On the road again….
When COVID-19 led to the world shutting down, the regular work travel of most FCG Finnish Consulting Group staff to developing countries ground to a halt.
During 2019, for instance, my work travel included: Ukraine, The Philippines, Peru, El Salvador, Nepal (several trips for two long term projects funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland), and Rome many times (for work at the HQ of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD).
Some of our international and Finnish staff continued in long term FCG projects, or returned to their posts after a break (for instance, in Tanzania, Nepal and Ukraine). We shared a story about this in April 2020. Most of the local team members continued in their work, albeit at times with lockdowns at home or in their post. But most short-term assignments and backstopping trips were too difficult, with quarantines and travel bans (particularly difficult for our staff in New Zealand, Australian and the Pacific, with extremely constrained travel).
For 19-20 months most of us have relied on Teams and Zoom, as well as emails and phone calls, to keep activities rolling. Luckily for the long-term projects, the established relationships between team members made it easier to work, even at a distance. For instance, I have worked with our team in Nepal for 11 years and we have a good working relationship. We have been able to introduce distanc working methods also to our local government partners and bring participants from more remote communities into workshops (who would earlier have missed out).
However, the gap in development cooperation work remains - reaching local communities with poor internet connections or working from home in new locations where those pre-existing relationships with team members and stakeholders don’t exist. For instance, when I worked ‘in’ Central Asia carrying out an evaluation during the last year it was much more difficult to gather information and assess results without talking with local community members directly. Earlier, in planning or evaluation assignments, we would meet face to face. We could see the physical infrastructure, difficulties with access to remote locations, what is being sold in the markets and who was buying. This is particularly important for more sensitive issues such as when discussing gender equality in the workplace, or talking with school girls informally about their problems attending school, where building a relationship and reading non-verbal cues are important.
Instead, during COVID-19, international team members from around the world have had to rely on the interview notes and photos from our local team members, with debriefs afterwards online. Online team interviews or meetings have involved people in a wide range of time zones, and varying wifi access. We also miss out on the discussions that typically take place in the car when travelling for hours to a community, or in the evening over a meal when staying in the field - informal but hugely valuable for gathering background that doesn’t come out in a formal meeting. We international team members are totally reliant on the local consultants, but they also have often complained about the absence of the international team members. For instance, it is often easier for a foreigner to ask a difficult question to a local official than for a local; or to follow up on lines of discussion that weren’t anticipated, using experiences from other countries.
So, it was with great joy that I was able to travel again to Nepal in November, as Home Office Coordinator of the Rural Village Water Resources Management Project. The numbers of cases in both Nepal and Finland were under control at that point; and I was vaccinated, as was the team and most communities we visited (sadly the latest Omicron variant wave is now freezing travel again). It was great to renew relationships in person with team members and local government staff, and travel to remote locations. Long car rides, early morning walks, and discussions over meals gave the chance to celebrate inaugurations with many communities, catch up on the challenges, and find shared solutions. This will result in better project implementation by everyone.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has shown many people that we don’t need to travel so much - especially bearing in mind the climate impacts. We have already been able to decrease the need to send documents and tenders via couriers around the world, as financiers are moving to accept electronic submissions. It is unlikely that there will be so many in-person workshops or conferences any more.
We need to adjust to the ‘new normal’ and find new, and potentially better, ways to work. However, personally and work-wise, I found it very rewarding to have the opportunity during a gap in the COVID waves, to visit my colleagues and friends in Nepal again. FCG will keep trying to find the balance between limiting unnecessary travel, and carrying out relationship-building and in-person work where possible.