Four observations from running consultation processes via WhatsApp

Claudia Meier reflects on Build Up’s digital adaptation for consultations

Last year, as the pandemic picked up speed, we began to reflect on how peacebuilders can adapt to a physically distanced reality. One year in, we want to offer observations from one aspect of our digital adaptation work: the various WhatsApp-based consultation processes we have had the privilege to facilitate.

To support others in the community who want to run similar processes, we are collecting emerging tips and tricks from all our WhatsApp consultations in a Rough Guide to Messenger-Based Dialogue and Consultations.

This blogpost delves into one consultation we ran as part of a participatory research project organised by Interpeace and the Ministry responsible for Social Cohesion in Burkina Faso.

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!

The key was breaking the process down into small steps, and allowing for enough time for each, with a clear agenda of asynchronous and live sessions over 8 days.

We started by collecting participant’s proposals of themes for perceptions on the state of social cohesion in Burkina Faso. Participants then prioritized them using Mentimeter, which works well in low-connectivity contexts.

After we developed indicators together — again validated collectively — and settled on the demographic variables, we got into the details of refining the questionnaire. Creative use of simple online survey tools helped to organize individual feedback on the wording of each question — and organize a live session in a WhatsApp group to settle last differences among participants. Because of the connectivity challenge, we could not use videoconferencing, so all of the discussions happened over voice notes and written WhatsApp messages. In the end, we had a 50 question survey ready for administration (remotely again, a story for another time!).

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.

We can only guess what the reasons were. The individual invitations and calls with participants that Interpeace and the Ministry did before the workshop were certainly key. Also, the topic was immediately relevant to people’s daily lives and work. That aside, we also felt that participants were more focused on the task and the contributions of others than they would be in a workshop setting distracted by emails and calls. When they decided to engage and contribute, the written format helped them formulate their points precisely. Doing it on WhatsApp also meant that we got people’s attention on their phones — where we all tend to spend a lot of time anyway.

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.

Over the eight days, participants started to engage in more social chatter as sessions started, and were bringing up concerns on substance (including on sensitive topics related to a rapidly evolving conflict). When we asked at the end whether they felt they could share openly, almost all of them said yes. At the end of the consultation, participants took over the group and started using it to share information on events, announcements of new COVID-19 measures, and to wish each other well on public holidays. We take this as another indicator that the community built there was positive — otherwise, they would have just left the group.

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.

Beyond the geographical question, there were also more subtle inclusion dynamics. Every workshop facilitator fears these difficult situations when the room does not listen to someone’s contribution because they are a woman, from a minority group or otherwise perceived as unimportant.

In a physical setting, past experience of others playing around on their phones is daunting enough for people not to speak up. At the same time, in some contexts, participants tend to follow the opinion of someone higher up in the social hierarchy.

On WhatsApp, these dynamics partially disappeared. In a group discussion, participants see the number of the person who says something — they don’t immediately see the gender or social status. So they have to “listen” to everyone equally.

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.

We also played around with different formats and visualisations for to keep the discussion interesting. We used broadcasts to pass messages, Mentimeter for anonymous contributions, voice messages to engage in a discussion on more subtle and complex points, or picture cards to remind people of deadlines.

We have more detailed observations on how to make things engaging than can fit in a blogpost: if you are interested to learn more, check out our webinar, the rough guide.

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!

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

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