The year past and what’s ahead: global development trends we’re watching in 2021

Looking back at 2020 and trends that are likely to shape our sector in the year ahead


By Dr Seamus McGardle, Managing Director of SRI Executive

In Ireland, we have a tradition of opening the front door at midnight on New Year’s Eve, letting the old year escape and welcoming the new one in. This year a sense of pain and uncertainty hasn’t gone out the door after last year’s loss of lives and livelihoods, but neither has the resilience and courage of the international development sector.

The new year has arrived with a sense of hope with several COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out in record time, and the number of people to receive the first dose of the vaccine is over 80 million globally at the time of writing. A new administration in the United States brings a more favourable outlook towards foreign aid and development; the US has re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement, prioritising the climate crisis, and will remain a member of the World Health Organisation.

But our sector knows the challenges ahead. Vaccines must reach the world’s most vulnerable. At the same time, the pandemic threatens international aid budgets. We have already seen the recent £2.9 billion cut by the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office because of the COVID-19 crisis and concern remains as the UK government considers reducing its aid budget from 0.7% of its Gross National Income to 0.5%. Meanwhile, the climate crisis saw 2020 as one of the joint hottest years so far, food insecurity is accelerating across many African countries and devastating conflicts in countries such as Syria and Yemen are ongoing.

Much of what we’re seeing is likely to continue and evolve in the year ahead. Here I offer a reflection on the past year and a perspective on what we’re watching as 2021 unfolds.

ongoing pandemic and recovery image covid virus

Ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recovery

As the pandemic gripped the world, we saw many international organisations enable their staff to work from their home countries. Nearly all non-profits (where it was possible) moved to remote working, and many diverted their resources to the COVID-19 response. Unfortunately, many staff were furloughed, and others laid off. In the United States alone, non-profits saw a 7.4% decline in jobs from February to December 2020. In the UK, that charity sector has lost an estimated £10 billion in funding which could result in up to 60,000 job losses.

The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities. Much of the hard-won progress on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is now off course. In 2021, the UN predicts a rise in extreme poverty, hunger, disease outbreaks, displacements related to climate change, greater gender-based violence and more children out of school. Questions continue in 2021 of how we will ‘build back better,’ with a renewed focus on sustainability and tackling global inequities.

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts are certainly nothing new. Still, research shows that only 32% of UK charity CEOs are women, while 3% are from minority backgrounds (2017). Another US study of non-profit leadership found 87% of executive directors or presidents were white (2017).

People across the sector are dedicated to making positive social change. Last year, many organisations in the development sector expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and reiterated their commitment to DEI efforts. However, there is evidence that systemic racism, sexism, and power imbalances still exist.

As 2021 continues we may see more organisations prioritise diversity in senior leadership and devise new ways to tackle barriers to advancement. Ongoing unconscious bias training, new approaches to recruitment and leadership evaluations, monitoring and evaluating internal DEI efforts, and incorporating language around DEI into strategic frameworks are a few examples of how organisations might address DEI in the future.

Work from home continuing with a focus on employee wellbeing

As remote working continues in many places, organisations will continue to pull together the threads of technology, people, processes and culture, and strengthen their staffs’ digital expertise where necessary. Part of this will include establishing an organisation-wide understanding of information security, after cybercriminals targeted several NGOs last year following the move to remote work.

Wellbeing was a priority for HR leaders before the pandemic because of its close ties to productivity, but COVID-19 and the rapid shift to virtual work amplified organisations’ focus on their workers physical and mental health, and emotional and overall wellbeing.

With people working longer hours and feeling increasingly isolated,  nearly 60% of global development professionals reported “heightened emotional stress,” “decreased productivity” and “increased hours/workload” negatively impacting on their work. As the pandemic wears on, we will see more done to integrate wellbeing into the ways we work.

Flexible working has become a growing trend as many organisations recognise their staff often must juggle personal commitments such as caring duties alongside their working lives. With schools still closed in some countries, many parents and guardians– usually women– have to adapt further juggle their work and other responsibilities.

An added challenge in recruitment

As the pandemic has worn on, along with the accompanying economic crisis and global uncertainty, we have seen highly qualified candidates in the sector turn down opportunities despite their interest. They are apprehensive about uprooting their families and relocating during these times. We expect this challenge to continue and may need to be creative in our approaches when it comes to key strategic appointments.

Despite this challenge, we saw our busiest year in 2020 after the immediate aftermath of the pandemic’s onset. Organisations quickly learned to adapt and use technology effectively. Their confidence in virtual interviewing, trust in each other, and onboarding processes are growing.

Mergers & Alliances

We have seen an increase in organisations open to exploring an alliance or partnership to help maximise their impact and protect funding. With the considerable demand on limited funding resources, challenges in accessing some of the most vulnerable communities, and the need to avoid duplication, this trend is likely to increase into 2021. We expect to see a rise in the number of strategic partnerships within the non-profit sector, while some will also seek to form joint partnerships with for-profit organisations. Many organisations will even consider mergers, either with other non-profit or for-profit entities as the best way to continue serving the communities where they operate.

Looking ahead

We will continue to be challenged in the times ahead, but there is much to be hopeful for. Vaccines were produced at record speed and we have seen how development organisations and their committed staff were able to, and continue to, adapt and respond to many crises around the world.

However, we can’t forget the human toll of the past year when people who might have thought of poverty as something that happens to others may sadly be experiencing it first-hand. Their experience may shift how they view global aid.

The COVID-19 pandemic may indeed herald a shift in our collective global mindset to a kinder, more inclusive world with wider respect and fondness of nature and the environment, a recognition of our inter-dependence, and the duty we all owe to help and lift those less fortunate than ourselves.