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Klosson ’71 Speaks on NGOs in the Era of COVID


Michael Klosson ’71
Michael Klosson ’71

Michael Klosson ’71, the Sol Linowitz Visiting Professor of International Affairs, discussed the response of non-governmental organizations to global crises such as COVID-19 in a virtual lecture on March 31. Before returning to Hamilton in 2020, Klosson served as interim chief operating officer and vice president for policy and humanitarian response at Save the Children.

The lecture, which attracted around 100 viewers, began with Klosson reflecting broadly on the events and lessons of this past year. Many people in the humanitarian development field and beyond, he said, wondered if the “common global challenge” of the pandemic would encourage communities and nations and leaders to rally together, or if it would instead promote an “everyone-for-themselves kind of approach.” Sadly, Klosson said, we have seen too much of the latter and not enough yet of the former.

Klosson’s experience with NGOs is built on his 14-year career at Save the Children, an organization devoted to helping children in need around the world. The pandemic, he said, “reinforced an insight that has been at the heart of what NGOs do … that crises are toughest on those least equipped to cope.” Though a new crisis in many ways, COVID-19 still exacerbated and accelerated ongoing trends, Klosson said, “[multiplying] inequality in America and around the world.”

To combat such issues, Save the Children designed a four-pillar response to the pandemic, a plan that focused mainly on “family survival and food security … [and] trying to keep children safe,” Klosson explained. At the end of last year, the organization had aided nearly 30 million people in 87 countries. This aid looked different in different places, but fundamentally revolved around distributing the means of protection against COVID — in terms of both physical measures like PPE and information about the virus.

A major focus of Save the Children’s pandemic response was education; Klosson estimates that up to 1.5 billion children were out of school during the peak of the pandemic due to lockdown restrictions around the world. In order to help provide these children with alternative learning opportunities, he said, Save the Children turned to methods such as television shows in Ethiopia, radio in Somalia, WhatsApp programs, and more. 

Looking to the future, Klosson also brought up a few lessons that the NGO sector will shoulder moving forward. One, he said, is flexibility. Organizations were forced to be more flexible in the past year, and more streamlined ways to do that need to continue. Next, the humanitarian community as a whole “needs to rely more heavily on locally led initiatives and locally led actors.” Klosson noted that this has been a necessary change for years now, but COVID-born restrictions on travel have “given it a lot more of a head of steam.”

Finally, Klosson made clear that public health officials are not going to solve the problems of a pandemic. Indeed, these officials told the world what needed to be done, he said — the world “just didn’t do it for the most part.” For this reason, “political leadership, governance, and trust are hugely important,” he said. “Those kinds of things got in the way of the world’s response.”

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