Innovating in the COVID-19 response – emerging examples across the Arab States region

March 31, 2020

Coronavirus has quickly become a truly global challenge, with almost all countries reporting cases and many already contending with the social, economic, and political consequences. First and foremost a health crisis, COVID-19 is also a development crisis. At UNDP, we are (tele)working as part of the UN system response with partners on preparation, response, and recovery that safeguards progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and protects the resilience of the most vulnerable people and economies. As we unroll this all-of-UNDP effort, our recently launched Accelerator Labs are modelling how, in times of crisis, we can source solutions at the local level, feed them into the global network for fast learning, and so generate more elevated insights into what works. The Labs are contributing to UNDP and United Nations Country Teams’ overall response by injecting both micro-level solutions and systems thinking that will enable us to assess and address the immediate as well medium-to-long-term consequences of the pandemic. Here are three examples of initiatives started in recent days by UNDP Accelerator Labs across the Arab States region.

Sourcing hands-on solutions: Most of us have been obsessively following social media updates over the past weeks. Partly because social media offers near-real-time information (or sadly, misinformation), but partly also because we have been blown away by the heartening instances of social connectedness and the community-driven solutions that have been emerging. In Libya, the Accelerator Lab is getting ahead of a potential issue of insufficient personal protective equipment for medical professionals by engaging across sectors (public sector, private sector, civil society) to map solutions for manufacturing medical masks, such as producing masks using alternative and/or reusable materials. In line with its ongoing waste management initiative, the Lab is also looking at ways of recycling masks. At a more strategic level, the Lab is working with government agencies as they formulate the national COVID-19 Action Plan: namely, they are using innovative tools to map current health facilities and identify hotspots, gaps and urgent needs, in an effort to increase the capacity of public health facilities to prepare for and handle the spread of the disease.

Building partnerships and enhancing access to information: If one thing has become clear, it is that data and equitable access to up-to-date information are at the heart of an effective pandemic response. The Accelerator Lab in Iraq has been working closely with a young Iraqi developer to help scale up his platform, “Corona in Iraq,” which plots the spread of Covid-19 cases across the country and provides a 10-question survey that allows people to track their symptoms. Using systems mapping, the Accelerator Lab was able to identify stakeholders who could help bolster the accuracy of data and symptoms tracking provided by the site. These partners are feeding updates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health and Environment (MoHE) onto the platform, while exploring means of directly connecting to MoHE channels. They are also helping to make its design and language more attractive, user-friendly, and accessible, including by tracking users’ journeys. In parallel, the Accelerator Lab is fostering partnerships with decision-makers to harness the collective intelligence emerging from the site.

Testing evidence-based approaches: For crisis response measures to be effective, they need to be mirrored in public behaviour. The Accelerator Lab in Sudan is looking to understand – and nudge – consumer behaviour and the systematic implications of binge consumption on public health, economy and society. While particularly salient in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, with hand sanitiser flying off the shelves and price increases of 280% on masks, this work is part of a bigger effort to identify and test multiple entry points for supporting responsive governance in Sudan. In addition to social media analysis, opinion polls, and more, the Lab is preparing to dispatch an SMS survey to a diverse sample of 635,000 people, including nomads, migrants, homemakers, rural populations, the elderly as well as youth. The leads emerging from the responses (estimated at 2%, or 12,700) will inform the Lab’s behavioural interventions, including targeted messaging to discourage panic-buying.

UNDP’s Accelerator Labs are an agile resource to help our national partners and United Nations Country Teams  prepare for, respond to and recover from the pandemic, even more so in countries already managing conflict or political transition. The Labs are using newly introduced competencies to uncover and crowdsource solutions, to leverage new sources of data, and to test new approaches. The agility that the Labs bring is an important part of UNDP’s overall response to the Covid-19 pandemic, so that we can collectively learn quickly what works and what does not in this context that brings new challenges and new solutions every day.


With 60 Accelerator Labs across 78 countries, UNDP is building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. We are accelerating the speed at which we are learning about what works and how to land solutions in local contexts. To deliver on this ambition, UNDP has brought on board solutions mappers, explorers, and experimenters, who are bridging UNDP’s expertise in climate change, governance and poverty reduction with a new set of capabilities to tackle 21st century development challenges. Follow @UNDPAccLabs for their work on COVID-19 and other issues.