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Care Work Responsibilities for International Development Professionals

By Victoria Rames, Senior Associate at Banyan Global

As international development professionals, many of us consider gender equality and what types of systemic policies and programming measures are needed to support men and women who have responsibilities in the care economy. But how have we supported women and men in their care roles who are international development practitioners—as people who work directly or not on gender equality—during and after the pandemic?

The Inclusive Economies at International Development Research Centre defines the care economy as both paid and unpaid. It includes the direct care of children, the sick, the elderly or persons with disabilities and indirect care such as cooking, cleaning, and washing and supervisory care and other tasks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated both direct and indirect care work. We have been responding to the pandemic’s impact in our professional lives, and also responding to the pandemic’s impact on our personal lives, and the related impact on our care responsibilities. The impact has been even more pronounced for consultants and part-time staff, whose livelihoods depend on their ability to produce deliverables, and who have no access to sick or compensatory time.

Direct care work during the pandemic intensified due to the closure of schools/day-care/eldercare facilities and increased care responsibilities for family members with COVID-19, including children, spouses/partners, and elderly family members. Care responsibilities reduced the amount of work time, including uninterrupted time, for caregivers (including international development professionals) during the pandemic.

Indirect care also increased, in particular at the beginning of the pandemic where access to services or goods was limited; additional time was needed to access goods or services; and there was reduced access to cleaning services/persons.

Though there has been some care work task-shifting between men and women, women (including development professionals) still shoulder a disproportionate burden of the care work. Pairing with this a general culture of “the now” and expectations of travel in international development, being an international development professional has been a challenge during the pandemic.

So, what are some measures that institutions have taken to make it easier and more sustainable for international development professionals to work and manage their care responsibilities? What are lessons learned on institutional policies and practices? Finally, how can we bring what I call the human touch—or enabling environment—into our work culture and environments?

Institutional Policies

  • Train all staff: Train staff (including those who do not have care responsibilities) on how to manage and collaborate with staff, contractors, and consultants who have care responsibilities, in line with established institutional policies and practices.
  • Offer flexible work options: Such options may include offering the possibility of remote work (including from a different location so that staff can access childcare from extended family who live in another city); staggered start/finish times; and splitting shifts and deliverables/tasks. Also consider reallocating travel responsibilities to colleagues who are able to travel, and eliminating the need for travel (or reducing the length of travel) for all assignments/positions.
  • Allow staff to take (paid) family and emergency leave: Provide (paid) leave to allow employees to take care of family responsibilities without stress as a short-term solution, especially for employees in jobs that cannot be performed from home.
  • Offer emergency childcare services: Employers may have employees who are considered essential workers, such as those who work in health care, agriculture, food distribution, or sanitation. In such cases, providing emergency care or contributing to community efforts to care for the children of these essential workers may be necessary.
  • Provide financial support to parents: Childcare allowances or subsidies provided by employers may allow working parents to better manage their scarce resources and meet their childcare and work obligations during the pandemic. Subsidies can help cover costs of meals, supplies, and distance-learning materials, including tablets or tools to access online learning.
  • Support shifts in social norms around childcare. Such shifts among staff and consultants would encourage the redistribution of unpaid domestic and care activities to men in the home or someone else outside the household.
  • Put in place and enforce a rest-and-recuperation policy. Consider putting in place and enforcing an R&R policy that would require staff to take a half-day off every 6-8 weeks. This would be in addition to personal time off (PTO).
  • Make a care plan with staff, colleagues, and consultants so that you as a supervisor or manager are aware of and take into consideration their care role and work levels. Simply referring staff to available mental health services may not be enough.

Institutional practices

  • Task-shifting: Consider how your institution’s full-time staff, including those not directly on a project, can pick up and split work normally allocated to one or a few staff persons or consultants. At Banyan Global under our USAID Gender Integration Technical Assistance Task Order, we split up the work that generally one consultant would undertake between two consultants. Hire additional support if staff and consultants are not available, which may be the case for small or micro-businesses.
  • Flexibility in deadlines: Allow flexibility in deadlines; be mindful that short deadlines may be impossible to meet due to staff and consultant/contractor care responsibilities.
  • Extending deadlines: Give colleagues advanced notice if a big project or deliverable is anticipated and consider whether something is really urgent and adjust deadlines and expectations accordingly in collaboration with all colleagues, including contractors and consultants.
  • Optional use of video: Make the use of video optional and ensure that there is no day-to-day pressure to use it. Be flexible and understanding if children appear in video.

The Human Touch – Creating a supportive day-to-day culture and environment

  • Practice kindness, compassion, and flexibility: In general, a major lesson learned from the pandemic is the importance of demonstrating kindness, compassion, and flexibility while engaging with all staff and colleagues during the pandemic, in particular working parents who are in many instances juggling extra childcare or eldercare responsibilities along with home-based or not-home-based work.
  • Going beyond transactional relationships: Establish relationships with staff and consultants that are beyond transactional. Get to know people, what they have on their plates in terms of care responsibilities. Do this with all staff, including national staff and consultants, as you may not be knowledgeable about their localized context.
  • Children appearing on video: If you see or hear a child on screen, don’t comment on it. Better yet, the first time you see or hear a child, make an explicit statement of support to that staff member and any other team members who have children.