The Manoff Group: Reimagining Mission Support in the Age of COVID-19

Jul 20 2020

The USAID ACCELERATE Project (2015-2020) provides USAID staff in Missions and the US with guidance on using a focus on behaviors to maximize health and development investments and achieve results. USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance (DRG) Learning Center recently enlisted ACCELERATE to develop a list of priority youth gender-based violence (GBV) prevention behaviors, and a strategy to assist Southern Africa DRG and its implementing partners to use the behaviors to focus their school-based GBV prevention efforts. ACCELERATE’s assistance was to include 40 days of on-site STTA to the DRG team in Pretoria, but COVID-19 travel restrictions beginning in mid-March meant that our US-based staff were no longer able to travel to provide that support.

Instead, the ACCELERATE team worked with USAID to create an alternative collaborative model. Instead of the in-country visits, we are holding a series of virtual meetings, training sessions, and small group working sessions with partners in at least seven cities in South Africa and the US. Initial meetings were held at consistent times and days. As we move to more work in small groups, the number of sessions is increasing, and the days and times vary.

We share screens for presentations, to work on documents together, and to use ACCELERATE’s online tools to conduct analyses and co-create strategic interventions for each of ten priority behaviors.

The approach presents challenges beyond the usual difference in time zones. For example, participants are working from home, which sometimes means intermittent internet access. As a result, we do not use video. But the biggest challenge presented by remote collaboration is managing participation and building rapport with all participants. In an in-person workshop it is easier to identify who has something to say but isn’t saying it and ask them a specific question. Encouraging the use of the chat box—and assigning someone to monitor the chat and raise comments in the discussion—can help alleviate this issue.

The COVID-19 shut down has provided some unexpected benefits as well. For example, our USAID partners have had time to work with the Department of Basic Education to lay the groundwork for implementation without pressure to get into schools quickly, since the schools are closed. The extra time has allowed for more robust analyses, research, and creative iteration.

Our collaboration is already having an impact on our partners and the focus of their program. Within the larger initiative to build capacity of local government and community entities to support GBV victims, ACCELERATE is helping the Mission pinpoint its efforts to prevent GBV attacks. Indicators will measure the uptake of the priority behaviors, and measure changes in key factors, so that we know when and what to adapt to reach the ultimate goal of reducing GBV. The project will track behavioral outcome and factor-level data in ACCELERATE’s online dashboard.

Best practices gained from this experience include:

  • Keep a list of participants, their organization, and their role handy in the first few meetings to know who to call on if silent, and what kinds of things to ask;
  • Introduce yourself and have participants introduce themselves via email before starting. We mixed work (position, experience, affiliation) with personal (e.g., something you like or like to do, how people see you);
  • Use lots of visuals. Great visuals go a long way, just as they do in person;
  • Assign a chat box manager to voice what participants are writing;
  • Ensure participants can see what you are sharing onscreen and use as much of your screen as possible. What looks great on a small section of a 27-inch monitor is barely visible on a smartphone or tablet;
  • Share visuals in advance, especially if any participants will participate by phone or tablet;
  • Use both a facilitator and a note-taker. The conversation is less stilted if the facilitator can focus on facilitating;
  • Meet briefly with your team after each session, as you would at the end of an in-person workshop;
  • Sign in early and make sure technology is functioning;
  • Meet at a regular day and time so participants know that window is taken every week and can schedule around them;
  • During the virtual session, have an offline means of communicating between facilitators and note taker (we use Skype Chat);
  • Using positive reinforcement is even more important in virtual sessions, as participants cannot read your facial expressions or body language;
  • Give participants enough time to ponder and un-mute; and
  • Mention next steps at the end and follow up via email with session outcomes, next steps, etc.