Adapting to a virtual new reality in Nepal

Adapting to a virtual new reality in Nepal
Jan 7, 2021
Our urban development teams work around COVID-19 challenges to keep resilience projects on track.

At this point, it’s rare to meet someone who hasn’t attended a virtual conference—or a virtual training. But if your team is in a part of the world with a spotty telecommunications network, there are a whole host of challenges to overcome.

So how do you keep vital programs running when in-country staff can’t provide hands-on assistance due to COVID-19 restrictions? That was the issue facing our urban development teams working in Nepal on behalf of UK Aid.

It was only last year when our team began their work, building effective institutions and sustainable urban development—and generating inclusive economic growth. The program combines our expertise in disaster management and inclusive urban development to strengthen the country’s city centers.

After a series of upheavals—from earthquakes to government restructuring—the Nepal Urban Resilience Project (NURP) remains vital to building Nepal’s resilience. Thanks to our team's adaptive management approach, NURP was one of the few UK government projects in Nepal that continued to move forward during the pandemic.

“We have run successful radio programming on gender-based violence. We started with simple jingles, but now they’re proper radio programs where callers can interact and ask questions.” – Valentina Girotto

Finding a new way to work…that works

Because internet access was never reliable in Nepal, most stakeholders preferred in-person interactions to email (and working on laptops in general). We couldn’t afford to halt trainings or meetings, but nor could we afford to risk the health and safety of our employees, contractors, or clients. In the early stages of the pandemic, “our staff in Nepal spent a lot of time on the phone,” says Valentina Girotto, ICF’s team leader on the project. “For a while, we had to cancel all events. But now people can meet in person outside and socially distanced, or in small groups inside, always wearing masks.”

Our support didn’t stop there. With the pandemic wreaking havoc on public health, employment, and food supply, municipal governments and ICF’s NURP team—especially those in-country—leapt into action. We identified the most vulnerable populations and helped deliver food parcels. To mitigate the spread of the disease, our team’s local engineers designed and built low cost handwashing stations that now sit at public building entrances across all three municipalities. With the support of UK Aid, NURP also provided much-needed equipment, including autoclaves, to health centers for cleaning and sanitization and PPE.

They also turned to the radio to promote critical messages touching on COVID’s impact on gender-based violence and mental health. The signal is strong and the technology is familiar in this part of the world.

As our work progresses—and the pandemic refuses to disappear—the Nepal-based team, the out-of-country project team, and government officials continue to adapt to virtual learning and online tools. Project teams now routinely conduct meetings using Microsoft Teams, and we’re working with municipalities to build virtual Urban Learning Alliances that foster peer-to-peer learning among cities and strengthen links with the central government. An opportunity to identify and share best practices, the first dialogue explored opportunities presented by COVID and how to address them.

“I’m impressed by how much we were able to adapt and shift activities,” Valentina admits. “It’s been a big a learning curve, but now it’s working really well.”

Unintended consequences of preventative pandemic measures

COVID-19 forced our project teams to modify their workstyles. It also forced them to adjust the workplans. The lockdowns brought record unemployment and increased incidents of gender-based violence worldwide—Nepal was no exception.

To understand the impact on job loss, our NURP team—together with UK Aid—trained dozens of data collectors to conduct unemployment surveys across three municipalities. “The surveys provided valuable insight into how small and medium enterprises were faring, the state of the municipal economies, and overall employment status, particularly of marginalized populations,” says Arun Rana, ICF economic growth advisor.

Our team also conducted a three-day training on gender-based violence, reaching 75 female community health volunteers, elected officials, and law enforcement who committed to creating a system that would collect data and take action. A second phase reached an additional 123 people.

Learn more about ICF’s work in urban development.

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