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Points from the introductions

On challenges of active participation, among others are literacy – both as subject matter knowledge and ability to express it and as expertise in navigating the online environments - and language barriers. Both prevent people from actively engaging. Technology as we move forward may help to a certain extent with language, while literacy is a bit more difficult to address. As time goes along and people advance their experience and exposure to such environments things may improve, but the issue of the suitable technology and platform is important for engagement in the Community and for learning. (Renata Mirulla)



Language barriers in remote collaboration. Mostly English is the primary language for majority of remote works, and often it is not the first language for many members which may limit their participation and meaningful collaboration.
Limitations in use of body language. In face-to-face meetings/ processes, there are high opportunities of communicating better with use of effective body language, and also assessing in real-time the mood, reception etc. of the audience/participants. It is limited in remote collaboration. (Raman Kumar)


The main challenge for us so far has been to engage  people online (most of them are government officials in the ministries of trade). They appreciate the content we share but don't really participate on suggested debates or interacting online. (Maria Barral)


For us, our first hurdle has been to introduce participants to virtual meeting tools, finding the appropriate times to engage and network connectivity. The participants are frontline health workers who as you can imagine are quite overwhelmed and anxious during this season. All these factors make for an interesting mix and yet we need to help them see that virtual engagement will be with us for a long time. So for me at the moment, I need to overcome this hurdle of getting them online and then I anticipate participation will be the next challenge! (Naomi Muinga)


Some of the issues that we encounter currently on online collaboration include the engagement with indigenous peoples (via their umbrella associations) --> How to include stakeholders that are not used to engage, collaborate and take decisions at distance. At the same time, at the program coordination level, saturation with online meetings (Simone Staiger)


As thematic expert I interact a lot with my international colleagues. We traditionally did this via email and mutual visits for learning, interaction and programme development. During the past months we discovered the added value of online meetings (mainly via ZOOM, but also Skype for 1-on-1 meetings). Initially we were very enthusiastic about the various online collaboration tools available and e.g. the breakout room feature of ZOOM. In our first ever online international gathering we subsequently used the tools we were discovering in almost every meeting. We quickly realized that that is not the way to go either and in short now we are trying to find out where the 'middle' is. How can we continue to meet and collaborate online? What are we discussing and developing (content)? And what tools and processes can we use for that? How would that change when we cooperate or initiate partnerships with other organisations? And perhaps most importantly and difficult, how do we engage in online collaboration and learning with people and communities that we want to assist and come alongside? (Nico Smith)


Many factors influence “#participation”. These include the purpose of the community and its intended lifespan (e.g. a community may be established in view of planning and organising an event. Such a community usually ceases exchanges once the event is over.  In terms of purpose I would make a clear differentiation among “sharing information for knowledge acquisition” and “sharing information for action taking”. I would classify the former as a “Network”, and the latter as a “Community of Practice (CoPs)”. There are profound differences among the two, and I think that this dialogue focuses more on CoPs rather than Networks.

So, when it comes to CoPs, one key aspect is the critical mass. The latter is extremely important when the CoP is thematic, and not time- or event- bound. In my experience a thematic community with at least 300 members is likely to have sufficient internal drive to keep on rolling. Still, looking at statistics of even larger communities I have been animating, close to 90 % of the members are reading, and not contributing, the so-called lurkers. Only a handful are actively contributing. Years ago, I run a questionnaire among members of one dproup with ~1500 members, to find out more about the reasons behind being active (contributing) or not. Interestingly, many respondents indicated that they were not comfortable in / used to sharing their thoughts “publicly” being concerned about other members judging them based on the content of their contributions / opinions or event based on the correctness of their syntax or spelling. Once I shared the results of the survey among the members of the community, some lurkers became contributors, probably because they discovered that their concerns were common concerns, hence their sentiments were not so different from those of other community members, and they felt more comfortable in being active. (Giacomo Rambaldi)


Besides the discourse and good intentions, the development practice (in different fields) does not always reflect this participatory ‘vocation’ as the notion of participation can have different connotations. Often, programmes and projects which tend to ‘foster’ participation ignore the fact that participation activity can easily become simply a symbolic simulation if there is not the conscious awareness that power needs to be redistributed if a process is to be truly participatory. Therefore, in many cases, participation practice tends to be limited to mere consultations which do not offer local stakeholders the possibility of influencing decisions regarding the development agenda. These recurrent practices are evidence of a lack of theoretical clarity and good quality instruments in many projects which claim to be participatory. The reasons for this deficit are not easily to understood.

In my opinion, the notion of participation is the result of two merging dynamics: the opportunity to participate and the capacity to participate. The first is determined by the institutional and political willingness of those who design and conduct a project/programme to create spaces for real participation. The second is determined mainly by the attitudes and skills that civil society stakeholders have developed in previous experiences. It is possible to talk about participation when these two dynamics come together: in other words, the capacity of residents to participate are subject to the opportunities ‘opened up’ by the institution, programme or project. (Esteban Tapella)


... Issues of connectivity, language and the power that comes with it, creating a rapport with each other when people don't have the capacity to see each other face-to-face, the increasingly shorter attention span, the eternal platform wars, the eternal assumption that it's the others that have to do the heavy lifting and adapting their style and approach to us, rather than the other way around. I find collaboration has much to do with two other things in this sense: communication and change. Somehow our expectation is that it has to start elsewhere, not with us. So I think there's an issue of attitude that comes with also online collaboration. (Ewen Le Borgne)


We are still learning….All our efforts have been “learning by doing approach”, getting closer and always testing what may or may not work.  Online collaboration or online connection still difficult, more in rural areas. We have not found the medicine to have someone fully engaged in an online conversation, training or working session…Maybe is a matter of the environment. What probably may work? Sense making….only when we know that the people find sense you Id the immediate connection. Is like watching a good movie…. (Federico Sancho)


The level of engagement and participation in an online event will always depend on the interest of members in the issues to be talked about. Also, creativity of facilitators play a major role in bringing participants on board. But also, we don't have to forget the following: How will the target participants join in (do they have access to a working internet?, Do they have access to working devices?; Do they have the skills and Knowledge to work with the technology on which the platform is running?; Do they have the resources to cover the costs?; etc)  (Robert Kibaya)

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