Remote, Innovative, and Meaningful: Facilitating Stakeholder Engagement During COVID-19
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Bringing together diverse stakeholders is never simple, and doing so during a global public health crisis presents additional challenges. However, the USAID-funded Economics of Natural Capital in East Africa project (Natural Capital) has been identifying creative and adaptive approaches to solve such complex problems.
The project is tasked with documenting and elevating the current and perceived value of natural capital to strengthen management of four conservation landscapes in East Africa. Natural capital includes the resources and services that nature provides, from forests and fish to carbon storage. Project staff are working with partners to assess the value of these landscapes, which span international boundaries across six countries, and to help stakeholders at the community, national, and regional level use the project’s findings to inform management and policy decisions.
STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT—AT A DISTANCE
Since late August 2020, the Natural Capital team has used innovative approaches to host and facilitate five virtual stakeholder engagement sessions, reaching more than 200 participants from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. With the goal of informing the project’s communications plan, the sessions were designed to better understand:
1. Stakeholder perceptions of ecosystem services in each landscape and threats to those services;
2. Important policymakers and implementers to engage in landscape protection;
3. And, best practices for communicating with various stakeholders.
Project staff and the East African Community (EAC) secretariat initially developed a meeting strategy to ensure participants could actively participate in these virtual environments, relying as well on commitment from project coordinators across all six countries. The strategy included: procuring internet bundles for participants in remote areas; employing World Café-style breakouts; providing translation services; and encouraging participants to treat the process as their own and share contextual knowledge.
USING FEEDBACK TO INFORM COMMUNICATION
Altogether, key takeaways from the sessions, summarized in workshop reports, included:
1. Stakeholders are looking for inclusive management coordination with authorities;
2. Messaging must be targeted and include translations that resonate with the various actors;
3. And, local communities’ livelihoods must be considered, including providing support for income-generating activities and human well-being goals while facilitating stewardship of capital.
Furthermore, the five workshop reports inform a communications plan that will guide the project’s efforts to effectively connect the value of natural capital and the findings of conservation research with key audiences. The plan includes local and regional dissemination tactics and products for non-governmental organizations, regional governments, community-based organizations, and private sector actors.
As communities continue to cope with the limitations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that virtual facilitation is not a stop-gap solution but, rather, an effective tool to manage long-term engagement. These stakeholder engagement sessions highlight the value of nimble planning, finding commonalities across participants, and making the most of tools to leverage remote engagement.