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FEATURE STORY January 7, 2022

The Power of Knowledge and Evidence in Tackling the COVID-19 Crisis


In Democratic Republic of Congo, a health worker helps Dr. Junior Ikomo to put the Personal Protective Equipment on, before entering the zone where patients are treated.

Vincent Tremeau/World Bank

By Johannes Zutt, Director, Strategy, Risk and Results, Operations Policy & Country Services Vice Presidency
Qimiao Fan, Director, Strategy and Operations, Office of the World Bank Managing Director of Development Policy and Partnerships

COVID-19 has cut short millions of lives, devastated economies, and disrupted society at an unprecedented scale. The toll was especially pronounced in the world’s poorest countries, where vulnerable people and systems were made doubly vulnerable.

Over the past two years, the International Development Association (IDA) has been at the forefront of helping these countries respond to the crisis, protect hard-won development gains, and build the foundation for a resilient and inclusive recovery. IDA mobilized at record speed and scale, while maintaining a relentless focus on outcomes, in line with the Roadmap for Strengthening the World Bank Group’s Outcome Orientation. And this ability to deliver results is deeply rooted in a strong base of knowledge and evidence.


The knowledge that IDA employs to inform its work comes in different forms: the expertise of frontline staff built on experiences addressing the toughest development challenges; lessons and evidence on improving the World Bank’s development effectiveness from evaluations; and rigorous analytical and diagnostic work that underpins IDA’s financing and policy responses. While the World Bank Group has long been at the vanguard of using knowledge and data to shape development practice, inform policymakers, and help set the global development agenda, in 2021 it launched a new Strategic Framework for Knowledge, which is pushing the envelope to further integrate knowledge into the solutions it provides.

Drawing on lessons of the past and knowledge of people

IDA’s most valuable source of knowledge is its people. The institution’s seasoned professionals bring together world-class technical expertise and the practical know-how that comes from decades of experience, working in some of the most challenging contexts to help countries tackle crises and build resilient health systems. Lessons learned and capacities built fighting previous epidemics are informing IDA’s COVID-19 response. For example, staff who worked on West and Central Africa’s Ebola response have experienced firsthand what it takes to deliver effectively—most notably the critical importance of community engagement and the role that traditional leaders can play in communicating key messages, building trust, and adopting responses that take account of local context and customs.

Learning from independent evaluation

The Independent Evaluation Group continuously evaluates the World Bank Group’s performance and results, providing evidence on how it can improve its development effectiveness. As a learning organization, the World Bank Group has a robust process in place called the Management Action Record (MAR) to ensure that evaluations translate into concrete actions and lead to meaningful outcomes. IDA’s approach to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates how it applies evidence of what works. For example, the recent MAR report demonstrated how a 2018 evaluation of Health System Strengthening has helped inform IDA’s COVID-19 response through its recommendations: mainstream pandemic preparedness in country-level health systems; apply comprehensive diagnostics to assess gaps and inform the design of country programs; and increase the strategic focus of health partnerships.

Continuing with the example of learning from the West and Central Africa Ebola crisis, it overwhelmed hospitals and clinics, bringing into sharp relief the need for more resilient public health systems. Since 2016, IDA has been working to address this challenge through the Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement (REDISSE) Program, which is building capacity for disease surveillance and epidemic preparedness across 16 countries. This program has directly benefited nearly half a billion people and positioned countries to launch a rapid and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including through more than $200 million in funding.   

Staying at the forefront: Research to understand new realities

As the COVID-19 crisis has changed the world in previously unimagined ways, analytical work has been critical to understanding emerging challenges and opportunities. The World Bank Group has supported important assessments and research, generating new evidence to inform financing and policy decisions across IDA countries. For example, in November 2020, in anticipation of the availability of safe and effective vaccines, the World Bank Group collaborated with WHO, UNICEF, the Global Fund, and Gavi to undertake vaccine readiness assessments in every IDA country to help them understand the necessary preconditions for an effective vaccine rollout as well as key obstacles they would need to address.
In order to address the lack of timely and relevant information on how the crisis is impacting people’s lives, the World Bank is supporting frequent social media and phone surveys to monitor the impacts of COVID-19 on households in 40 IDA countries across all developing regions. This includes recent surveys to gauge attitudes across Sub-Saharan Africa on vaccine acceptance, demand, and access to inform operations supporting the global vaccination efforts.

Drawing on evidence and knowledge to inform solutions is in IDA’s DNA. The COVID-19 crisis has heightened the need for knowledge and evidence to tackle new and rapidly changing challenges and continue improving the well-being of those living in the world’s poorest countries. IDA is rising to the occasion, drawing on its people, evaluative evidence, and analytical work to deliver what matters the most: real outcomes.