By Riccardo Biancalani, Lucie Chocholata, and Virginie Gillet

The COVID-19 pandemic has heavily affected modalities of delivery of capacity-development activities around the world. Like many other organizations, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) had to quickly adapt face-to-face training contents to the online environment. Some critical components of capacity-development activities needed to be carefully evaluated in order to identify the right format, volume, and overall feasibility of delivery considering the fact that learning would be conducted virtually and across various time zones.

FAO is the custodian UN agency for 21 SDG indicators and a contributing agency for a further five. In this capacity, FAO is supporting countries’ efforts in monitoring progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. FAO’s Land and Water Division is leading the work related to indicators 6.4.1 (Change in water use efficiency over time) and 6.4.2 (Level of water stress), using the AQUASTAT database for data collection and management.

One project, ‘Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6 – IMI-SDG6,’ carried out by FAO, along with other UN agencies, and coordinated by UN-Water. Together with data collection and reporting, its main objective at this stage is to support countries to increase their technical and institutional capacity for the monitoring of the indicators related to Goal 6 targets (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all).

In the pre-COVID-19 era, face-to-face regional and national workshops and trainings represented the key modality for the delivery of capacity-development support under the project, due to the high level of interactivity, the possibility of direct exchange of experience and knowledge, as well as the networking potential among participants. Distant learning tools were then used to complement face-to-face interaction and to offer support in situations when a physical meeting was not possible. In most cases however, distance learning tools were used to target single individuals or small groups of participants.

The global pandemic, which caused the cancellation of scheduled face-to-face activities, served as a catalyst, stimulating and accelerating a global shift towards an effective and robust distance learning highway. What made this possible is not only organizational adaptation to the new conditions but also the ability and willingness of the audiences worldwide to take advantage of distance learning tools, overcoming their limitations.

At FAO, we had to change our mindset, and design and implement online capacity-development activities having such a level of scale and degree of interactivity as to be able to continue supporting countries’ SDG monitoring efforts. As a result, in June and July 2020, we organized two five-week regional interactive online courses on monitoring SDG indicators on sustainable water use: one, in Spanish, for Latin American countries and the other, in English, for countries in South and South-East Asia. More than 200 water monitoring and management professionals and statisticians from 33 countries participated in the courses, offering positive feedback on the module.

The courses consisted of five sessions, each lasting 100 minutes. The sessions included presentations by FAO staff, complemented by videos, polls, and question-and-answer exercises using the chat box of the teleconference platform. Each session concluded by highlighting recommended readings and exercises in preparation for the following session.

This delivery modality enabled us to reach many more relevant country staff than through in-person workshops, and strengthened the interaction within country teams as most of the exercises had been designed as country group work. We also noted significantly higher follow-up interaction between the participants and the FAO team than with face-to-face activities, most likely due to the fact that the courses had been conceived as online modules from the outset.

This experience has revealed that it is crucial to rethink the nature of capacity-development interventions, both from the side of the provider and the recipient. While face-to-face capacity-building activities remain an important element for IMI-SDG6 project, and will resume as soon as possible, interactive online courses have proven to be not just an emergency substitute but also an excellent complementary modality for capacity-development products’ delivery. The two modalities can be used to deliver different kinds of support: in-person activities are crucial in establishing relationships and in facilitating exchange of experience, while remote learning can be effective for addressing more technical subjects and for increasing the outreach and potential impact of our interventions. The online delivery modality will remain an integral component of the FAO IMI-SDG6 capacity-development portfolio, enriching the set of tools that we can put at our partners’ disposal.

FAO looks forward to using new tools to develop new capacities for reaching beneficiaries around the world to work together towards the achievement of the SDGs with an open mind, constantly adapting to the changing global conditions.

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This article was written by Riccardo Biancalani, FAO, Land and Water Division, IMI-SDG6 Project Coordinator, Lucie Chocholata, FAO, Land and Water Division, IMI-SDG6 Capacity Development Officer, and Virginie Gillet, FAO, Land and Water Division, Land and Water Officer.