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The Generation Dialogue innovates in times of COVID-19

Testing out web-based and blended learning formats in Egypt and Uganda

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented crisis, the Sector Programme ‘Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Rights’ teamed up with the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation to introduce the Generation Dialogue approach to prospective partners using webinars and blended learning formats.

Partnership with UNFPA and UNICEF aims to popularise the Generation Dialogue  

The UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation is the largest global programme to accelerate the end of female genital mutilation/cutting. In 2018 the Joint Programme and the Sector Programme ‘Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Rights,’ which is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), agreed to join forces to introduce the Generation Dialogue approach to new partners in Africa. Developed with German support, the Generation Dialogue is a method designed to initiate processes of social change in communities where traditions and practices have harmful effects on health and well-being. 

Regional training workshops for UNFPA and UNICEF partners in East and West Africa were scheduled for June 2020, but had to be cancelled when COVID-19 struck. Rather than putting the planned collaboration on hold indefinitely, GIZ, UNFPA and UNICEF seized the opportunity to test out virtual approaches to Generation Dialogue training and support. This article describes what was done and what was learned, with the aim of inspiring others to think creatively about adapting training activities to online formats.

Introductory webinars reach a wide audience

Opening slide from first webinar
Opening slide from first webinar

In lieu of the regional trainings, the Joint Programme organised two introductory webinars about the Generation Dialogue in March 2020. These were open to UNFPA and UNICEF country teams in North, East and West Africa, as well as to colleagues from the agencies’ headquarters in New York. Working on behalf of the Sector Programme, the Dialogue experts who facilitated the sessions provided an overview of the approach, highlighted the Dialogue’s distinctive features and explained what it takes to implement a Generation Dialogue cycle. They also directed participants to the Generation Dialogue toolkit and organisational guidance note, which had recently been revised to support local implementation processes.

‘The initial webinars gave participants a taste of what is available in terms of resources and what it is possible to do,’ explains Anna von Roenne, the author of the Generation Dialogue approach and one of the webinar facilitators. ‘The question at the end was: “Who’s interested to take this forward?”’ Two country teams – from Egypt and Uganda – were keen to proceed.

Implementing partners in Egypt complete an eight-part webinar series

Between April and June, representatives from the Joint Programme and two implementing partners in Egypt – Care International and the Assiut Child Development Association (ACDA) – participated in a series of eight webinars about the Generation Dialogue. When the webinars began, few cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed in Egypt and it was hoped that the organisations would be able to begin implementing activities later in the year.  As the weeks passed and the situation in Egypt worsened, however, it became clear that implementation would have to be deferred. Nevertheless, the participants, together with the Generation Dialogue expert, agreed to complete the webinar series so that the organisations would be fully prepared to implement the Dialogue at a future stage.

Partners in Uganda learn about the Generation Dialogue online and in-person 

A slightly different approach was taken in Uganda, where it was possible to carry out some activities in communities after the first wave of coronavirus infections subsided. In June approximately 40 representatives of the Joint Programme and its implementing partners – ActionAid (UNFPA) and the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development (UNICEF) – along with the Uganda Human Rights Commission, an implementing partner of the GIZ Strengthening Governance and Civil Society Programme, participated in an introductory webinar. A core group of interested individuals then took part in three more webinars which covered the first three steps of the Generation Dialogue in detail. 

After these technical sessions, a team from ActionAid was keen to begin implementing. Following the guidance in the Dialogue toolkit, they organised Community Consultations involving 94 participants in the sub-counties of Kwosir and Binyiny, in the Sebei Sub-Region, where the organisation works to counter female genital mutilation/cutting as part of its programme on women’s access to social justice. ActionAid’s positive experience with the Community Consultations showed that it was possible, with proper planning and infection prevention measures in place, to carry out Dialogue activities despite COVID-19.

Practicing the life-path exercise
Practicing the life-path exercise

Next, the UNFPA and UNICEF country offices in Uganda, with co-funding from UNICEF, decided to organise an in-person workshop in Kampala where the remaining steps of the Dialogue method could be practiced face-to-face. Over the course of three days in October, a Kampala-based Dialogue expert, Camilla Buch von Schroeder, took 16 participants from the Joint Programme and its implementing organisations through the final four steps of the Dialogue, which cover the design and implementation of Dialogue Sessions and the organisation of Public Meetings. 

Positive feedback from Uganda on the new implementation model

The process in Uganda was not only the first time that a blended learning approach was used, but also the first chance to test out the Generation Dialogue’s new implementation model. In late 2019 the core Generation Dialogue resources were thoroughly revised in such a way that country teams could implement the seven steps of the Generation Dialogue cycle themselves, with a minimum of external guidance and support. This was motivated by a desire to increase local ownership of the Dialogue processes as well as to reduce the need for multi-day in-person training workshops requiring international travel.

Judging by the feedback from Uganda, this approach appears to be bearing fruit. ‘Thus far we’ve found the toolkit simple to work with and the steps easy to follow,’ said Marie Lwanga, a Programme Officer with ActionAid. ‘The approach is new for us, but when we tried it out in the community for the first time, we saw that it has real potential to bring change from within.’ Her colleague Jacob Sakajja, an FGM trainee, was also impressed by what he saw during the Community Consultations: ‘There was real openness in the discussions, and people were keen to talk – even the cutters themselves. After the initial discussions there already seems to be movement on this topic.’  

Webinars have a role, but are no substitute for in-person interactions

Webinars have become ‘the new normal’ for the organisation of international workshops and meetings during the pandemic. In the case of the Generation Dialogue, they have proven effective for introducing the basics of the approach to a large number of people across time zones and continents. At the same time their limitations have also become clear. 

‘The Generation Dialogue depends heavily upon direct interactions about sensitive issues between different groups of people,’ explains Anna von Roenne. ‘The core elements which make the approach transformative for participants, such as the life-path exercise, have to be done to be understood. Simply describing them doesn’t have the same effect.’  For Camilla Buch von Schroeder, who facilitated the sessions in Uganda, the webinars were suitable for conveying theoretical information, but not for practicing the skills needed to actually conduct Dialogue sessions. For this, face-to-face interactions are essential. ‘There’s no question that personal engagement and commitment are higher when you are together in the same room,’ she said.

These views were echoed by participants. Raymond Chemutai, from the Uganda Human Rights Commission, noted that webinars are welcome given the challenging circumstances, but that one learns more during face-to-face interactions. Marie Lwanga, from ActionAid, found that it was difficult to give full attention to the webinars due to shaky Internet connections and workplace interruptions. ‘We’re still trying to adjust to this “new normal,”’ she said. ‘I just feel there’s something you lose without the physical connection to others.’

With the right tools, partners can make the Generation Dialogue their own

The decision in late 2019 to simplify the existing Generation Dialogue materials and make them freely available online was motivated by a desire to put more control in the hands of implementing organisations. Instead of trying to squeeze the essentials of the approach into a single five-day training, the Generation Dialogue team saw that it made more sense to develop resources which allow local partners to take the process into their own hands and to implement it at their own pace.

In hindsight, this change in the implementation model came at the perfect time. Just a few months after the materials were posted online, COVID-19 made it impossible for people to travel internationally or to come together at meetings and workshops. The feedback from the teams in Uganda and Egypt shows that the Dialogue resources have allowed them to learn about and begin to work with the Generation Dialogue methodology. This bodes well for the post-COVID-19 period, when implementing partners will be able to gather locally to discuss, plan and carry out their own Generation Dialogues on deeply-held traditions and practices.

© ActionAid
© GIZ/Camilla Buch von Schroeder
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