The Silver Lining of the Pandemic: Virtual Capacity Building

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When COVID-19 shut down Green Empowerment projects across Latin America, our staff and local partners were initially devastated. The renewable energy and clean water projects we were looking forward to supporting were put on an indefinite hold at a time when communities most needed those resources. However, we quickly pivoted by brainstorming and then executing one of our most robust and far-reaching global water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) training programs to date, bringing together roughly fifty participants from over a dozen organizations in five countries throughout May and June.

Turning a Weakness into a Strength

While the pandemic limited the implementation of projects in the field, it presented an opportunity for us to develop and deliver a free, six-week training in comprehensive water system design. This was the first time that we were able to reach such a large number of partner organizations for a capacity building effort, let alone have participants dedicate a full 36 hours over the span of six weeks to covering such a wide breadth of material. 

“While many of our partner organizations have been implementing clean water systems for years, in-house technical expertise and system design strategies varied widely across countries, resulting in extensive back-and-forth on system design and occasional implementation problems that directly impacted communities,” Samuel Schlesinger, Latin America Program Manager at Green Empowerment, explains about the motivation behind the training. “By taking advantage of a lull in field activities, we were able to share experiences and best practices from multiple countries, set up a unified and field-tested strategy for water project design and budgeting, and build increased capacity for partners, getting training to where it counts most: often-overburdened and hard to reach program leads and field staff,” Samuel elaborates.

In order to maximize the impact of the training, the content was designed in direct response to partner feedback to cover technical gaps from their experience in the field. The training included modules on water pumping, including solar water pumps; system design and measurements; wells; system administration; as well as water quality and treatment. The material was presented by Green Empowerment’s resident experts, Samuel Schlesinger and Maria Elisa Espinoza, as well as former Green Empowerment Technical Manager Michel Mapoux and sector leader Mauricio Gnecco. 

Short-Term Training, Long-Term Benefits 

Although this training lasted for just six weeks, it has facilitated the ongoing exchange of information related to clean water systems and further strengthened our relationships with our partners throughout Latin America, a critical aspect of our organizational model and principles. We are also in the process of replicating this training in other regions with the goal of building the capacity of even more of our partners to provide necessary clean water systems, particularly for frontline communities hit hardest by the pandemic.      

In order to guarantee the long-term impact of our training, we believed it was essential to be nimble throughout the process to both ensure that we met participants’ learning objectives and allowed time for knowledge exchange. To do this, we conducted an evaluation of each weeklong module and asked a series of questions to check-in throughout the training. Based on feedback from participants, we also created a Google Forum and a WhatsApp group for the ongoing exchange of information and experiences in the WASH sector in Latin America, which were used during the training and have been continually used since the training ended. In addition to these resources, the participants, many of which are engineers and technicians, will be able to use their new skills and reference the material from the training when they’re back in the field.   

“I am very grateful for this Green Empowerment initiative, for carrying out this virtual training, which has greatly contributed to our technical knowledge on the development of water access projects in rural areas,” explains Freddy Alfaro, Water and Sanitation Advisor at Federation for Integral Development of Rural People (FEDICAMP), one of our partners in Nicaragua. In addition to facilitating the sharing of information, this training also provided us with an opportunity to further develop our partner relationships, many of which we’ve been building over the course of a decade or more. Our strong relationships with regional partners like FEDICAMP have and continue to be a critical element of our success as an organization.

Additionally, we are already working on replicating specific modules from the training with our partners in Southeast Asia who have expressed a similar need for further information and training. We are also in the process of translating the materials, which are currently only in Spanish, into English, in order to be able to spread the reach and impact of this curriculum in additional regions.  

In the face of this global pandemic, access to clean water is more important than ever in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, and the ultimate goal of this training was to increase our partners’ capacity to meet the needs of rural communities without access to potable water. Despite barriers to safely moving forward with projects in the first months of the pandemic, we were able to successfully advance our work with our partners for the long-term benefit of the communities where we work throughout Latin America. Now that restrictions are beginning to ease, and work modifications have been put into place in some of the regions where we work, partner staff are slowly returning to the field, better equipped than ever to work with communities to build critical potable water systems.

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