patients and ensure they see a full recovery.[56]


Australia has shown similar effectiveness to its neighbour New Zealand by implementing early mitigation actions[57].

Limiting travel

As early as January, Australia began limiting incoming travel from Wuhan, China where the virus first originated. In late January, the country recorded its first case, and within days the country recorded nine cases and initiated a mandatory two-week quarantine for those entering the country from China[58].

The Australian government initiated its emergency response to COVID-19 in late February, marking it a global pandemic earlier than the WHO; this enables the government to rapidly launch emergency funding and tax breaks and allowed hospitals to prepare for the wave of patients early on[59].

By mid-March, all travellers arriving in or returning to Australia were instructed to self-isolate for 14 days. The Prime Minister also restricted public gatherings to maximum two people by the end of March, and that individuals would only be allowed to leave isolation for essential shopping, medical reasons, exercise, or work[60].

Australia also rapidly expanded testing and implemented contact tracing measures to mitigate further viral spread[61].

The Road Ahead

There are several other countries not discussed here that are showing successes including Iceland, Croatia and India and provide further support for the lessons highlighted above. There are also numerous countries struggling to keep their heads above water in fighting the virus, including Italy, Spain and the United States. These countries provide their own lessons on what poor responses look like.

The country cases presented in this article have highlighted key acts and strategies in fighting the virus effectively; including quick preparation; early intervention; government support and welfare; leveraging technology for early detection, tracking cases, share of up-to-date information and shut down fake news; contact tracing; widespread testing and quick test turnaround times for early detection and treatment; case isolation and investment in a research capacity.

It should be noted however that the circumstances change every day globally and the success rates of some countries have changed. Early success does not necessarily guarantee against a resurgence later.

For example, Singapore was initially reported as a model country that vigorously undertook contact tracing, shut borders and implemented free testing and treatment for residents, while business remained open and a sense of normalcy was maintained[62]. However, in recent days the country has seen its caseload doubled and has exceeded 9000 cases[63].

As such, while the countries described above can certainly provide key lessons in the interim as our world leaders and sector experts navigate the novel coronavirus, things are always subject to change and only time will tell which countries are able to completely eradicate the virus.

Each country can only work towards using the most up-to-date evidence and advice to inform their actions and policies, while considering the nature of their very unique contexts before making rash decisions that could provide an effective band-aid in the short-term, but frightening consequences in the long term.

By Jenna Joffe

[1] Taiwan Coronavirus

[2] CNN: Taiwan Coronavirus response 

[3] FT

[4] Time: Finding Hope Coronavirus Pandemic

[5] Ibid.

[6] Taiwan Coronavirus

[7] CNN Coronavirus Mask Messaging

[8] JAMA Network

[9] Time: Coronavirus Taiwan

[10] Taiwan Coronavirus

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] CNN: Taiwan Coronavirus Response

[16] Time: Coronavirus Taiwan

[17] Science and Health: Pandemic Response

[18] Business Insider – South Korea Controlled Its Coronavirus Outbreak 2020

[19] Daily Maverick: Over 100 Countries Ask South Korea For Coronavirus Testing

[20] Science Mag: Coronavirus Cases Have Dropped Sharply South Korea What’s Secret Its Success

[21] Ibid.

[22] We Forum: South Korea COVID-19 Containment Testing

[23] Science Mag: Coronavirus Cases Have Dropped Sharply South Korea What’s Secret Its Success

[24] We Forum: South Korea COVID-19 Containment Testing

[25] ICT Works: Korea Used ICT Flatten COVID-19 Curve

[26] Business Insider: How South Korea Controlled It’s Coronavirus Outbreak 2020

[27] Science Mag: Coronavirus Cases Have Dropped Sharply South Korea What’s Secret Its Success

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] VOX – Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic Response South Korea, Philippines, Italy, Nicaragua, Senegal, Hong Kong

[33] We Forum: Vietnam Contain COVID-19 Limited Resources

[34] FT

[35] The Diplomat: The Secret To Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response Success

[36] We Forum: Vietnam Contain COVID-19 Limited Resources

[37] Vietnam News: Vietnam Suspends Foreign Entry Starting March 22

[38] Ibid.

[39] The Diplomat: The Secret To Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response To Success

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Vietnam Times: Health Declaration Mobile App Launched To Combat COVID-19 Epidemic

[43] The Diplomat: The Secret To Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response Success

[44] Ibid.

[45] We Forum: Vietnam Contain COVID-19 Limited Resources

[46]  The Diplomat: The Secret To Vietnam’s COVID-19 Response Success

[47] Live Science: New Zealand Coronavirus

[48] Ibid.

[49] Business Insider: Experts Australia New Zealand Examples How To Slow Coronavirus 2020

[50] Washington Post: New Zealand Isn’t Just Flattening The Curve It’s Squishing It

[51] Live Science: New Zealand Coronavirus

[52] Business Insider: Experts Australia New Zealand Examples how To Slow Coronavirus 2020

[53] Ibid.

[54] Live Science: New Zealand Coronavirus

[55] Business Insider: Experts Australia New Zealand Examples How To Slow Coronavirus 2020

[56] Washington Post: New Zealand Isn’t Just Flattening The Curve It’s Squashing It

[57] Business Insider: Experts Australia New Zealand Examples How To Slow Coronavirus 2020

[58] Ibid.

[59] USA Today: Coronavirus How Countries Across Globe Responding COVID-19

[60] Business Insider: Experts Australia New Zealand Examples how To Slow Coronavirus 2020

[61] Ibid.

[62] NY Times: Coronavirus Singapore

[63]  The Guardian: Singapore Coronavirus Outbreak Surges With 3000 New Cases In Three Days

wearing a mask for protection against corona

Evidence-Based Responses to the Coronavirus Chaos

By Current Affairs, Data Literacy

Whether we should have seen a disaster like COVID-19 coming, is up for debate. It’s too late now to pause on that point for too long. But we should at least try to learn from this so that we are better prepared in future. Not only for a similar pandemic but for the looming climate crisis.

Of more immediate relevance is how South Africa is using data to respond to the crisis, and what we can learn from other countries as we deal with a fast-changing complex problem.

What does the data tell us?

Is the way in which the government uses data to respond to the Coronavirus chaos an indication that South Africa will see better evidence-based policies in the future?  

Many South Africans are pleasantly surprised by the extent to which the government response to the Coronavirus is informed by evidence. More specifically, journalists and particularly health journalists have not always had good words for South African government responses to important health issues.

Now everything has changed. At least for the moment.

Unlikely cheers from the media and activists

Earlier in April, journalists wrote about how different the relationship with the government is now, during the COVID-19 crisis, compared to what it was like during the HIV crisis in the ’90s. They feel that the  South African government is now treating them with respect and as allies in the fight against the Coronavirus.

Many journalists have heaped praise on the government’s management of the crisis, to the extent that they themselves acknowledged that they are singing Kumbaya. Mia Malan[1] (Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism’s editor-in-chief and executive director) related how Professor Salim Abdool Karim (the calmly confident ally of South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, and chairperson of government’s advisory committee on Covid-19), was chastised, labelled as “poisonous” and told to “shut up and listen”, by the Mbeki-era Health Minister Manto Thsabalala Msimang at the height of the HIV-crisis.

His “sin” at the time, is now his virtue: using scientific facts as a basis for giving advice to the government, and for making public statements.

In the same article, Malan quotes Karim on how different the current relationship with the Minister of Health is. “With the coronavirus, our experience with government is exactly the opposite [of what we endured during the Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang era].

The minister has been contacting us, he wants to involve us, he is seeking the opposite of what Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang wanted… With HIV we were so slack with taking things up, we delayed mother-to-child-prevention of HIV and access to antiretroviral treatment. But with Covid-19 we’re proactive and we’re acting early…”[2].

Malan also says the same activists who have fought government previously on the HIV issue, are now “supporting and praising Cyril Ramaphosa’s early, evidence-based interventions.”[3] The source of the more constructive relationship and a new-found respect for government lies in transparency and access to data.

With HIV, government was seen as blocking access to data, while now, journalists are commending the government for facilitating a free flow of information. The health ministry has even set up a WhatsApp group to share the latest figures directly to journalist’s phones, and government’s actions thus far are regarded as an indication that they are heeding the advice of scientists and academics, to take the best possible decisions to ensure that COVID-19 can be managed as best as possible.

The dominant role of the “scientists and the health activists in the Covid-19 National Command Council”, was evident, according to Ferial Haffajee[4], who also noted that at least initially, “South Africa had bucked the trend of worst-case community transmission…and is on course to flatten the rate of infection and lower its peak by September”.

cyril ramaphosa

Appreciation for the quality of leadership

The applause for Ramaphosa and Mkhize’s leadership was also extended to the premiers of key provinces. Lester Kievit[5] of the Mail and Guardian pointed out: “The premiers of the three worst-affected provinces, Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, have not wasted any time in showing they’re capable of leading and being the public face of the pandemic response in their provinces.”

Kievit continued to quote Sanusha Naidu, political analyst and lecturer at the University of Cape Town, who said that “the roles and importance of provincial government are coming to the fore during the pandemic in a manner that has not yet been seen in South Africa’s history”, even though it has unfortunately taken “a pandemic of this nature and this proportion to see this kind of leadership to emerge in South Africa.

Bill Gates also joined the praise singers in his interview with Trevor Noah on 4 April 2020[6]: “I was talking to President Ramaphosa today, who is not only [the] president of South Africa, he’s also the head of African Union… He is a very strong voice there, encouraging African countries to act quickly when the number of cases is still fairly low, which is true throughout sub-Saharan Africa right now.”

Some knew that a disaster like this was coming

Bill Gates was one of the few who saw this coming. In his 2015 TED Talk titled “The next outbreak? We’re not ready”, Bill Gates made a chilling prediction: “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war – not missiles but microbes… We have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents, but we’ve actually invested very little in a system to stop an epidemic. We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”[7]

Despite this warning, enough had not been invested in the global health care system to prevent the next pandemic. According to Gates, “the Ebola outbreak exposed a shortage of specialists who were well trained to deal with the epidemic. This should have been used as a case study to prepare for the next one…The issue was not that we didn’t have a system that worked well enough, the problem was we didn’t have a system at all. We didn’t have a group of epidemiologists who would have gone, seen what the disease was and how far it had spread.”[8]

Gates says he hoped to raise awareness that would help the United States to get ready for “the next epidemic”, by implementing various preparations, which would have helped to respond quicker, more effectively and more efficiently to the current pandemic. He acknowledges that despite having epidemics like Ebola and Zika, the current situation is unprecedented: “…a respiratory pandemic that’s very widespread, really, we haven’t seen anything like this for 100 years.”[9]

The scale of the disaster is overwhelming

The reality was that no one was ready for COVID-19, says Professor Salim Abdool Karim. “Nobody ever thought that we would need to deal with something like this. We all thought we were going to deal with something like [the] flu.” And indeed, “nobody saw this coming” was a common sentiment amongst ordinary citizens in the days after the Coronavirus lockdown became the new reality in South Africa.

While “dozens of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause” were being treated in China by the 31st of December 2019, and a “new virus” was identified by researchers in China days later[10], nobody would have believed anyone who predicted that the world would be on lockdown three months later. In fact, for most people, a “closed off” country was a totally foreign concept.

Now it has become everyday life.

The acute reality of the extent to which our daily lives have become surreal in a matter of weeks, was evident by the 1st of April when there seemed to be general agreement that no April’s fool joke could upstage the bizarre reality of the world. And that April Fools’ Day jokes would simply not be appropriate.

The nature of the beast

It is not that the world did not plan for disaster, or that it did not foresee an epidemic – it is the nature, scale and the unpredictability of the current disaster that is problematic. It is airborne, highly contagious, not localised or contained to a country or certain geographic area – it is a tsunami that engulfs the world.

Disasters can take many shapes and forms, and often when thinking about disasters, we tend to think about natural disasters, like earthquakes, tsunamis, or disasters related to climate change.  Now we are faced with a medical disaster, which poses particularly wicked problems for scientists, economists, politicians and officials to solve.

The impossible choice of this crisis is one where decision-makers have to weigh up the cost of lives against the cost of containment measures to the economy.  The available data is incomplete, and there is not even a quick and simple way to determine how to attach weight to and weigh the choices that need to be weighed. Ultimately, the simple question “What are we willing to sacrifice economically to save a life?”[11], has no simple answer.

The well-known Cynefin model[12] comes to mind, and the descriptions of “unknowable unknowns” and “extremely volatile and urgent situation” in the “Chaotic” quadrant shows where South Africa and the world is at this time. We may be faced with a level of complexity that has not been experienced ever before.

It is both apt and ironic, that the proposed action in the chaotic quadrant is to “take swift and decisive action” and to “apply novel practices”. Novel practices indeed, to fight a novel virus, now known as the Coronavirus.

graph on coronavirusSource: Agility 11

The level of complexity that has to be taken into account in the management of the Coronavirus crisis is unprecedented.

Complexity in action

With the Coronavirus, a salient factor is that there is a continuous shift in what is known and what is not yet known, and importantly, what should be known. Adding to the level of complexity is that while there are commonalities, patterns and trends that emerge globally, countries in the world are vastly different in terms of many factors, a few of which are mentioned here:

  • Population size, density, and age profile;
  • Health system characteristics, coverage and access;
  • Health profile of the population in terms of the incidence of conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, HIV and Tuberculosis (TB);
  • Infrastructure aspects such as housing and transport systems
  • Economic system characteristics, resilience and pre-COVID-19 economic status

Countries also have varying levels of expertise in dealing with similar types of viruses.

In a recent presentation to the South African Minister of Health, Karim referred to South Africa’s unique epidemic trajectory (see Figure 1). The curve had turned quicker than even “best-performer countries like South Korea and Singapore and that community infection (the third stage after imported and local transmissions) are lower than expected.

But there is no time to get smug or complacent, because South Africa is not out of the woods yet. We may have bought time to spread out the disease over more months, and to prevent “small flames” from becoming “raging fires”[13].

graph of coronaFigure 1: South Africa: number of cumulative cases and number of days since the 100th case

Source: Daily Maverick/Business Maverick

Another factor that adds to the complexity, is that within countries, cases are not evenly spread. This is clear from the high number of cases in Wuhan, Lombardy, Madrid and New York[14], to name a few. In South Africa, the highest number of cases are in Gauteng and Western Cape provinces, and within these provinces, the concentration of cases is clearly higher in some suburbs than others, as is evident from the two maps below.

Just remember, that this is data that was presented to the Parliamentary Health Portfolio Committee on 10 April 2020, so by the time you read this, the patterns may have changed. It is also possible that clusters of cases occur in different types of populations, which may lead to different patterns in mortality rates.

covid cases in gauteng

Figure 2: COVID-19 cases in Gauteng on 10 April 2020

Source: National Department of Health[15]

covid cases in western cape south africaFigure 3: COVID-19 cases in the Western Cape on 10 April 2020

Source: National Department of Health[16] 

Learning and adapting on the trot

While there is agreement that there are no clear answers at the moment and that answers are changing all the time, there is some disagreement on what evidence should be used to plan responses, and also how this evidence should be used. Emerging data is used for decision-making, and one of the ways in which it is used is modelling.

Early in April, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed that significant progress was made by groups commissioned to model and project the spread of the Coronavirus in South Africa[17]. Modelling was also used by other countries in the world to make projections that informed governments’ responses, regarding “procurement of emergency medical supplies as well as the building of additional hospital bed capacities in countries around the world”[18].

Modelling, however, is not foolproof, and some critics pointed out that it is simply not known how the virus may spread in circumstances unique to South Africa. Alex Welte (research professor at, and the former director of, the Centre of Excellence for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University) cautioned in a “GroundUp” article that “there is more we don’t know than we do”[19].

As is highlighted above, the issue of relevant and complete evidence is pertinent to ensure good decision-making. That is a luxury that does not exist at the moment. Whether the decisions made at the moment are the correct ones, will only be established later.

Paving the way for evidence-based policy making in future

Currently, decision-making on the Coronavirus crisis rests heavily on evidence produced by health scientists. There are, however, other groups that may gain more clout as the situation unfolds. For example, the business lobby will strengthen its appeals to the government to also protect the economy, and undoubtedly this lobby will also rely on evidence to give weight to their arguments.

DPME quoteEvidence decision-making can be a complex affair, and the same applies to evidence-based policy making. Although South Africa is committed to evidence-based policy-making (see the text box below), in reality, party-political ideology inevitably plays a role in policy-making.

DPME. Overview Paper, What is Evidence-Based Policy-Making and Implementation? Evidence-Based Policy-Making and Implementation October 2014[20]

It should be noted that the “evidence-policy” gap in the health sector is not unique to South Africa. Scholars[21] who researched the phenomenon has found that scientists could do more to provide “better evidence to reduce policy-maker uncertainty”, and concluded that successful evidence-based policymaking required “pragmatism, combining scientific evidence with governance principles, and persuasion to translate complex evidence into simple stories” (Cairney and Oliver, 2017).

Despite the limitations of the current situation, documented literature on the “evidence-policy gap”, and some level of cynicism regarding South Africa’s track record with evidence-based policy-making, it is encouraging that emergent evidence is being used to craft South Africa’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. It may give the South African government the confidence to rely more on evidence-based policy making in future.

By Fia van Rensburg

[1] Malan, M. 2020. The facts beat the quacks: Our #Covid19SA vs. our #HIV response. Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism Article

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4]Haffajee, F. 2020. The new ‘Doctors Pact’ that could help flatten the Covid-19 curve. Daily Maverick. 14 April 2020.

[5] Kiewit, L. 2020. Fighting Covid-19: The rise of the premiers. Mail and Guardian 16 April 2020.

[6] Head, T. 2020. Bill Gates praises Ramaphosa – but billionaire bats away false claims. The South African News 5 April 2020.

[7] Carras, C. 2020. In 2015, Bill Gates predicted an epidemic would kill millions. Here’s what he says now. The Star 14 April 2020.

[8] Bhengu, C. 2020. In 2015, Bill Gates said the world was not ready for the next major virus.

[9] Carras, 2020.

[10] Taylor, D.B. 2020. A timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic. New York Times. (14 April 2020).

[11] Hartford, T. How do we value a statistical life? The Financial Times Limited.

[12] The Cynefin model (pronounced kuh-NEH-vin), created by Dave Snowden, is a useful model of complexity. It defines four domains: Obvious (simple), Complicated, Complex and Chaotic.

[13]Haffajee, F. 2020. The new ‘Doctors Pact’ that could help flatten the curve. 14 April 2020.

[14]Klasa, A. (Ed.). 2020.Coronavirus tracked: the latest figures as the pandemic spreads. The Financial Times Limited. Accessed on 17 April 2020 at

[15] Gauteng cases mapped. Source – National Department of Health presentation to Parliamentary health portfolio committee, 10 April 2020.

[16] Western Cape cases mapped. Source – National Department of Health presentation to Parliamentary health portfolio committee, 10 April 2020.

[17] Cowan, K. 2020. Coronavirus in SA: ‘Significant progress’ on modelling – but, for now, we will not know what it shows. News24. 1 April 2020.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] DPME

[21] Cairney, P., and Oliver, K. 2017. Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?. Health Res Policy Sys 15, 35 (2017).


Evaluation for Transformational Change – Webinar Summary

By Evaluation, Workshop

Development Works Changemakers joined a webinar on Evaluation for Transformational Change, organised by UNICEF’s Evaluation Office, EVALSDGs and the International Development Evaluation Association (IDEAS).

title screen for webinarThe presenters were Rob van den Berg and Cristina Magro, the President and Secretary-General of IDEAS. The two are the editors of IDEAS recently published book “Evaluation for Transformational Change: Opportunities and Challenges for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” on which this webinar was based.

The book presents essays (rather than academic articles) written by “learned agents” in both the Global South and Global North. It combines the perspectives and experiences from a variety of contexts.

The essays discuss ideas of what needs to be done by evaluators and the evaluation practice more broadly to progress from the traditional focus on programmes and projects to an increased emphasis on evaluating how transformational changes for the SDGs can be supported and strengthened. Van den Berg and Magro discussed some of the key essays and concepts presented in the book. They then opened the floor for questions and answers.

Dynamic Evaluation  

One key theme discussed was the need for evaluators to move towards dynamic evaluations for transformational change. Evaluators are encouraged to change their focus from the traditional ‘static’ evaluations of the past which look at what has happened and move towards ‘dynamic’ evaluations which deal with the complexities of transformational change.

Examples include the need to shift focus from programmes/projects to strategies and policies. As well as from micro to macro, from country to global and from linearity to complexity. The editors suggested several key practices for dynamic evaluations. Evaluations should be done in “quasi-real-time”. Meaning not only looking at what has happened in the past and what is happening now but considering what the potential is for the future.

The context in which an intervention takes place should be emphasised; understanding it and making it better. There is a need for forming multidisciplinary teams for evaluations; combining an array of expertise and insights beyond evaluation practice in isolation.

Here, they suggest that the involvement of universities in evaluation teams should be promoted. Academics have sociological and community insights and can contribute through background papers and studies. They can also offer more academic and theoretical perspectives which complement the more practical evaluation perspectives.

bookshelvesSystems Thinking  

The editors promote systems thinking and systems evaluations for transformational change. They use the definition of systems being “dynamics units that we distinguish and choose to treat as comprised of interrelated components, in such a way that the functioning of the system, that is, the result of the interactions between the components, is bigger than the sum of its components.”

They suggest that by adopting a systems viewpoint, evaluators are in a better position to encourage learning, take on transformation thinking, and assist in identifying and promoting sustainable transformational changes.

To adequately adopt a systems-thinking approach, the editors highlighted four challenges and opportunities for us to consider:

  1. Evaluators firstly need to become ‘fluent’ in systems thinking in order to appropriately apply systems concepts, approaches and methods in their evaluations.
  2. Evaluators need to be increasingly receptive to systems analytics and the information and evidence it produces, especially those considering future-oriented scenarios that could lead to transformational change.
  3. The type of system will dictate the approach required. As such, while there are various approaches, instruments and methods that systems analytics offers, evaluators must use their discretion in identifying those most relevant to their assignment.
  4. Evaluations should provide insights as to whether interventions are able to overcome barriers that they face, enhancing sustainability.

Learning Loops

While learning and feedback loops are often encouraged in evaluation, the editors assert that learning and feedback loops are a key practice for transformation. Evaluators should not only be asking whether the intervention was implemented correctly and was effective, but whether the problem to solve was looked at in the right way to begin with.

By asking more difficult questions, one can better understand what kind of transformational change should actually be accomplished.  The editors discussed a triple loop of learning as depicted in the figure below.

While the first feedback loop asks what we have learned, the second loop looks at whether the initiative is indeed the right initiative for the problem needing amelioration. And the third loop asks if we have looked at the problem in the right way to begin with.

There should be constant feedback loops the more we gain an understanding of the programme, context, actors, etc. and the actions we take to achieve transformation. We should increasingly look to the future of the programme rather than isolate it to the present. Evaluations need to start looking beyond the intervention in itself, and place them within the system they are supposed to address.


graph from webinar


Systems thinking and the triple learning loop together speak to the need for systems to become more sustainable. Evaluators have often considered sustainability, but this has typically been defined by the long-term programme results.

The editors assert the need for a different approach, emphasising the need for sustainability to be redefined “an adaptive and resilient dynamic balance between the social, economic and environmental domains”; where the economic domain no longer exploits the environment (e.g. climate change) and social (e.g. social inequity) domains.

In order to be adaptive and resilient, one needs preparatory systems. Evaluators can play a role in pointing to these and issues that need to be addressed during the course of an evaluation.

The editors assert that sustainability is a system issue – sustainability is achieved when systems become adaptive and balanced over time in the relationship between the three domains of social, economic and environment. If one disregards the social domain, consequences can and have included inequity and inequality and grapples with healthcare, labour conditions, and conflict.

On the other hand, when the environmental domain has been neglected, climate change, a loss of biodiversity and pollution have ensued. The economic domain tends to take precedence due to the common belief that economic growth will resolve societal ailments through creation of jobs and wealth, and environmental damage through the creation of new technologies.

In practice, the editors encourage evaluators to continuously ask broader questions about an intervention and how it interacts with these three domains. They propose three sustainability questions evaluators should consider when starting an evaluation, namely whether the transformation that intervention aims for leads to:

  1. More equity, human rights, peace and social sustainability (social domain)
  2. Strengthening of natural resources, habitat and sustainable eco-services (environmental domain)
  3. Economic development that is equitable and strengthens our habitat (economic domain)

The editors encourage evaluators to use these questions as part of their “toolbox” when looking at transformational initiatives. By going through these questions, it becomes clearer where the programme could improve and where additional knowledge and expertise is required.

graffitti art

Concluding Thoughts

The webinar provided interesting food for thought with regards to contributing to transformational change. Many of the key principles raised are certainly ideal, including dynamic evaluations, learning and feedback loops and considering the future of a programme for sustainability.

In order to contribute to transformational change, we need to promote constant learning, encourage participation from key stakeholders, increasingly expand the evaluation team to be informed by sector experts, and continuously look at potential scenarios, risks and hazards. The application of these principles can be harder in practice; often contractors require specific answers to specific questions, and to go beyond the scope can require additional budget and additional time.

While these ambitions may potentially be larger than what is currently feasible for many evaluation contracts, change often only manifest with radical actions. As evaluators, our thinking should be constantly stimulated, our learnings continuously shared and boundaries should be tested.

Bearing such principles in mind and applying them where feasible, even one step at a time, can hopefully slowly but surely advance transformational thinking in programming and evaluation, and therefore contribute to desired transformational change.

By Jenna Joffe

colored piece of wood

South Africa, Standing Together

By Current Affairs, Ethics

We live in a time of massive complexity and nothing will ever be the same again.  The global health challenge of COVID-19 has radically changed our landscape, wherever we are located.  Given our globalised world, no one is immune to this pandemic, the health challenges it presents and the associated social, economic and political consequences.

Regardless of race, privilege, socio-economic status, geographic location, religion or creed, we are all impacted in some way or another, to different degrees. COVID-19 is proving to be a massive equaliser.

Coming together as a nation

All nations, communities and families have been affected and we are now called to action to tackle head-on the very real challenges this virus presents.

How we act, now and in the weeks and months ahead to tackle this challenge, individually and collectively, will determine our common future.

It is a time for a spirit of compassion and care to be nurtured and directed to those most at risk of being affected by this virus. Those most vulnerable that are living on the margins and struggling to protect themselves, to feed their families and manage the stress of this time.

We are seeing in the past weeks of lockdown how the most vulnerable are facing extreme hardships, including hunger, fear, displacement and confinement.  We have seen communities mobilising, organisations and government departments getting stuck in and civil society groups forming, working together in new, agile, innovative ways with technology, resourcefulness and grit to scale up rapidly to advocate and support relief efforts. There is much evidence of a deep desire to collectively face the challenges together and the spirit of collaboration is strong.

A challenging time

Given poor socio-economic conditions, limited options, marginalisation and lack of information, vulnerability and access to resources many face very real challenges at this time.  The focus needs to ultimately be on ensuring that those who are unaware or isolated, living in abusive homes, hungry, on the margins of our society or acutely vulnerable, are integrally included in the strategies, tactics and ways in which this virus is addressed, especially during the lockdown period.

As world citizens, regardless of nationality or location, let ubuntu and optimism, coupled with pragmatism and compassion, guide and direct every action we each take, going forward.

There are a myriad of ways to get involved and many groups, initiatives and efforts are underway, or sprouting up, across civil society, in organisations, at all levels of government and within homes and communities.

Changemakers in South Africa

Consider finding ways to use your skills, resources and any time you have to contribute meaningfully. Follow reliable sources of information and updates and don’t spread fear and fake news. Stay safe, follow the guidelines for social distancing, stay at home, follow rigorous hygiene and universal mask-wearing with Mzansi Masks.

Value your freedom, liberty and health.  Act with integrity. Spread love and compassion. Check on your neighbour, donate to a charity, volunteer your expertise either online or in-person through a feeding scheme or relief effort, call a friend, feed a child, shop for an elderly person and give to a stranger.

We are sharing useful info on our social media platforms and our team is working remotely and available at any time.  We will contribute and participate in whatever meaningful ways we can and where we can add the most value in the weeks and months ahead. Please contact me if you wish to discuss anything further.

Let’s ensure social solidarity, good governance, mobilisation across all sectors and contribution with a spirit of community cohesion and activism.  If this energy is directed swiftly, optimally and in solidarity, with compassion and care, and we work together, we can make a difference.  With commitment and integrity, we can find ways to each actively contribute to the collective action and impact positively.

There is an opportunity in crisis. Let us embrace the chaos. With an open heart, let’s work together, be sensitive to others’ vulnerabilities, yet held by our interconnectedness and common humanity.

By Lindy Briginshaw

Founder of Development Works Changemakers

With 25 years of professional experience in the development sector, Lindy is the driving force behind Development Works Changemakers, a specialist evaluation, research, facilitation and development consulting agency, based in South Africa but working internationally.  She is passionate about working for social change and community upliftment, yoga, nature and time with family and friends. 

M&E online learning during COVID

M&E Online Learning Resources

By Current Affairs, Evaluation

In the thick of COVID-19, the world is practising social distancing, social isolation and in some circumstances, being placed under lockdowns in an effort to flatten the curve and limit the spread of the virus. The crisis has affected everyone in different ways, but for those who have access to technology, it has allowed access to a few of the pleasures of the outside world from home.

This has allowed some to continue working remotely, continue schooling, take up online exercise classes, and keep in touch with friends and family. For some, there’s more opportunity to do those things that were always on the checklist list “if only I had the time.”

One such option is online capacity development. There are numerous virtual learning platforms, including webinars, short courses, and even degrees.

Online learning

As evaluation specialists, we’d like to suggest several resources for those wanting to brush up on their monitoring and evaluation (M&E) knowledge and skills. These resources can be useful for M&E practitioners, development sector workers, government staff and funders working in the evaluation sector.

Some are free while some have a cost, some earn you a certificate and others not. Some are self-paced and others have deadlines; the options vary. Here are a few options to try out:

Online learning resources – for everyone

quote from betterevaluationFor many of us, taking on an online course may still be out of reach given limited time, cost implications and increased responsibilities in the home due to lockdowns. BetterEvaluation is an excellent resource hub for anyone and everyone involved in evaluation work.

The platform is free and contains resources useful and applicable to any NPOs, funders, government, and external evaluators, at any level of an organisation one might be working in; junior to senior.

BetterEvaluation is a one-stop-shop for all evaluation-related queries, insights, and trending topics. The website includes a BetterEvaluation Resource Library, consisting of over 1600 evaluation resources including overviews, guides, examples, tools or toolkits, and discussion papers. The site also includes free training webinars, links to online courses and events, forums, and case studies.

Another great resource offered on the platform is its blogs. These are quick and easy to read and discuss current trends in evaluation and topics. The whole website is geared towards improving evaluation capacity and practice.

In early April, world-renowned evaluator and CEO of BetterEvalution, Patricia Rogers, published a blog on the website communicating how they would be responding to COVID-19, which includes working collaboratively to create, share and support the use of knowledge about evaluation, and endeavouring to curate additional content to address the current context including:

  • Real-time evaluation
  • Evaluation for adaptive management
  • Addressing equity in evaluation
  • Evaluation for accountability and resource allocation
  • Ways of doing evaluation within physical distancing constraints
  • Ways of working effectively online
  • Resources relating to evaluation in the COVID19 pandemic

Time to start learning

As such, BetterEvaluation has its finger on the pulse of the pandemic and how it will affect the evaluation world, and is committed to delivering up-to-date content for any evaluation practitioner to remain informed and adapt to circumstances.

Keep checking the website in the coming weeks to see when this content becomes available.

By Jenna Joffe

graph on coronavirus

Looking beyond daily updates on the number of COVID-19 cases

By Data Literacy

This blog is about data. Specifically, what we do with it, and what we should think about to ensure that we make sense of it and interpreting in the context of the bigger picture.

COVID-19 data is topical at the moment, and we use a specific dataset to illustrate key points about interpreting data.

This article was compiled in early April and data figures have changed significantly since being published.

The most commonly heard data-based story on COVID-19

Most people are following updates on COVID-19 cases closely. We often find ourselves discussing the increase in the number of cases and deaths when the statistics are updated. These discussions usually involve comparisons between countries.

For example, based on the first few columns in the table below, the story could be as follows:

“America now has the highest COVID-19 infection rate, with a total of 435,160 cases. Other countries with more cases than China are Spain (148,220 cases), Italy (139,422 cases), Germany (113,296 cases) and France (112,950 cases).  

China is the country with the sixth-highest number of cases (81,865).”

And the story could continue as follows:

“The highest number of deaths are recorded in Italy (17,669), followed by the USA (14,797) and Spain (14,792).”

We can also compare death rates with infection rates, and so on.

Numbers give us some sense of security because they give the impression that we can pin-point something – that we can know exactly what the situation is. However, if we do not contextualise data, it may not give an accurate account of a situation at all.

Regarding the COVID-19 data, we also need to look at other factors. In the case of COVID-19 data, key questions would be:

  • What is the proportion of cases in relation to the population of the country?
  • What is the number of people actually tested?
  • What proportion of the population has been tested?

There may be other stories too

Once we start asking these questions, the story changes, and we gain new insights. For example:

“Germany and France have almost the same number of COVID-19 cases (respectively 113,296 and 112,950), but the incidence per 1million of the population is slightly higher for France (1,730) than for Germany (1,352), and the number of deaths per 1million of the population for France is markedly higher (167) than for Germany (28).”

Similarly, we would be able to say the following:

“While the actual number of COVID-19 deaths in the USA (14,797) is almost the same as in Spain (14,792), the death rate per 1million of the population is much higher in Spain (316) than in the USA (45).”

What is important about this, is that if we look at China, which we previously saw as the country with the 6th highest infection rate, we can see now that their infection rate and death rate per 1 million of the population was very low, at respectively 57 and 2.

Surely this would significantly change the way we interpret the data?

worldometer graph

(Accessed on 9 April 2020 online at

Seeing the numbers in the context of the bigger picture

While the actual numbers are important, and while every life matters, a more accurate picture of the scale of the epidemic per country will be obtained if we sort the columns in this table according to statistics that show the proportion of cases in relation to 1 million of the population.

In the table below, we can see that countries that do not even feature in headline reports on the epidemic, actually have the highest incidence of cases in relation to 1 million of the population. At rates much higher than the countries which are hotspots, merely because of the sheer number of cases.

worldometer 2

(Accessed on 9 April 2020 online at

This table tells a different story:



“The number of COVID-19 cases in relation to 1 million of the population in three of Europe’s six micro-states are staggeringly high. Vatican City has 9,988 cases per 1million of the population; San Marino 9,077 and Andorra 7,300).”

According to this analysis Spain and Italy have respectively the 8th and 10th highest number of cases per 1million of the population. In this comparison China is not near to featuring on the list of countries with the highest number of cases.

Other contextual factors

An analysis of death rates per 1 million of the population will show similar results. Another factor that needs to be taken into account in interpreting the numbers is the trajectory of the disease. For example, we know that the peak has been reached in China, and that Italy is slightly ahead of Spain and the USA.

This will influence how we interpret the currently reported incidence and death rates. We could also inform our analysis by keeping an eye on the number of new cases reported daily (see the first table). And if this is steadily or exponentially increasing. We will be able to anticipate in what direction the numbers will move in the next few days.

Another factor that could influence the numbers is testing. We should consider the following questions: “Do countries conduct the same tests?” and “What is the reliability level of the tests?”

An issue that is coming up in the media is whether all COVID-19 deaths are actually reported as such. This may vary from country to country, and may also link up with the extent to which testing is done. If more people are tested, reporting of COVID-related deaths is likely to be more accurate.

It should also be considered if social distancing measures are or have been implemented in a country, and if so, what the nature of such measures are or were.

A shifting picture

It is clear that the COVID-19 statistics on any given day are merely a snapshot in time, which should be considered within the context of many factors. It tells only part of a story that is still unfolding.

It is also important to note that different countries are at different stages in the disease. This means that while numbers may give us a sense of “knowing exactly”, and even a sense of security, we have to engage with numbers critically to understand them better.

South African numbers

Compared to other countries, South Africa still has relatively low numbers (see the table below).

table of data

(Source: DWC. Derived from data from on 11 April, 2020. Numbers have subsequently risen)

south african map


When interpreting provincial statistics in South Africa, it is necessary to at least consider the number of cases per province in relation to the size of the population in that province.

data from south africa

 (Source: DWC. Derived from data from        and

As on 9 April 2020, the percentage of confirmed cases in Gauteng and the Western Cape is higher than the percentage of the proportion of the population resident in those provinces. Confirmed cases in KZN and Free State are on par with the percentage of the population resident there.

And in the other provinces, which typically have large rural populations, the incidence is significantly lower than the percentage of the population resident in those provinces. This picture will probably change as testing in communities is rolled out.

Improving data literacy

The examples we have used here relates to the current situation with COVID 19, but the principles mentioned here apply to other datasets and contexts as well. We encourage our readers to engage critically with data, to discover the multiple stories that can be told by a single dataset.

Even though we are engaging with numbers, which often seem to tell a very precise story, in reality, the truth is often more nuanced than what we see at face value.


We have used COVID-19 data to illustrate some points regarding data literacy. We do want to emphasise that we are acutely aware that these numbers are not only cold facts, but that they relate to real people, real hardship and untold sadness of those who have lost loved ones in this time.

To express our sympathy with the loss of many families in this time, and to emphasise that we know that numbers on their own cannot fathom the depth of people’s lived experiences, we would like to share this poem with you.

By Fia van Rensburg

untitled poem

aerial view of city lights

Part 3: How Access To Technology And Other Strategies Can Keep Education Afloat In The Time Of COVID-19

By Current Affairs, Education

In Part 2 of this series, the importance of access to infrastructure, devices and the cost of connectivity were highlighted as some of the elements required to use technology for ongoing learning during the COVID-19 lockdown.

While these are important elements in the use of technology for learning, much more is required for effective learning.

This article will look at other aspects that are required to enable school learners and students to derive the best possible benefit from technology. A snapshot is provided of some of the approaches followed by schools, teachers, parents and learners during the lockdown period.

Change needs to be accelerated exponentially

broadband quoteA key, if not the key characteristic of the COVID-19 epidemic is the aggressive and engulfing pace at which it is swamping the world. With school and university lockdowns in 166 countries catapulting learners and students into the unknown within the space of weeks, regular plans for upscaling technological access now seems powerlessly pale.

COVID-19 requires rocket-like rapid responses which makes the ambitious agenda of the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa, prepared under the leadership of the African Union Commission (AUC), appear pedestrian.

This strategy provided what was regarded as a “bold vision” before COVID-19 struck: “to ensure that every African individual, business, and government is digitally enabled by 2030. The goal is to drive the digital transformation of Africa and ensure its full participation in the global digital economy.” (Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband for All, 2019).

If only, this was in place in 2020 already.

It is probable that this envisaged growth trajectory has now been surpassed by the need to cope and recover from COVID-19.

Collaborative multi-dimensional effort required

While education is not mentioned explicitly in the section above, it is incorporated because education is part of government. Digital enablement of all sectors, including government, and education as part of government, requires a multi-faceted, collaborative effort, including;

  • Investment,
  • Policy and regulatory frameworks,
  • Digital skills and local content development,
  • Device availability,
  • Supporting infrastructure and electricity, and
  • Universal, affordable and good quality connectivity.

Bearing in mind the extent to which COVID-19 has disrupted education in the world, and specifically in the developing world, the UN (2020: 19) has called upon the international community “to support governments not only in providing distance learning solutions that use multimedia approaches to ensure learning continuity, but also in supporting teachers, parents and caregivers in adapting to homeschooling modalities.”

The UN further mentions the importance of inclusion and equity as  guiding principles “to avoid a further deepening of inequalities in access to education, with special measures taken to jointly meet the health, nutrition and learning needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized children and youth, as well as policies to address connectivity and content challenges.” (UN, 2020:19).

While this poses a large challenge to find innovative and equitable solutions fast, it also provides an opportunity to leapfrog development in this important area.

school children in kenya

Education inequality in South Africa

The unequal digitisation of the world has been highlighted in Part 2 of this series. It has been pointed out that South Africa is in a better position than the African continent as a whole, in the area of digitisation.

However, the Digital Infrastructure Moonshot for Africa report (2019) mentions that in addition to the extensive variance of the coverage and quality of mobile networks used for the internet between countries, it should be noted that significant gaps exist within countries, specifically between urban and rural areas. The rural/urban divide as an impediment for online and distance learning has been researched by various scholars[1].

For example, in the context of tertiary distance learning, Lembani et al. (2020) found that “students in urban areas have a significantly different educational experience to students with poor ICT access in urban, peri-urban and rural areas”.

In addition, it should be taken into account that South Africa remains a highly unequal society, and that South Africa’s relatively low rating on the Human Development Index (HDI)[2] is also informed by continued inequality in education.

Against this background, and taking into account the multiple aspects that need to be in place to benefit from technology, DWC has done a rapid environmental scan of resources put in place during the lockdown, and has spoken to a random range of stakeholders regarding the arrangements that were made by the educational institutions their children attend.

Education limping ahead under COVID-19 lockdown

While the bulk of the South African government’s efforts are understandably focused on the medical response, enforcing the lockdown and providing some relief for the inevitable hardship that is following the lockdown, some resources have been put in place by education departments.

From a collection of information discussions with a random range of ordinary people, it seems that early responses in the education environment vary considerably. It is interesting that these responses seem to be informed by a number of interrelated factors.

These factors include the assessment of the risk posed by COVID-19, institutional capacity, technological literacy of key role players, the extent to which learners or students have access to technological resources, and the resourcefulness of individual educators.

  • A tertiary institution who offers qualifications through post-graduate contact sessions, have acted swiftly and have already adapted content and schedules to respond to a scenario where face-to-face classes may only resume during the 4th quarter of the year. In preparation for this, students were polled regarding their internet access, the type of devices they work on, and where they have access to technology and connectivity.
  • An urban Model C School has also polled their learners and parents on technology and internet access, and are sending daily lessons to learners, on their own choice of device.
  • Some primary schools are providing links to educational material without much further guidance. Other primary schools are not providing any learning materials and have also kept learners’ books at the school, due to fears that books will be lost or vandalised if sent home with children during the lockdown period.
  • A school for high-functioning learners with special needs sends daily learning materials to learners.
  • Some teachers are providing Zoom lessons to their learners.
  • Some teachers are providing summaries of work to learners and hope to catch up with the curriculum when schooling resumes.
  • Other teachers say their learners come from poor communities and do not have access to technology, which renders them unable to communicate with learners, and provide assistance during the lockdown.

Various other resources are being used in addition to the links provided by the education department. These include online resources which are either free or require subscription; parent groups; Facebook groups, and WhatsApp. In addition, radio stations and television channels are offering content.

smiling african childrenFocusing and streamlining responses

Our rapid snapshot has indicated that most are doing the best they can under challenging circumstances, which caught everyone total off guard. While these responses will help to different degrees to keep learning going, it is interesting that most of them seem to be based on the assumption that learning will continue like normal after the end of the lockdown period in mid-April.

The problem with this assumption is that no-one knows if it will hold. The situation is simply too fluid and unpredictable to assume that classroom activities will resume as normal within the next two weeks.

It is therefore imperative that the education response to COVID-19 be focused and streamlined as soon as possible. Technology will save the day for those with access and resources, but disadvantaged communities may be affected disproportionately. It is for these learners that the digital divide may become a digital chasm in 2020.

The important role of education ministers

The Centre for Global Development recently published an open letter to “an education minister” (Mundy[3], 2020), where it is stated that education ministers worldwide will now have to make sense of the “COVID-19 mess” following worldwide school closures. Emphasising that limited information is available about the likely path of the pandemic, it is acknowledged that “ministers, educators, communities, families, and learners will all have to make decisions in a context of ‘radical uncertainty’ “.

Against this background Mundy offers six suggestions that should form the backbone of a plan for education (see Text box below).

text box

(Mundy, 2020)

Ultimately things will change for the better

The positive side of a crisis like this is that it may create increased interest technology and motivation to explore new possibilities. “Forced usage during this time will help people overcome barriers to adoption of digital services… Higher adoption rates during this time will lead to a larger base of users, many of whom will continue to use the innovations beyond the current situation.” (Ipsos[4], 2020: 5).

Hopefully the COVID-19 crisis will leapfrog education in South Africa to innovative use of technology, and faster digitisation of the sector.

By Fia van Rensburg

[1] Lembani, R., Gunter, A., Breines, M., and Dalu, M. 2020. The same course, different access: the digital divide between urban and rural distance education students in South Africa, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 44:1, 70-84, DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2019.1694876.

[2] The HDI considers the following dimensions: inequality in the expectancy at birth; inequality in education; and inequality in income.

[3] Mundy, K. 2020. Managing Education Systems During COVID-19: An Open Letter to A Minister of Education

[4] Ipsos. Innovating in challenging times. 2020.

[14] Based on research under the Building State Capability program at Harvard University

african child learning

Part 2: COVID-19, Disruption Of Education And The Digital Divide

By Current Affairs, Education

As discussed in Part 1 of this three-part series, COVID-19 is a universal crisis, which affects each person in each country of the world. This does not mean that it affects all in the same way. Part 1 provided a general overview of how the COVID-19 crisis has exposed vulnerability fault lines. Part 2 will look at how COVID-19 has disrupted education and the digital divide.

quote from UN secretary generalThe COVID-19 lockdown has given school learners and university students across the world unexpected additional time off this year. But with extended lock-down periods, the class of 2020 may battle to attain high levels of academic success unless they have access to reliable and affordable connectivity and appropriate technical devices.

For learners and students who cannot continue with their learning online during the COVID-19 crisis, the digital divide may well become a digital chasm, at least for this year.  For some, the shutdown of institutions of learning also has other implications such as loss of access to nutrition.

In relation to the socio-economic impact of COVID-19, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres emphasised that this crisis provides an opportunity to “deal decisively with those issues that make us all unnecessarily vulnerable to crises.”

Apart from the eradication of poverty and enhancement of food security, technological access and participation in the digital knowledge economy should be one of the top items on that list.

girl in a classroom chalkboard

The extent of disruption of learning

According to the UN’s March 2020 report[1] titled “Shared responsibility, global solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19”, the magnitude of the impact on the education sector is that:

  • 166 countries have implemented country-wide school and university closures
  • 52 billion children and youth are currently out of school or university (this is 87% of the world enrolled school and university student population)
  • Close to 60.2 million teachers are no longer in the classroom

The map shows the extent of school closures in the developing world, and particularly Africa.

map of areas affected by school closures


In the USA, it was recently announced[2] that schools in California, which is home to 12% American children of school-going age, will remain closed up to the end of the school year. Classes will continue through distance learning.

Impact on nutrition

The problem is not only that school and university closures are taking place, but also the extensive detrimental impact of these closures on learners and students. In addition to the obvious loss of opportunity for social interaction and associated social and behavioural development, an important impact is that some children lose access to food and nutrition, especially in developing countries.

“The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that more than 320 million primary school children in 120 countries are now missing out on school meals.” (UN, 2020: 9). This places an additional burden on household finances and food resources, and also has implications for unpaid work, especially for women.

Demands on parents

With children at home, there are also more demands on parents to support the learning of children during this time. Some parents may have free time because they cannot continue to work; others will be working from home. Having to support their children’s learning will have to be balanced with getting to grips with working from home.

While parents can provide some level of support, especially in the lower grades, not all parents may be able to assist their school-going children with all subjects, for various reasons including literacy levels of parents, and lack of access to relevant educational materials.

(See the section below on how South African schools are responding).

Technology to the rescue

Technology is definitely the hero of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to helping people to stay connected during lock down, enabling some degree of business continuity, and exchanging key information on the medical and logistical aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, technology is also an education life-saver.

That is if you have access to technology.

As pointed out by the UN Report on the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, “inequality of access to broadband connectivity and inaccessibility of ICTs hinders effective remote participation and access to remote schooling arrangements….” (UN, 2020:9).

The report also points out that worldwide, approximately 3.6 billion people do not have access to the internet, of which the majority are living in the least developed countries.

boy using technology

What the digital divide looks like

Zooming in on the digital divide, it is important to note that “the cleavages that may open are not necessarily between developed and developing countries or between people at the top and people at the bottom of the income distribution…more and more depends— to a great extent—on the ability to connect to digital networks.” (UNDP[3], 2019: 200).

The report points out the nuances of the digital divide:

  • Groups with lower human development have systematically less access to a wide range of technologies;
  • Gaps in basic entry-level technologies still exist, but these gaps are closing;
  • Gaps in advanced technologies are widening.

Despite these nuances, the report shows that higher levels of human development and greater access to technology goes together, and that despite the fast pace and enormous impact of the digital revolution, it is “far from universal”.

For example:

  • “…in 2017 almost 2 billion people still did not use a mobile phone…”
  • “…of the 5 billion mobile subscribers in the world, nearly 2 billion—most of them in low- and middle- income countries—do not have access to the internet…”
  • “…in 2017 the number of fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants was only 13.3 globally and 9.7 in developing countries…”
  • “…the number of mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants was 103.6 in developed countries compared with only 53.6 in developing countries…”

(UNDP, 2019: 201)

classroom of students

The implications of the digital divide for becoming part of the learning society

Unequal access to entry-level technologies, such as mobile phones including basic service has been shrinking in the past ten years (see table below).

Mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants 2007 2017
Developed countries 102 127
Developing countries 39 99

(Source: Development Works Changemakers. Derived from UNDP Human Development Report, 2019)

According to the Digital Infrastructure Moonshot for Africa Report (2019: 60 – 61), broadband access in South Africa in 2018, was significantly better than for Africa as a whole:

  • Broadband[4] penetration was 53%, and the regional[5] average was and estimated 31%; and
  • 4G mobile broadband[6] penetration was 32% in 2018, and the regional average was 9%.

Access to technologies described as “more empowering” (technologies that allow users to access more content and to produce content) have not improved to the same extent. Countries at lower human development levels have made the least progress, and this trend is consistent with widening gaps in installed broadband capacity.

According to the UNDP report (2010: 202), “…the distinction between the number of telecommunication subscriptions and the availability of bandwidth mattered little when there was only fixed-line telephony, since all the connections had essentially the same bandwidth. But as artificial intelligence and related technologies continue to evolve, bandwidth will be increasingly important (as will be cloud computing, which depends on the ability to connect computers with each other). “

Additional factors

Another factor that contributes to the digital divide is that new technology is often expensive, which makes it less accessible to persons with lower income, especially at the beginning of the diffusion process.

Also, inequalities are larger for advanced technologies, which include computer, internet or broadband. This means that while improved access to mobile technology has “empowered traditionally marginalized and excluded people… digital gaps can also become barriers not only in accessing services or enabling economic transactions but also in being part of a “learning society.” (UNDP, 2019: 203).

A third aspect of access to digital communication and learning is the cost of data. Econometric studies conducted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)[7] suggests that a 10% drop in mobile broadband prices could boost adoption of mobile broadband technology by more than 3.1%.

inequality in the classroom and society

Opportunities for learning during lockdown

Whether or not learners and students will continue learning during lockdown will depend on a wide range of factors, and it is clear that for some it will be much easier to continue with their education than for others. In our society, which remains unequal, the impacts of school and university closures will have the greatest impact on poor and disadvantaged learners and students.

Despite various impediments to learning during lockdown, especially in disadvantaged communities, progress made regarding digital coverage in the developing world is encouraging and the COVID-19 crisis highlights that this is an area that needs further rapid transformation.

In South Africa, the February 2020 Competition Commission report which urged mobile operators to reduce data prices came none too soon, and will hopefully help young people to continue learning, at least to some extent during COVID-2019 lockdown. In addition, it is noted and commended that the South African government, including education departments, have made provision for access to resources that do not require data.

For more on what is needed for optimal access to the digital economy and digital learning, see Part 3 of this series, which also looks at the interim arrangements put in place for school learners to access educational materials during lockdown.

By Fia van Rensburg

[1] UN website

[2] Kohli, S. and Blume, H. 2020. Public schools expected to remain closed for the rest of the academic year, Newsom says. Los Angeles Times.

[3] Human Development Report. 2019.

[4] Defined as average download speeds of 256 Kbps or greater while the target download speeds by 2021 is 3 Mbps.

[5] Regional refers to Africa

[6] Defined as average download speeds of 10 Mbps or greater

[7] Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband for All. 2019. Digital Infrastructure Moonshot for Africa.