30 Aug 2021



Adapting projects to COVID-19, written by Kate Fairlie and the PSP team

Posted30 Aug 2021

Adapting projects to COVID-19, written by Kate Fairlie and the PSP team

There have been many articles about the impacts of COVID-19 in the international development space – perhaps best evidenced in our sector by the 100+ articles on land and COVID-19 on the LandPortal blog. Development partners and practitioners alike have needed an unprecedented level of adaptiveness and flexibility to continue activities alongside this global challenge. Now approaching two years into the pandemic, we can begin to take stock. And so, in this article, we want to explore just some of the measures taken in one of LEI’s projects, and what these measures have meant in terms of project delivery of intended outcomes. This ‘taking stock’ is also important as we look to the future of our sector: are there intrinsic lessons from the pandemic response that we will take forward?

The project under the microscope here is the Reducing Deforestation through Improved Spatial Planning in the Papua Provinces – known as Papua Spatial Planning (PSP) and implemented together with the Government of Indonesia and the UK Climate Change Unit (UKCCU) in Indonesia, along with our partner Daemeter, with funding from FCDO. PSP, as the name suggests, seeks to improve spatial plans at provincial and district levels in Papua and West Papua, with the ultimate aim to prevent deforestation and land degradation, as well as to facilitate low-carbon development and better recognise the adat (indigenous) community claims.

As I write this, COVID-19 cases in Indonesia are mercifully decreasing from their peak in July, but this ‘decrease’ still encompasses significant new infections and deaths – with sad news from this past week suggesting that 100 children are dying every week in Indonesia from COVID-19  .

It is in this devastating context that we ask our team to continue to work, despite all the challenges of pandemic: mandatory working from home, regional and national lockdowns, virtual environments and limited ability to travel. Our work is not in health, nor in directly preventing COVID-19 deaths. Yet it is important. With the sixth assessment report from the IPCC delivering, in the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, a ‘code red for humanity’  – any and all efforts to reduce carbon emissions are vital to avoid, or at least limit, catastrophic global warming. For Indonesia, this means commitments to emissions reductions in the forestry and land sector, as well as the low carbon development that may prove essential to the nation’s COVID-19 economic recovery. Spatial planning – at district, provincial and national levels – is essential to enabling the achievement, management and – importantly – data to underpin this.

So, with this background, what are we doing under PSP?

And how has this changed under COVID-19 conditions?

Firstly, let’s reiterate the program activities. PSP was established in September 2019, with a core project team of predominantly local (Indonesian) staff based in Jakarta, with individuals and smaller teams to be based in the Papuan Provinces. The project started with rapid assessments to understand the issues, challenges and potential resources surrounding land use and spatial planning, natural resource management, permitting and licensing processes. Ongoing activities have then broadly included technical assistance to support spatial plan reviews and revision, policy briefs targeting key themes (e.g. REDD+, green and inclusive spatial planning) and capacity building activities including workshops, training and socialisations – targeting not only government, but civil society organisations and adat communities. Key amongst our outcome indicators are protecting forested areas, integrating adat areas and improving data quality and management.

How do we do this? Up until COVID-19 hit, it was intended to achieve project outcomes through a strong presence in the field, extensive meetings and consultations, regular one-on-ones, on-the-job-training, community and civil society meetings and spatial planning workshops. However, all of these activities have had to be rapidly adapted, for example:

  1. On-the-ground presence limitations. When the first impacts of COVID-19 were felt in Indonesia, our operations in Papua had to be significantly curtailed, due to some staff having to be withdrawn and future mobilisation limited. Whilst, through long-term experience in-country by both partners, we had a largely Indonesian team with some local to Papua, we had always anticipated a greater local presence. Mobilising national staff to Papua has understandably been limited, but during periods of reduced transmission we have endeavoured to host important meetings and have some key staff travel for longer stints in-country (and less fly-in, fly-out) – this in addition to our small number of local staff. Thankfully, the majority of our team has managed to be vaccinated, somewhat reducing the risk of infection, but by no means eradicating it.
  2. Reaching remote communities and establishing trust (especially with indigenous communities and organisations). Online environments – even where internet connections, reliable electricity and available bandwidth exist – are simply not conducive to trust building without extensive effort, expertise and strong existing relationships. Adat communities in Papua may have limited access to internet, and the many sensitivities around adat areas mean that misunderstandings are more likely in online communications. What has helped PSP is building on existing relationships (through local staff and existing CSO networks) and undertaking face-to-face visits where feasible and low-risk. However, to date district level engagement has suffered, particularly where outreach to stakeholders new to our work is required.
  3. Training and engagement.  In Papua, internet connectivity is only available in the capital city, and sporadically even then. So online training and meetings are predominantly available at provincial level and are subject to varying individual comfort levels (which are naturally impacted by demographic factors). Pivoting to online modalities has enabled PSP to far exceed measured training outcomes, but further ingenuity is needed to improve the gender imbalance, to ensure full and measured participation (beyond simple attendance), and to reach sub-provincial levels. One key adaptation has been facilitating ‘hybrid’ delivery models with a local trainer and small group meeting face to face (where local COVID-19 risks are low) facilitated by a more experienced trainer. Further building relationships with local universities, government branches and other organisations may help sustain training initiatives, both under the COVID-19 context and beyond the life of the project.
  4. Changing (budget) priorities. The burden on local, regional, and national governments in responding to the COVID-19 challenge is immense. Yet PSP is a technical assistance facility, and if governments are not in a position to allocate funds to spatial planning, there may be little for PSP to provide assistance to.  PSP continues to engage with and support government, and monitor COVID-19 impact and capacity levels. Continued technical assistance and communication materials both support continued messaging around the importance of spatial planning both for forest protection as well as economic development and supporting the sustainable livelihood opportunities of adat communities. Future budget reallocation within PSP may also be possible to ensure efforts around spatial planning do not stall.
  5. Staff physical and mental health. Workplaces around the world are cognisant of the physical and mental impact of COVID-19, and this is no different for LEI, Daemeter and our in-country PSP teams. Inevitably some of our team members – and their friends and families – have contracted COVID-19. For many, we are thankful that the long-term impacts to their health have been very minor – for some few, however, “long-COVID” is a reality. Mental health remains a significant issue, as we all learn to adapt to a new normal, which for many includes working from home alongside home-schooling and caring for family members. Adaptations include flexibility around working hours, more regular online meet-ups to support communication (and address to some extent, the loss of ‘water-cooler’ catch-ups), wellbeing surveys to capture what team members may only feel comfortable reporting anonymously, and enabling ‘slow-returns’ to work after illness.

So what does this mean for future programming?

The key message is that the pandemic has restricted some activities, whilst enhancing others: government and civil society organisation staff are much more comfortable with virtual environments – enabling lean project implementations in terms of training and capacity building; on the other hand, remote and adat communities are much harder to reach and engage with and new strategies are required here to ensure no one gets left behind.

Face to face is still important: but needs to be managed strategically, under a COVID Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) with risk-averse measures in place. We simply cannot risk the health of staff, stakeholders and their families. This means also recognising and overcoming situations where cultural-practices may conflict with COVID-safe practices.

Localisation and local staff are essential. Local staff understand local context and local knowledge best and are typically best placed for local engagement. Thankfully, this is increasingly being recognised in the international development sector, but needs to also be better enabled by development partners – e.g. through terms of reference that don’t over-specify qualifications, and which enable models through which local staff can professionally grow and be recognised as equals to their international peers. The importance of civil society organisations and other local networks cannot be understated.

Virtual and online environments can mean greater reach and project efficiencies – but must work harder to achieve inclusion.  The move to virtual environments is both a win and loss for social inclusion – around the world there is no longer a reason to exclude individuals due to travel costs and venue limitations. But if we recognise that virtual environments can be more inclusive, we must also recognise the need to question who is being excluded/empowered and who is not and take steps to address exclusions and imbalances. Significant preparation and effort – on behalf of both organisers and attendees – is necessary to achieve similar value to face to face sessions – be it through facilitated networking/informal spaces online and recognition that online training needs to be innovative and go further than its face-to-face counterpart.

So that’s one exploration of our COVID-19 story. We’d love to hear your experiences, and welcome feedback.



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