August 18, 2020

Adapt or die: When rivers change course

Choluteca Bridge, Honduras
Choluteca Bridge, Honduras

In August 2020, a story went viral about the Choluteca bridge in Honduras. Legend has it that the very well constructed bridge was built in a contract with the Japanese government in 1996.

In 1998, when the bridge was commissioned for use, Honduras was hit by Hurricane Mitch, which caused considerable damage to the nation and its infrastructure. Many bridges were damaged significantly and some were destroyed. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the Choluteca bridge was left in near perfect condition but the roads on either end of the bridge had completely vanished, leaving no visible trace of their prior existence. Even more astonishing was that the river, which is over 100 metres (300 ft) wide at the bridge, had carved itself a new channel during the massive flooding caused by the hurricane. It became known as the Bridge to Nowhere.

It was an event that the competent engineers who built the bridge could never have predicted, and so it goes with natural disasters and global crises.

As we got into the long-anticipated year of 2020, just a few months in, something strange happened. We heard whispers and rumors about a virus that had been reported in China, and most of us assumed it was not anything too serious. We watched the news and slowly, the virus started to take precedence in the reporting. The virus was spreading slowly but surely; single digit cases quickly doubled and tripled by the week as the invisible virus spread around the world. By March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, bringing with it a sense of apocalypse in the air. No one expected it to last as long as it has, and worse still, impact all global trade and travel as much as it has.

The pandemic’s effects are being felt strongly in the Civil Society space, and a report published on June 2020 highlights the Impact of COVID-19 on African Civil Society Organizations. According to the findings,  98% of the CSO’s surveyed reported that COVID-19 had disrupted their operations. Over 69% reported cancelled or reduced operations, with this expected to continue over 3-6 months from the date of the survey.

“CSOs do not expect that their operations will return to “normal”, and there is significant uncertainty about what the future holds.”

Impact of COVID-19 on African CSOs Report

The Open Institute was affected in that a lot of our activities had to be put on hold. As fear and anxiety about the virus and its effects gripped the globe, we decided to safeguard our team and immediately instituted measures to work from home. We halted all travel and community activities and these were underscored by the government’s response, in which President Uhuru Kenyatta instituted strict lockdown protocols that included a national dusk-to-dawn curfew and restricted movement in and out of Nairobi for us. 

We doubled down on our use of technology-based tools such as Asana for project management and Zoom for virtual meetings. We hoped that the pandemic’s spread would be controlled, but as we saw what was happening in other countries, we realised that we needed to prepare to cope and adjust in the short term, and possibly find a long term strategy.

The only constant in life is change

How we are adapting

At the Open Institute, collaboration and teamwork is central to how we work. We brainstorm together, pause at each other’s desks to get a new outlook on a task and work in an open-plan environment that encourages human interaction. Deep personal connections and high interpersonal interaction are core to our way of working as exemplified by the mantra that we inculcate in each other – “be real, be open.”

COVID-19 radically interfered with this way of working – from face-to-face interaction to talking on virtual screens; from daily interaction to phone calls and less frequent online meetings. We would love to say that it has been an easy transition given our technological prowess and propensity for using digital tools, however, it has been a difficult adjustment. There is not much that can replace human interaction and in-person collaboration. We miss seeing each other regularly. We miss our quick working meetings that would produce immediate results – be it a report, a tech product or a wireframe for an app.  

Working from home was an adjustment for most of our team members. Some had to balance between work and home responsibilities, such as homeschooling and other family demands. Others had to grapple with poor internet connection and frequent power blackouts in their homes.

A few issues soon became apparent: we needed to keep track of our work and ensure we delivered on time, and we needed to stay connected as we know that working together in the same space produces greater collaboration. We have made use of technology and an extensive array of productivity tools that are online. We are talking more on our phones, being more vigilant in checking our emails and tracking our projects and tasks better. We made sure that we held bi-weekly Zoom calls to catch up with our team members, and also to update each other on our progress on various tasks. We believe in collective responsibility and we make sure that each of us is empowered to speak to any other person. We facilitated communication by ensuring our team members had enough resources for internet access and communication purposes.

We are starting to come to terms with the idea that  we may not go back to working from the office soon. What this means is we are adjusting to the new normal. We are learning to be effective even though we are more disconnected. We are adapting to having our own deliverables on an individual level that then grow into a collaborative team output. We are learning to work apart. Virtual meetings cannot replace face-to-face interaction, but it’s a good alternative when done well.

What’s more challenging is that COVID-19 has greatly hampered our ability to deliver on our programmes. We deal with two main constituencies in our work to promote responsive governments and active citizenship: national and subnational government officials on the one hand and citizens in villages and wards on the other. Practically speaking, our work involves building deep interpersonal connections with these constituencies and that involves many face to face conversations, shared meals and the old, tried and tested “look-me-in-the-eye” ways of working. 

The thing is, development work is more than just the technical implementation of policies and action plans. It involves a lot of knowledge sharing, political awareness and social astuteness – which are harder to do remotely. We have learnt that often the reasons for, say, the slow uptake of a policy direction have little to do with objections with the policy and more to do with social issues – “I don’t know how this is to be done and I don’t want to look incompetent in front of my colleagues,” or “the governor is worried about how this direction will impact him politically.” These are not issues that can be ventilated on the phone or in a virtual meeting on zoom.

One of the other challenges that we have encountered is that the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic – we don’t know when it will end or what its progression will look like, or indeed its impact on governance and the economy – has made it very difficult to strategise or plan in the long term. We have many nagging questions plaguing our minds. For example, we had only just finished kitting out our expanded office to include our training facilities.  Now that it is becoming clear that we shall not be back physically in the office for a while, should we keep the office or shut it down? How should we remain connected as a team and with our partners? 

Crisis or opportunity?

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded that we step up and strategically strengthen our response to the pandemic – as much within our mission as we could. We quickly marshalled our resources and started conversations with the government and other civil society organisations. We wanted to know how we could be helpful with the situation – at the time too many things were unknown. 

Quickly, it was agreed that we needed to support CSOs and the government to develop tools that could support their work, such as Nuru, a community monitoring app that can be used by government and CSOs to track the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 responses. 

Even in a crisis, there is always an opportunity. We got down to work and figured out ways to maximise on the opportunities brought about by the virus. We asked ourselves two questions:

  1. How could we respond to the crisis? 
  2. What solutions could we offer?

In light of this, we envisioned Nuru as a dual-purpose tool: to enable citizens to report their situations and to inspire the government and various stakeholders to have eyes on the ground and take appropriate action. We wanted to be at the forefront of offering solutions given that the  main work of civil society organisations is to advocate for various developmental and humanitarian solutions by partnering with governments for their citizens. 

As we have continued to engage with other organisations who are grappling with similar issues as we are, we have realised that through our quick adaptation, we now have good internal capacity to use online tools particularly in the area of video conferencing and webinar management. Various organisations have approached us for support in the technical management of online conferences. 

We partnered with the United Nations Development Account, under UNEP, to hold a virtual webinar on a project focusing on urban mobility in Africa. The discussions which involved a wide array of voices from around the globe were focused on synergizing efforts, learning from one another and maximizing the impact of future measures and interventions in transport to ensure safe, fair and resilient systems and infrastructure in Africa. In addition, the issue of data governance particularly during COVID-19 is a pressing issue. We partnered with DataReady, a UK-based organisation to hold a discussion on how data will be governed during and post-pandemic, focusing on issues of data privacy, the policy and operational steps that needed to be considered during COVID-19 response and how temporary and intrusive uses of people’s data would eventually be wound-down. (Event summary available here)

Internally, various members of our team have hosted webinars on different topics featuring mental health during COVID-19, love relationships and menstrual health, which turned out to be a great success.

What we are learning

Be ahead of the game

We were able to adapt quickly and observe the global trends to predict what would happen in our country and our industry. Everyone has been affected, but we are fortunate to have had ways to adapt and adjust to the new changes.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Despite the reality of remote working, collaboration is still important. Shared views and ideas lead to a better result. We are working to ensure we stay connected as a team so that we can work together to deliver the best results in our signature fashion. 

How much do we really control?

If anyone would have predicted 2020, we would have laughed at them all the way home, yet here we are. We have had to take stock and ask ourselves some difficult questions: 

  1. Are we adaptable?
  2. Are the systems we are putting in place transferable and relevant in these changing times?
  3. How do we plan for contingencies without being afraid to set goals for 3, 5 or 10  years ahead?
  4. Will our skills be relevant in five years’ time? 
  5. Are we keeping abreast with our industry and the changes that are coming? 

These and others are tough questions we all must ask ourselves as we prepare to live in new times. We see this as the great lesson for the 21st century – adapt. 

We do not want to build a bridge so long-lasting and perfectly rigid that it does not move even when storms come and rivers change course; a bridge to nowhere.

We want to be ready to change; to allow for the unpredictable to happen without it ending us and our organization’s life as we know it.

In 2020 and beyond, through the irreversible changes that will come, we must adapt – or die.

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