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FEATURE: Reflections from a year of online engagements in Latin America

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many business operations online, which would otherwise have been face to face. This has arguably been good for reducing greenhouse gas emissions – but how has the ‘switch to digital’ otherwise affected climate action? CDKN’s Latin America team takes a deep dive into the issues. Reporting by Lucia Scodanibbio.

“Close to one year into this new online reality, one can conclude that there are real differences between online and in-person meetings, not necessarily that one is bad and one is good, but that they have different benefits and shortcomings. We have to adapt to the new reality,” says Gabriela Villamarin of Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano and the Coordinator of CDKN’s Latin America programme.

Face-to-face meetings provide a space for more personal interactions, deeper exchange of ideas and experiences. People can get to know other individuals and organisations to widen their networks – and possibly connect again in future.

The informal lunch and coffee break exchanges cannot be recreated in a virtual space. Yet, online platforms allow larger numbers of people to take part; they reduce the carbon footprint, monetary costs and time associated with travelling; and connect people from different countries and continents at the click of a button. As with in-person meetings, however, what can be achieved in large versus small meetings differs, and is tied to the objectives and format of a session.

Here we explore some experiences and lessons learned by CDKN’s Latin American team and partners related to organising and running online engagements with varied objectives in the past year.

Lessons from a large-scale online course on communicating climate change

Between May and June 2020, CDKN Latin America delivered seven weekly online modules to an average of 500 participants from 28 countries across Latin America, on different tools and approaches for communicating climate change to different audiences. “With such a large group of participants, interactions in the live sessions had to be kept to a minimum with a webinar format (using the GoToMeeting platform). It only allowed engagement through the chat function,” explains Maria Jose Pacha, CDKN’s Knowledge and Networks Coordinator for Latin American and the Caribbean.

A large organising team was required to (i) facilitate, (ii) screen share, (iii) provide technical support for audio and video, and (iv) moderate and prioritise chat interventions, according to how relevant to the topic they were. Given the frenetic activity in the chat, only a few questions could be answered live. The others were responded to offline, through the accompanying platform (TalentLMS) that supported learners with materials, course recordings and assignments. A forum on the platform also enabled participants to interact with each other.

To incentivise participation, a certificate of completion was awarded to those who took part in 80% of the sessions (either live or through the recordings – which could be monitored) and responded correctly to 70% of the multiple-choice questions asked in each session. More importantly, a seed fund of US$ 2,000 was made available to five participants (out of one hundred applicants) to implement a climate communications strategy in their work areas, applying the learnings from the course.

“Reaching such a large number of learners, across a broad range of sectors and geographies, at low cost and with zero emissions, showed us that a change in paradigm is possible,” concludes Ms Pacha.

Online engagements to promote peer learning on national adaptation planning

To promote learning across six Latin American countries on different aspects of national adaptation planning, the CDKN team organised three knowledge exchange sessions in mid-2020. “We learned as much as participants did!” says Gabriela Villamarin.

In the first session, 22 national delegates joined. This group size was not optimal for facilitating peer learning, however. For the second session a limit of two delegates per country meant only 12 representatives participated. This was necessary to maximise interaction among participants.

In a similar vein, the agenda was simplified after the first session; the team realised that even a simple ice-breaking question (e.g. “which animal do you identify with”) can take much longer to answer than in person.

The content of the sessions ranged across: monitoring and evaluation, vertical integration and climate risk assessments. To explore these topics, the team decided after the first session to limit the number of case study presentations and maximise participants’ engagement and interaction through tools such as Mentimeter, and verbal questions and answers.

It was really up to the facilitator, however, to ensure that participation was active, e.g. by prompting attendees to share their experiences. After a while, it became more natural for them to intervene uninvited.

It also became clear that attendees’ participation fluctuates, and was higher when they had an active role in the session, such as when they were formally part of the agenda through a presentation; as well as depending on their level of interest in a topic.

Finally, the participants became aware of each other’s roles and names via the online format. However, it is unlikely that these online peer learning events fostered the type of longer-term relationships that could have formed during the coffee and lunch breaks of an in-person meeting . This points, again, to the limits of online engagement.

Covering thorny topics in online meetings

CDKN’s partners have also learned over the past year that some topics are easier than others to explore online.

Andrea Carrion from FLACSO, the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, shares: “In our online courses, we noticed that interactions around certain topics are more difficult than in person, especially when cameras are off and body language is absent. For example, we have noticed that certain participants have been uneasy or silenced themselves when we discussed different gender ideologies and power relations associated with gender roles”.

Ms Carrion also highlights some issues to be aware of when covering potentially controversial topics. “It is challenging to monitor the chat when one is teaching, as there can be various ongoing parallel conversations, which have at times gotten out of hand as strong views have been voiced there. We also have been more careful about which online content we share during a class, as not everyone has a private space at home. The in-person course provides an academic setting that is not as intrusive as an online session. When the material may be sensitive, we made a note of advice, as we don’t want to leave learners with those images and debates in their homes without adequate framing.”

Overall reflections on one year of online engagements

“We see a definite difference between the online meetings that we attended at the beginning of the pandemic, and what we see now. We have gone from rather chaotic gatherings with no agenda or organisation, which often went over time by one hour or more, to sessions with good time management, formal agendas and much more active participation,” states Andrea Carrion.

As with everything, there have been benefits and shortcomings to this shift to online engagements. On the positive side, the FLACSO team has been able to follow projects more closely overall: instead of visiting them once a year on a three-day field visit, they are providing regular support and evaluating progress thanks to widely used and accepted platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom, MS Teams and others.

On the negative side, not everyone was prepared to work from their homes. Adequate computer hardware and software to enable complex work are not always there. Home internet connections have not always been strong enough to support multiple workers and children going through home-schooling, nor did everyone have adequate desks and chairs that supported healthy, comfortable postures and prevented injury.

“At the beginning there was a boom of events, perhaps because of the realisation that it was possible to keep working despite being at home. Now there is a lot more discernment: a realisation that certain meetings are not needed when issues can be resolved by email, and that one can say no to meetings outside of working hours. But it is not easy for everyone. Certain government officials feel an obligation to attend all meetings, as they risk losing their job during this time of economic slowdown”, says Ms Carrion. “Our standards have also become higher in terms of preparation, attendance and participation”. While in-person meetings could be considered successful if ten people participated, now online meeting organisers feel that a 20 or 30-person attendance is rather average.


Image: Maria Jose Pacha of CDKN Latin America – exhibiting material on climate action before the Covid-related lockdown (credit CDKN)

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