Overcoming barriers to development
As printed in The Marketplace - 2018 - September/October
In international development work, a variety of factors can combine to limit the reach and effectiveness of training programs.
Even when clients are clamoring for the services being offered, issues around culture, language and traditional gender roles can slow down progress.
Add armed conflict or political instability to the mix and progress requires patience, perseverance, innovation and ingenuity.
This has been the history of MEDA’s work in Libya since 2011. When MEDA received a $2 million award from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to do business development training for women, an initial call for participants got responses from close to 700 women who wanted to attend.
MEDA developed materials and hired a local trainer to deliver the sessions.
The first effort involved in-person training that was five days long, in Tripoli. MEDA only had capacity to train up to 200 people.
People who lived farther afield had issues traveling in, recalls Adam Bramm of MEDA’s Washington DC office. “That posed a little bit of a challenge for the women to be gone for such a long time.”
Some of the women had to bring chaperones, as they couldn’t travel by themselves.
“We saw this outpouring of interest in this type of information and this type of training on the part of women in Libya,” said Bramm, who manages the Libya project but hasn’t yet been able to visit the country.
The success of the Libya program to date can be attributed to the project’s all Libyan staff, including field project manager Intissar Rajabany, Bramm said. When all other international staff were leaving Libya due to the escalating security situation, MEDA’s Libya team continued to find innovative ways of supporting women entrepreneurs, he said.
To date, MEDA has been unable to get visas for North American staff to visit.
“Knowing a little bit more about the context, some of the security issues and travel issues and things like that, going into phase two, we were looking at ways that we could overcome some of those obstacles.”
Since it was not practical for MEDA to open other offices in Libya, they began to explore delivering online distance education. Research into various possibilities led MEDA to Kitchener software firm D2L, which develops learning management systems used by universities, colleges and training organizations.
Bramm knew that the project would need help transitioning from instructor-led to self-guided, online courses, making D2L the best choice. “It was almost like a one-stop shop.”
Among other benefits, D2L has Arabic language capability for its Brightspace software product, a necessity for the Libyan context. Even so, it took several months to ensure the product would be ready for the women to use, Bramm said. “We spoke very different languages.”
D2L was new to working with non-government organizations, and is more accustomed to working with large institutions, multiple courses and thousands of students, he said.
Helping the firm understand what Libyan women were like and what they are capable of made the launch process longer than initially envisioned.
After running the site for a year, MEDA realized that there were a few hiccups around translation, language and Libyan dialect.
MEDA hoped to have 300 women use the system, but found that many users didn’t have the patience for a two-step process of registration and enrolment.
“Their username didn’t work properly when they tried (to sign in) so they got frustrated. We had to get D2L to fix it, and in the meantime they (women) sort of lost interest.”
To date, only 50 women have made it through the online course.
The initial site, which required downloading PDF-based content, wasn’t super friendly for mobile phones. Most Libyan women connect to the Internet via their mobile phones, often using Facebook and Twitter to keep in contact. While MEDA checked to see if Libyan women had Internet connections before starting the pilot, they didn’t understand the significance of most women connecting through their phones.
In the developing world, “mobile technology has leapfrogged over fixed internet connections,” he said. “That was kind of a blind spot in our design.”
To keep things simple, they avoided putting a chat board function in the first version of the online course, only to learn later that was a feature the participants wanted.
At the same time Bramm is convinced MEDA couldn’t have developed an online training course without D2L’s help.
“Our potential audience is in the thousands, I would say. We just have to make it easy for them to use.”
The online learning platform is just one component of the Libya project. The team continues to build business networks for women, providing matching grants for business growth and start-up, mentorship opportunities, and information communications technology skills courses.
Some women who have participated have made business connections and become each others’ vendors.
Technology for development is an iterative process, Bramm says. Success will come, provided that donors are okay with incremental progress.
Going forward, the plan is to make adjustments to the platform based on women’s feedback. “We can just keep doing that until we hit it right.”
Brightspace is rolling out a new interface for their platform and there has been some discussion with them about providing a Facebook single sign-on authentication, he said. “We are looking at ways we can improve the web-based platform.”
In some countries, MEDA might be able to work with a local government. That’s not a possibility in the context of a country that has three governments at time of this writing. “Which of them do you want to tie yourself to?”
Siding with one of the factions over others would constitute a political statement that could be seen unfavorably by other militias, he said.
Beyond Libya, there could be multiple opportunities for using the distance education software, Bramm said. MEDA’s Jordan project is looking at using the Brightspace platform once any bugs are worked out. MEDA’s Ethiopia team is interested as well.
MEDA’s work in Yemen, which also needs to be done remotely due to the ongoing civil war, could be an interesting place for virtual training, he said. ◆