Four observations from running consultation processes via WhatsApp

1. Wait, what? Yeah it worked.

The task we were up against with our project partners and co-facilitators , the Conflict Alert and Prevention Centre (CENAP), seemed insurmountable at first. We had to build a collectively owned research questionnaire remotely, from scratch, with a representative group of 40 Burkinabè civil society and government participants — who were all spread geographically across a low-connectivity environment in partial lockdown. We knew that WhatsApp was the only option to reach participants where they were and engage, so we tried, and 94% of the participants said it worked!

Throughout the course of the whole process, we received 2604 and sent & read 8530 WhatsApp messages.

There were a few moments when we feared we would lose people because of what we were trying to do — it’s easy to disengage if you’re not in a room together. But much to our surprise, we managed to keep a continued high level of engagement throughout the 8 days.

2. Community and trust building are possible in the virtual space.

Speculations about individual motivations aside, it was fascinating to see how human and group dynamics played out in nearly the same way online as they do offline. Introductions to know who is in the virtual room were key to set the tone and make things personal. We opted for using headshots and voice messages to introduce the facilitators. Then something funny happened: because we had sent pictures, participants did the same, and we ended up with a visual participant list.

3. Biases and inclusion or exclusion play out differently.

The participants engaging in this process — representatives of civil society organizations, and government officials at different administrative levels — all had comparatively solid internet access and at least a phone. Therefore, we did not have to think about exclusion biases as a result of connectivity. In fact, conducting the consultation over WhatsApp helped to include some people we would not have been able to reach in the originally planned offline workshop in the capital city. One official from the North-Eastern Sahel region reached out to us saying that he would not have been able to participate in the same workshop in Ouagadou, because it would take him several days to get there and back. Online, he was with us.

4. Timing is everything, and the technology to make things engaging exists!

We used asynchronous sessions to collect input or feedback, which gave people the opportunity to engage at their own pace. The synchronous, live sessions (also held as WhatsApp chats, not calls) were important to discuss complex points and for community building.

Agenda for one synchronous, live session.

More to come on messaging-app adaptations

The consultation in Burkina Faso was our first large-scale attempt at an adaptation using a messaging app. Since then, we’ve run a few other consultations, including one we are currently wrapping up for the Office of the Special Envoy to the Secretary General in Yemen on the perceptions of women about the peace process. We’ve also moved some of our training content to WhatsApp and run a learning conference on peace innovation in the Middle East partly on WhatsApp (with a few sessions on Zoom). Creative adaptations on messaging-apps have much to offer for inclusion and participation. We’ll be doing more — and if you are too, reach out!

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Build Up

Build Up transforms conflict in the digital age. Our approach combines peacebuilding, participation and technology.