Agile minds, quarantined bodies: Responding to socio-economic impacts of COVID-19

UNDP Accelerator Labs
8 min readMay 25, 2020

By Emily Anderson, UNDP Accelerator Labs Partnerships Advisor

Informal workers are among those hit the hardest by the pandemic. UNDP Accelerator Labs are experimenting with many digital tools and platforms to unpack this challenge.

When we started the UNDP Accelerator Labs a year ago, we were full of optimism. We had recruited 180 incredible leaders to manage 60 development labs and shared the exciting ambition to create the world’s fastest learning network. Cue global pandemic and economic crisis: the Labs were suddenly faced with a challenge that affected everything they were doing.

As we watch the Accelerator Labs pivot towards addressing the socio-economic impacts of the crisis, we are seeing that what they are working on changed, but how they approach their work did not (at least not beyond doing it in sweatpants, at home, cat and other family members in lap).

UNDP developed the Accelerator Labs to pick up on ‘weak signals’ — less understood but potentially high-impact changes in the world — sooner, and it turns out that this crisis is full of weak signals that warrant exploration. What’s out there, and what are we learning as we experiment, adapt, and innovate our way through the world of COVID-19?

COVID-19 and the informal economy

The economic figures are sobering. The ILO’s latest data show that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy — representing nearly half of the workforce globally — “stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.” Most people in the informal economy depend entirely on their daily earnings and cannot rely on income replacement, credit, or savings. UNDP estimates that the crisis will result in $220 billion in lost income in developing countries and that global human development — which can be measured as a combination of the world’s education, health and living standards — could decline this year for the first time since the concept was introduced in 1990.

Many UNDP Accelerator Labs have responded to the precipitous drops in job numbers and income through measures that support small businesses — the lifeblood of most economies. For example, the Argentina team is piloting several solutions to sustain financially vulnerable people and SMEs during the lockdown, including a #PayInAdvance platform that allows people to pay for services they will receive after the lockdown, supporting cashflows in small business and informal enterprises in the meantime. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Lab team saw an opportunity to create a Groupon-style deal campaign to support SMEs and surveyed 1,000 people to evaluate and refine the concept.

The impact of the crisis has led governments to pursue social protection, particularly cash transfer programs that enable public funds to reach local economies quickly. Cash transfers have become the most widely used tool among governments during the crisis: as of May 15th, 124 countries had planned or implemented 264 programs that should benefit over 1.5 billion people.

Source: World Bank/UNICEF via Ugo Gentilini

While governments are now spending an average of $44 per capita on COVID-19 social protection measures, millions of vulnerable people are falling through the cracks, unable to access cash transfers due to exclusion from the financial system, lack of connectivity, remote off-the-grid locations, migration, and other factors.

Accelerator Lab teams are unpacking this challenge with a variety of innovations that “digitize informality” — using digital tools to create financial solutions for excluded groups, while also generating new data that help us to understand the extent of the problem and how to tackle it.

  • The UNDP Accelerator Labs in Kenya and Uganda have mapped the integral role of mobile money not only in supporting social distancing efforts through minimizing the handling of currency but also in allowing unbanked people to access cash transfers and mutual aid schemes. Telecom companies are supporting mobile money in the crisis by waiving transaction fees and increasing transaction limits for SMEs. As we have seen in other Labs, the success of creative ways to plug excluded groups into the financial system shows that the crisis is catalyzing digital transformation.
  • Similarly, in Argentina, the team launched the #CashWithNoAccount campaign to promote tools for unbanked people to access ATMs and emergency income. They are also working on creating community currencies for marketplaces in popular neighborhoods, encouraging trade among local businesses and producers.
  • The Malaysia Accelerator Lab has analyzed the bottleneck of cash transfers and government stimulus packages and is developing solutions to ensure the money gets to the most vulnerable. They are running assessments on the effectiveness of existing social protection measures and are piloting e-commerce and cash assistance solutions to enable aid to reach more people, particularly in rural and remote areas.

Also in response to the intersecting dynamics of the pandemic, economic crisis, and informality, another set of Accelerator Labs are experimenting with digital mutual aid platforms that benefit excluded groups.

Colaboratorio Ciudadano “Citizen Collaboratory”, a platform co-developed by the UNDP Accelerator Lab in Ecuador.
  • The Ecuador Accelerator Lab co-created Colaboratorio Ciudadano (“Citizen Collaboratory”), a web platform that matches people in need with others who can help through donating or swapping goods, volunteering, and crowdfunding. Rolled out in partnership with Fundación San Francisco Global, the initiative functions as an effective mapping of vulnerable communities in Ecuador. Data are collected through the registration of small businesses and producers, which also allows citizens to shop locally. As a result, we know more about where vulnerable populations are located, and the federal government is now partnering with the UNDP Ecuador Country Office to explore digital strategies to help SMEs to adapt to the crisis.
  • Similarly, the team in Palestine is experimenting with a web platform that will connect small-scale female producers with customers in partnership with restaurants,, and NGOs. They have also set up a crowdfunding campaign to support informal businesses through a partnership with local governments, chambers of commerce, and multilateral financial institutions— which have agreed to forgo interest income to subsidize wages and loans.

Through mapping grassroots responses and experimenting with solutions, the Accelerator Labs are also contributing to a global learning network by generating valuable population data that can help fight the crisis. For instance, thanks to the Labs’ mapping of vulnerable communities, we know more about where job losses are in Malaysia and have insight into the impact of the crisis on female farmers in Palestine.

Real-ish time data

The quickly changing COVID-19 landscape has underlined the necessity for more current and more accurate population and medical data. Several Labs have focused squarely on this problem.

  • The Bosnia and Herzegovina Accelerator Lab launched Economic Pulse, a dashboard based on monthly survey data from over 1,000 companies, that informs the public about the current status of local economies. The dashboard summarizes the survey data and crosses them with governmental data to provide a close-to-real-time socio-economic assessment — greatly improving on traditional data collection and analysis methods, which can take several months.
  • In order to meet the need for organized data in the Philippines’ decentralized repository of COVID-19 information, the Philippines Accelerator Lab co-created the COVID-19 Pintig Lab (‘Heartbeat’ in Filipino), a centralized information hub with a data command center aiming to help the government build capacity for data management and analysis. The Lab team employed a new way of gathering data from the informal and most vulnerable: conducting surveys via a Facebook messenger chatbot as well as interviews over mobile phones. While traditional surveys (e.g. Google forms, SurveyMonkey) are often not accessible for excluded citizens, the Facebook messenger chatbot enables a wider reach and more personalized questionnaires.
  • The Colombia Accelerator Lab identified that governments, businesses, and citizens want and need better data and greater access to it. Obstacles including cost, time, extractive business models, and misuse currently hinder data collection. The Lab team’s solution, CA$H4DATA, is looking to solve this with a variation of cash-for-work schemes by rewarding people with money for their help with data collection. CA$H4DATA is distinguished from other solutions in terms of providing public value in an inclusive data collection system with transparent rewards. The lab is currently exploring the Colombian fintech ecosystem to scope partners and set strategy, boosting collaboration between UNDP and this growing sector.

Mapping possible futures, enabling action now

How will the crisis end, what will life be like afterwards? The Accelerator Labs are using future-forward techniques to help us get a better handle on what we might expect.

  • The Ethiopia Accelerator Lab is using foresight to map out the longer-term social and economic impacts of COVID-19. Perhaps counterintuitively, scanning the future has enabled the team to take immediate action in mitigating the effects of the crisis. They focused on industrial parks — major sources of income and jobs — and their relation to the rural agricultural economy, urban jobs and incomes, and protecting and restoring MSMEs. The lab’s analysis shows the industrial parks’ dependence on foreign markets holds major economic implications post-lockdown. In reaction, the Lab launched a hackathon for long-term digital solutions with the Ministry of Innovation and is encouraging industrial parks to step-up their policies on PPE. To minimize short-term impacts, the Lab team worked with a mobile provider to text workers with pertinent information on the pandemic, and with parks to implement protection measures such as limiting density on transportation systems.

No black swan

What, if any, conclusions can we draw about the Labs’ work on COVID-19 so far? First, the Labs are demonstrating agility by rapidly translating data into action and quickly forging effective partnerships. They are also providing new kinds of insight into socio-economic impacts of the crisis through mapping the constantly shifting terrain of the crisis, which is yielding closer-to-real-time data to inform government decision-makers.

As the Labs are putting into action UNDP’s “Three by Three” approach to the crisis by finding solutions to mitigate the crisis, protect people, and encourage recovery, the Labs are also demonstrating how a global learning network is a fitting tool to fight a multidimensional viral threat.

While we likely won’t have the privilege to return to normal — as Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues, the crisis is not a black swan — the learnings we are gaining from COVID-19 may well set us up to tackle the next one. We’re still learning though.

With thanks to our UNDP Accelerator Lab colleagues for their presentations on the topics outlined in this blog:

  • Argentina — María Verónica Moreno, Head of Solutions Mapping
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina — Amina Omicevic — Head of Solutions Mapping
  • Colombia — Cristian Gil Sanchez — Head of Solutions Mapping
  • Ecuador — Gabriela Ayala– Head of Experimentation
  • Ethiopia — Amanuel Tadesse, Head of Solutions Mapping
  • Kenya — Lillian Njoro — Head of Experimentation
  • Malaysia — Yin Wei Chong — Head of Solutions Mapping
  • Palestine — Ruba Aladham — Head of Exploration
  • Philippines — Francis Capistrano, Head of Experimentation
  • Uganda — Berna Mugema — Head of Experimentation



UNDP Accelerator Labs

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries.