COVID-19 and digital humanitarian action: Virtual vs in-person training

This blog post is the final in a series exploring COVID-19 and its impact on digital humanitarian action. More findings related to current trends, risks and the path forward can be found in our report.

Since August 2019, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been a part of our GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian (M4H) Innovation Fund portfolio. Round two of the Fund focused on supporting organisations to enable solutions to empower, assist or protect individuals and communities affected by complex emergencies and forced displacement.

The IRC supports families from Northern Central America to face the humanitarian crisis created by high levels of violence, internal displacement, natural disasters, economic impoverishment, and other human rights deprivation. In the region, the IRC aims to support displaced refugee populations and victims of violence by harnessing digital tools, including mobile applications, to gather and share reliable information to support critical decision-making. The IRC project that has been supported by the M4H Innovation Fund focuses in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, giving people at risk the voice to ask questions and the resources to have them answered at the moment they need it. The IRC has also received additional targeted funding to support the adaptation of their existing project to respond to COVID-19 and address the impact that it is had on the Northern Central America region.

The M4H Innovation Fund has strengthened the implementation of CuéntaNos, which is a digital platform with a protection approach aiming to provide trustworthy, up-to-date information about services, using geo-referenced location which allow people to access the nearest service available. This is relevant information for people on the move, groups which includes those internally displaced by violence, in transit, at risk for migration, returned migrants and refugees. It also provides essential psychological support for those suffering the crisis’s impact, giving them the chance to be heard to reinforce their resilience, giving them tools to respond to the situation, and connecting them with the services they need. So far this interaction though the platform has allowed IRC to support with timely manner information to over 100,000 users across the three countries.

They were recently featured in our report highlighting how COVID-19 has affected digital humanitarian action. To find out more about how the project has adapted and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, I recently spoke to Katie Susman from the IRC. Katie is the Deputy Director of Programs at the IRC in Northern Central America. She is leading a multidisciplinary team to be trained and ready to respond to humanitarian crises that arise in the region, helping people overcome risk and recover control over their lives.

Can you explain the original objective of the IRC’s M4H funded project in El Salvador and Honduras?

Katie: The original project was aimed to strengthen and expand the CuéntaNos digital platform in El Salvador and Honduras. With the support from M4H, we were expanding into a more robust map of service providers to link people at risk or in vulnerable conditions to information and services. The project would allow increasing the offer of services to populations at risk, with differential services to women, girls, and the LGBTI population, taking into account that more than 60% of our users are represented by these groups. The original objective also included an element of “knowing our population and their information needs”, with focus groups at community levels to improve the services, the potential establishment of free internet points in different geographical places, and conduct monitoring and follow-up surveys to focal points. Finally, the original project included direct services that are included under safe spaces at the local level, in coordination with partners in both of the countries El Salvador and Honduras, so that populations at risk had safe spaces where they could be connected to or receive services directly, build a support network of people like them and mitigate the risk of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). Ultimately this was to equip those most at risk of GBV with the ability to collectively build resilience within themselves and their community.

How has COVID-19 impacted the delivery of this project? What adaptations to your project have you have had to make?

Katie: Due to the pandemic, it was necessary to adapt some activities to continue carrying them out virtually. The IRC team began to telecommute from home and stay under strict quarantine. The situation required adapting the project approach to continue being relevant for the population needs and respond in the middle of the new crisis. While the adverse health and economic impacts of COVID-19 were well known, a hidden pandemic was growing alongside the coronavirus outbreak. There was a dramatic increase in the rates of gender-based violence (GBV) registered by local organizations for up to 70%. This phenomenon was seen worldwide combined with the reduction in services due to lockdown measures. People were in desperate need of information about how to access health services and mental health support. 

Due to the emergency, it was necessary to prepare responsive information on topics related to COVID-19, such as government measures, response services, and mental health options, among others.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the reach of new users seeking services through CuéntaNos and its two way messaging services by 526%, going from a regular number of 1,000 monthly users up to over 13,000 users in the month of September 2020. The safe spaces component was mainly transformed into virtual training and implementation so that the partners in the front line had the ability to implement virtual emotional support groups that let us reach so far over 400 users through local organisations. We have maintained our LGBTQI physical safe space in El Salvador and they have served over 100 people in the past few months.

How have you conducted these virtual trainings? 

Katie: A survey was conducted with our partners which allowed us to adapt the training process into a fully virtual mode, responding to the crisis in the pandemic context. The IRC proposed to GSMA to hold Emotional Support Groups virtually, to provide technical skills and tools to the partners on the front line giving services to marginalised populations. 

The team carried out virtual training using digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom on such issues as safe spaces methodology, psychological first aid, stress management, approach to grieving processes, and other necessary topics in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The training consisted of a total of 12 hours, divided into three 4-hour sessions. The sessions were simultaneous in the three countries with participants from partners from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, which enriched the discussion with diverse ideas, approaches, and contexts. It also allowed all the organisations to build a knowledge network to share lessons learned and expertise in specific areas, something that would have been more difficult to achieve in the face-to-face mode.

What were the biggest benefits of offering virtual training? 

Katie: The benefits of doing the training virtually were substantial. Virtuality allowed reaching a greater number of participants on each day and from each country, both in training and implementation. Also, it eliminated mobility barriers, allowing partners from three different countries to participate, which enriched the debate with other cultures, approaches, ideas, and contexts. This cross-border discussion promoted a better understanding of the common challenges facing Northern Central America. Finally, doing the virtual training prevented the contagion and spread of COVID-19 among the participants and modelled ways that the partners could potentially start doing virtual implementation of program activities.

What were the biggest challenges you faced with virtual training?

Katie: One of the main challenges for the virtual training was adequate access to technology for the participants, such as stable internet connection or laptops. To overcome these limitations, the team shared the educational material with the participants in advance and in more accessible formats, such as PowerPoint presentations, links with videos, and email. At the end of the training, the IRC shared a methodological guide and facilitator’s manual to all participants that could work as a replication process for them to share with more staff within the organisation or to expand into other local service providers to extend the response range for them to implement directly.

What was the response from the recipients of the virtual training?

Katie: The response from the partners was highly positive. They had an urgency to be relevant and respond in the right way in an unknown context. They attended each day with great motivation and commitment, willing to learn and actively participate. The feedback and comments received were constructive and reflected the effectiveness of the process. The objectives were accomplished beyond expectations because this represented something new to everybody. They expressed that the training answered their organisations’ needs, providing them with updated tools and knowledge on how to respond to crises and the needs of populations at risk and in vulnerable situations. They also expressed that it was very valuable to know the context of other countries and listen to other organisations’ experiences to overcome challenges.

Will the IRC continue to offer virtual training over in-person training?

Katie: Virtual training offers several benefits, so the IRC expects to continue with virtual trainings when it is relevant and including in-person training when possible. With this project, the IRC was forced to invest in virtual tools to continue providing workshops of this nature, elements that are here to stay and build more and better experiences from there, tools such as Zoom and Teams, as well as participant engagement techniques that we will continue to use. Also, the teams have enriched their capacities in this area. Each staff member was provided with tools for the virtual work and training, such as headphones and laptops. This modality allows to reach more participants, so it is possible to have a multiplier effect on the project’s objective. I foresee us using virtual training beyond this project and well into the (non-pandemic) future.

What would be your advice to other humanitarian organizations trying to transition from in-person training to virtual training?

Katie: It is essential to consider and invest in virtual support materials for the staff and be innovative and flexible regarding group activities and methodologies to attract participants’ attention. Prior to doing the virtual trainings we did a survey with each partner to assess usability, accessibility and the best days/times/methods. This informed us as to what would work for them. Assessing needs and weaknesses can help to strengthen the virtual training development area. It is suggested to ask each partner what their two most effective communication channels are (i.e. WhatsApp, Teams, Email) to send official communications of requirements for the workshops. The content must be dynamic and include relevant readings, videos, or interactive tools to really engage with participant and create that environment of shared experiences, as you would do in person. I am confident that the pandemic has catapulted us into a future where the norm will become virtual trainings and learning spaces; do they replace physical training spaces? No, but combined, they will be a powerful force to engage more people in learning and equally provide the space for real-life application in the field.

The M4H-IRC project is in its final stages, and we look forward to sharing more lessons from the project in the near future. To read more about how the M4H-IRC project and other grantees adapted their programmed in the COVID-19 pandemic, check out our report. Finally, at GSMA Thrive Latin America we also held a session with the IRC and the UNHCR discussing displacement and connectivity in Latin America, as well as broader issues in the region, which is available to watch on demand.