Jon F. Kapp, Executive Director, Community Systems Foundation, with contributions from:
Seth Davis, Programme Advisor, Community Systems Foundation
Shahrouh Sharif, Advisor: Data Analytics and Health System Strengthening, Community Systems Foundation
Menna El Shiati, Advisor - Gender & FGM, Community Systems Foundation
The global pandemic has created unprecedented challenges in the international development sector. Many countries now face greater risks than ever in the realization of sustainable development goals by 2030. A more immediate challenge in development programming have been the limitations in direct face-to-face interaction with project counterparts and stakeholders at key moments of implementation. This includes project initiation meetings, requirements gathering sessions, direct technical assistance and capacity development activities.
Considering these activities are vital to the success and ultimate sustainability of development programmes, Community Systems Foundation (CSF) programme staff moved forward with caution as the world moved into and through stages of closure, lockdown and budding returns to normalcy.
A year ago, at the onset of the pandemic, like so many others, CSF project teams grappled with questions related to approach. It was not initially clear if work would continue. And, later when it did, the teams debated approaches to remain effective from a distance and ensure national buy-in, ownership and skills retention. But out of necessity, comes innovation, and like many, CSF was able to harness technology and new strategies to continue to deliver its programming.
Since the onset of the pandemic, CSF staff went home and then went online and made an almost-miraculous shift to virtual engagement. Software development teams continued with agile approaches to development. Project managers found quiet corners to meet with counterparts from afar, and CSF trainers shifted to conduct remote training sessions with success. CSF programming continued in the fields of education, gender, health, strategic planning and emergency coordination. By adapting to the challenges presented by working remotely, CSF has learned critical lessons on how to modify work plans and training sessions. Here are several examples of a virtual year at CSF:
EQUIST Kyrgyzstan (October 2020)
Trainees: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (GMT+6)
CSF Resources: Scarsdale, New York, USA (GMT-5), New Delhi, India (GMT+5:30)
In the recent application of EQUIST capacity building training, and a Bottleneck Analysis workshop in Kyrgyzstan, there were several lessons learned from the virtual, distance based format. There was much success in the remote-base workshops and several challenges that were present during the workshops. The Zoom platform provided built-in functionality for simultaneous interpretation services. As the majority of the participants were fluent in Russian, the UNICEF counterpart provided several translators who utilised Zoom’s language audio channels to provide clear simultaneous two way translation services between English to Russian. Further, the remote workshop provided an opportunity for more immediate engagement, as each participant followed the presentation and subsequent hands on exercises on their own screens. While a typical CSF workshop cap participation at 20, the virtual sessions with Kyrgyzstan accommodate over 60 participants with no discernable limitations due to connectivity.
Despite the successes of the remote based workshops, there were challenges. Significant time differences meant late night sessions for our US-based trainers. Though slightly sleep deprived, the training did not suffer. Another such challenge was group work, where facilitators were limited in their view of the process and results of all participants at once, as could be done during an in-person workshop. This led to a single group member per group sharing their screen while others followed along. Because of this, ascertaining learning objectives of each individual participant was a challenge. However, the breakout rooms proved to be useful for valuable group interactions and rich discussions which allowed for sharing of ideas and collaboration on scenario-building and knowledge sharing.
Jamaica External Support Coordination Platform (July 2020)
Project Counterparts: Kingston, Jamaica (GMT-6)
CSF Resources: New York, New York, USA (GMT-5), New Delhi, India (GMT+5:30)
Working virtually with stakeholders in Jamaica, CSF, with support from UNDP, delivered a national platform to coordinate all emergency needs in the country and to understand where gaps exist. Without time or option for face-to-face discussions, CSF resources in Delhi India and New York, USA, worked daily with national stakeholders to quickly design, iterate and develop an online platform.
The C To ensure that government counterparts were able to sustainably use the platform to identify, organize and prioritize agencies that require assistance, CSF conducted five remote trainings sessions on topics like: building an online M&E plan, creating users, managing fields inside of data gathering forms, and publishing data to custom reports and a monitoring dashboard. Unlike a typical block training held in succession, these sessions were held over a period of three weeks and for two hours per session. This schedule created an opportunity for project stakeholders to absorb the content and refine their skills through on-the-job practice.
FGM Joint Programme (April-May 2020)
Project Counterparts: across 16 countries in the Middle East and Africa
CSF Resources: New York, New York, USA (GMT-5), Cairo, Egypt (GMT+2), New Delhi, India (GMT+5:30)
In continuation of multi-year support towards strengthened monitoring, reporting, and data dissemination for the Joint Programme (JP) on FGM, CSF provided virtual trainings for all regional and country teams. Over a period of two weeks in April and May, CSF conducted a total of 9 virtual training sessions to strengthen the capacity of FGM focal points (FPs) at UNFPA and UNICEF on the use of DFA Monitoring to monitor and report on the Phase III of the JP. The virtual trainings were conducted in English and French, and provided a unique opportunity for interaction between members of 16 country teams under the joint programme. Each training session lasted between 3 to 4 hours.
Project Counterparts: various countries in the Caribbean, Pacific, Middle East, Southern Africa and South Asia
CSF Resources: Belize City, Belize (GMT-6), Paris, France (GMT+1), New Delhi, India (GMT+5:30), Singapore (GMT+8)
In another instance of necessity inspiring innovation, CSF resources and their project counterparts, braved time differences and worked flexibility and creatively to ensure OpenEMIS project activities continued as planned through the pandemic. This allowed CSF experts to reach far around the world to provide assistance without the overhead costs of travel. In very practical ways, the pandemic forced/allowed CSF resources in the Caribbean to share potentially common experiences as small island nations with project counterparts in the Pacific. And although there was less time and space separating them (a sea rather than an ocean), our team in Singapore joined an active group in Sri Lanka in a full capacity building on the use of OpenEMIS for pre-school education. Virtual training led to the awarding of virtual certificates and the satisfaction of accomplishment shared from a distance.
2020 proved once again that humans are resilient and when given the opportunity, will more often than not, will rise to the occasion. With immense admiration, I note that despite great loss, family separation, fear and uncertainty, our team remained true to the ethos of the organization, striving to deliver the best possible results for projects world wide. It is with equal admiration that I note that our partners did the same. And while we will long for the way the world was, at the same time, we are already envisioning what the world will become and how we can make our way as an organization through it. Certainly, our project teams will be once more together again, working hand and hand to deliver results. But we will also consider alternatives to reduce cost, limit our environmental footprint and improve sustainability. This will include programming blended learning opportunities - virtual training, reinforcing face to face technical assistance and learning. Our trainers will programme more focused interventions and rely on practical exercises to solidify skills, all the while ensuring our counterparts have the information they need when they need it.