Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Moderating for development

‘Ontwikkeling is verandering’ (‘Development is change’) is the name of the so called ‘beleidsdialoog’ of the Dutch Foreign Ministry. In this dialogue the ministry tries to get input of Dutch civil society organisations and other stakeholders who are related to development, like the private sector, scientists, other ministries, and individual persons. It’s a process of several months which started in May and includes two live conferences (in a cinema, close to Ede), papers written by specialists on development issues and an online discussion via the website http://www.ontwikkelingisverandering.nl/. This dialogue will be rounded off with a report that combines the input of these sources and that will be presented to Bert Koenders, the Minister for Development Cooperation. During a feedback meeting in October 2008, Koenders will indicate which aspects of the report will be integrated in a new policy document for civil society that will be drawn up by the Ministry. The implementation of the dialogue is managed by MDF training&consultancy together with internetplatform OneWorld and specialist journal Vice Versa.

Internet forum
The design of the online discussion was very straight forward. It is embedded in the official website (http://www.ontwikkelingisverandering.nl/) which provides a lot of information on the ongoing discussion: reports (written, audio, video) on the conference meetings, written papers by specialists on several development themes and – centrally located – access to the forum. The forum itself is divided into six different themes (Enabling environment, Accountability, Learning capacity, Complementary roles, Tasks 'North' and 'South', Public support) which start with a short introduction about what this specific theme should be about, so participants know how to focus their contribution.

Phone facilitation
The online discussion didn’t start very spontaneously, the first week less than a handful of people contributed. Therefore it was decided that some old fashioned handwork was needed: about fifty people were approached by telephone to ask them personally if they would have time to contribute to the online discussion. The names of these people came from the participants list of the conferences. If a person wasn’t available at the time of the phone call, an e-mail with the same request was sent.The round of phone calls – about a days work - paid of: slowly but surely responses were added to the forum. A few weeks later about a hundred contributions were placed. Part of them were contributions of an other online forum, organised by Partos, a platform for Dutch civil society organisations in the international development cooperation sector. Their members had a (closed) pre-discussion on the same issues as the ministerial discussion. After we were given permission we were able to publish also contributions of some of these members on the dialogue forum.

The pre-discussion of Partos, though useful for this platform, appeared to interfere with the official discussion. Participants didn’t want to contribute for a second time to a digital forum. Even though their individual contributions would be lost, as Partos decided only to publish summaries of the several discussions on the dialogue website.

While the forum was running, a few remarkable developments could be noticed. First: quite a few contributions were long, some of them more than 800 words. Although in-depth arguments were appreciated, it might have put other people off to write. The sought for dynamics of the forum – with short, quick reactions like a real face-to-face discussion – hardly ever took place.

Second: the forum only rarely lead to a debate where people responded to each other. Instead people often just published their posting without referring to earlier remarks of other contributors. It’s a guess why. But maybe two things might have helped: the structure of the forum could have been more transparent. In order to see if a posting had provoked a reaction, you had to follow the thread in the discussion and look for (a not so visible) number to see if/how many new responses had come to an initial posting. It happened even to me, as one of the moderators of the site, that I missed three responses to an initial summary I had written. And another tool which might have helped would have been an automatic notification to participants of the forum, when somebody sends a new posting. This way you know instantly when somebody reacts on a theme and you are reminded that you can react (again).

Third: the participants of the congress advised that the website should not only support Dutch but also English as ‘working language’. Rather than being spokespeople for them, the Dutch organisations wanted Southern partners to be able to give their own input directly. The original idea was to keep the site as simple as possible and only in Dutch because the target audience of the dialogue are Dutch organisations and individuals. Because of this shift, the website was extended with an English ‘mirror’, after which new contributions were made both in Dutch and English. Existing postings though, remained untranslated. Although there has never been an obligation to write postings in English, potential contributors who write more easily in Dutch might have been made shy to participate after the language shift took place.A last observation that could be made is that some people didn’t want to participate in het online discussion because they also would attend (one or more) days of conference and share their thoughts in the debates there.

Author (see picture): Eugène van Haaren (web)editor Vice Versa

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