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El Salvador | Researchers, use your talents

Helga Cuéllar-Marchelli


Five questions with Helga Cuellar-Marcelli, Director of the Department of Social Studies of the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES). Helga participated in the Global Development Network’s program, ‘Strengthening the research capacity of small countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to promote better informed policy making,’ supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).  

Q. When did the Covid-19 pandemic begin to impact El Salvador?

​It started on March 11, when the education systems closed and the country did not allow foreigners of certain countries to enter. On March 18, the first positive COVID-19 case was announced, the airport closed operations; and, since March 21, we have been under mandatory domestic quarantine. Only essential services continue working under strict sanitary measures. The economy is halted, employments are at ristk as well as family income. Education inequalities may deepen due to the sanitary emergency.

Q. What are some of the biggest issues thrown up by the pandemic?

There are many. There is the limited capacity of health system (UCI beds, ventilators, personnel to work at UCI, protection equipment, testing).  70% of people work in the informal sector.  Due to domestic quarantine, they are unable to work and earn money to pay for food, and other essential services. There is food insecurity for many households. Small and Medium businesses are at risk, many are unable to maintain employment and pay for loans. Learning inequalities may deepen due to low access to the internet for the poor, in rural areas and lower grades of schooling (below high school). Not least, democracy is under threat due to centralization of power. 

Q. What are the short term and long term ways in which the pandemic has impacted your work, and the work of other researchers?

In the short term, researchers are being forced to do rapid analysis to make public policy proposals that address current challenges. They must also adjust to home offices, which usually mean longer hours of work than before the crisis. They have limited access to official information and data, and rely more on online or phone-call surveys than on in-person questionnaires. Team work is also now on-line, which poses different challenges such as connectivity, organization, trust, etc.

Over the long term, this will mean redefining ways to organize work, conduct research and finding new lines of research, new research methods. This will mean taking advantage of new paths for international collaboration and research, and, funding opportunities.

Q. What is the role of social science research in finding out more about the pandemic? 

The pandemic is changing our way of living in different aspects of life. Social science could help us to understand the impact on social cohesion, education, work, the way of doing business, etc. It can also help us identify new developments and opportunities for humanity to foster sustainable development and resilience in different contexts.

Q. What is your message of solidarity for other researchers?  

Overcome your own anxieties and fear. Take on new challenges. Every crisis has opportunities. Please use your talents to generate the knowledge that is needed to understand better how the world has changed, solve current problems, contribute to public policy making, and inform public debate. You are not alone, you are part of a community of researchers. Do your best, do it now.

  • Helga participated in a multi-stakeholder event supported by GDN to promote student evaluations as part of a comprehensive evaluation policy for education. Watch her explain student evaluations here.
  • Watch Helga and fellow researchers talking about how to build a strong research agenda and connecting with other researchers in this film.

In correspondence with Madhuri Dass Woudenberg, Head of Communications at the Global Development Network.