The coronavirus pandemic has changed us, impacting almost every area of our lives. Our organization and the way that we work are no exceptions. Building the knowledge of agents of change and creating networks of reform-minded individuals is one of the linchpins of NRGI’s work. In a world of pandemic-related restrictions, NRGI faced a major challenge: how to continue developing capacities, strengthen alliances and promote new agendas without in-person activities?
Over the last two years, we have adapted our work in different ways depending on the objective of the project, the context and our audience. We have learned that there is no magic formula for online convenings. But, despite this, NRGI has come a long way in designing and implementing interventions to continue influencing in a virtual environment. We want to share some of these lessons, based on NRGI’s different projects around the world, with partners and friends. Although there is no ideal formula, certain elements are more likely to lead to successful results.
In terms of NRGI activities at global level, in 2020 we moved our advanced course fully online. Together with our partners ETH Zurich, we redefined each module’s learning objectives, keeping our audience’s constraints in mind. A multi-stakeholder group of 46 participants from more than 20 countries joined the preparatory and immersive phases of the course. We used a range of learning tools to maximize their experience: a mixture of live and recorded sessions, reading material and existing videos from our Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), quick and interactive live presentations using different tools to stimulate participation, Q and A sessions with experts, office hours with faculty and coffee breaks.
During the course, we encouraged feedback from participants to adjust how we delivered the course accordingly. Based on this feedback using a survey and focus groups, we realized some of them were struggling to balance personal and professional commitments. We explored different options in response and devised new ways to support their learning. We agreed on new deadlines, reduced the number of assessments, helped participants to coordinate their group work and adjusted the schedule of the live phase of the course.
In the different regions where NRGI works, we successfully redesigned many of our projects. In Francophone Africa, a three-day in-person training on monitoring contractual and legal obligations of mining projects at the community level in Côte d’Ivoire was turned into seven half-day activities.
New resources were produced to enhance the learning experience of the participants and civil society members from Burkina Faso, DRC and Guinea were invited to experience-sharing activities. NRGI’s West Africa Regional Manager (Francophone) Hervé Lado, explained: “We had to seek ways to be more innovative as we had to shift our events online. The initial field visit was replaced by interactive online events with presentations by Ivoirian participants, followed by plenary discussions. Participants also found ways to make their presentations more dynamic, for example by using photos.”
In Guinea, to facilitate the review of PWYP Guinea’s code of conduct and the renewal of their representatives within EITI multistakeholder group (MSG), NRGI held around ten online sessions between May and September with Guinean civil society organizations (CSOs). This process, at the request of our partner PWYP Guinea, resulted in the renewal of the CSOs’ code of conduct and their constituency within EITI MSG. This laid the foundation a three-year agenda for CSOs to support reforms and an action plan for 2021.
In Ghana, the “National dialogue on extractive policy” event was successfully organized online with partners from GHEITI, Africa Center for Energy Policy and the Public Interest Accountability Committee. The two-day event attracted relevant government agencies and CSOs, who were fully engaged. “Devising different channels to interact with stakeholders about their interests was key in the design of an agenda that was relevant and aligned with participants’ priorities,” reflected Nafi Chinery, NRGI’s West Africa Regional Manager (Anglophone). As with our in-person events, prior to the event, the concept note, agenda and presentations were shared with attendees to foster participation and interaction. Upholding best practice—online or in-person—to ensure participants’ engagement is important. Overall, NRGI’s strong partnership with key organizations in the country was essential in making the event a success.
In Latin America, NRGI moved its “Critical Minerals in the Andes” project online. This resulted in local partner organizations adapting their research objectives and designing innovative ways to engage with and strengthen local actors’ capacity. As Raúl Velásquez, from CSO Jubileo in Bolivia, put it, “Going virtual allowed us to reach regional stakeholders we hadn’t work with before. We were able to see a high interest in lithium-related issues.” His colleague Sandra Sánchez reflected on how the need to disseminate research differently increased their skills: “Producing the different videos was initially challenging, but we are happy with the outcome, and we now have additional resources to engage with interested actors.”
Informed by research on the supply chain of critical minerals by NRGI and partners, NRGI delivered a series of regional webinars coupled with workshops with CSOs to develop an advocacy agenda. To reach larger audiences, NRGI produced training and advocacy material, including a series of informative videos, an edited book, and a series of infographics, highlighting key points discussed in the webinars. Overall, the combination of local workshops and webinars, as well as the production of capacity development material, helped NRGI achieve newly set learning objectives, despite the restrictions brought on by the pandemic.
During 2020 and 2021, NRGI re-designed and successfully delivered research projects, capacity development interventions, multi-stakeholder dialogue efforts and technical assistance. It is undeniable that adapting NRGI’s work to be impactful virtually presented some challenges. But continuous learning and discussions allowed us to redesign and deliver our work during 2020 and 2021. One project that combines all these aspects underpinning resource governance advocacy is NRGI's flagship 2021 Resource Governance Index. It is a strong example of a smooth adaptation of NRGI’s work to continue influencing decision making from an online setting.
Research by in-country experts was followed by data validation, index calculation and analysis by NRGI staff. NRGI held online multi-stakeholder consultations and, from June 2021 onwards, published the scores and analysis on a rolling basis on the Index website. Depending on the context and the audience, NRGI country teams used either public webinars or closed online meetings with government or other stakeholders to present the results and ensure that RGI findings provide roadmaps for policy reform.
Lessons in adapting to a virtual era
As NRGI navigated the challenges presented by the pandemic, we adapted and found ways to move online and, in the process, learned valuable lessons.
First, we have learned that we need to understand the context and our audience’s capacities and constraints to decide whether the initial project objectives—or a revised version of these—can be delivered if we move online. What knowledge, skills and/or experiences do we expect participants to have by the end of a certain activity? Success in defining objectives that are aligned with the audience’s expectations will be higher if we involve them early and design any intervention based on their input.
Second, we need to align the type of engagement with the objectives of a project. Projects might include different activities, from research to technical assistance or capacity development, so we should approach adaptation holistically, identifying how each of these activities contributes to the objectives in this new context.
Third, for NRGI, partnerships are crucial for success, so we should collaborate when adapting projects. Our partnerships will be strengthened in the process.
Fourth, once objectives and expectations are set, the next step to ensure a successful virtual offering is to carefully select the appropriate platforms, tools and resources. Continued investment in the quality of our digital resources will contribute to innovative and dynamic engagement.
Finally, constant dialogue with partners and stakeholders should be integral to any adaptation to our activities as projects—and activities—evolves.
During 2020 and 2021, the pandemic abruptly forced us to change how we carry out our activities and reach our objectives, often uncertain if we had chosen the right approach. We challenged ourselves to rethink how we engage with our partners and learners, and the scope of our work. We designed innovative online interventions to continue supporting our partners and influence policy decisions. The learning journey is not over for NRGI as we will keep innovating. We might not have come up with the perfect magic formula, but we learned valuable lessons that are already contributing to stronger and more impactful programming.
Margarita Batlle is a senior research, data and learning officer at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).