Online Engagement in the Global South: Perspectives, Challenges and Options

Online engagements increased dramatically in 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Virtual platforms have enabled interactions and work to continue, despite an inability to meet in person. However, the digital divide has posed one of the biggest challenges for many of those from developing countries and rural areas to interact online. High internet connection costs, unreliable connectivity and limited access to computer hardware or smartphones have hindered participation in the global South. A survey run by CDKN from April to June 2020 identified some of the greatest difficulties faced: issues related to technology, including participants’ capacity to use it; maintaining a work-life balance during the Covid-19 lockdown; and the amount of time spent in online meetings instead of in person. The survey nonetheless showed that online platforms have enabled work to proceed; and that technology has enhanced access overall and enabled people in different locations to meet in an efficient and less costly manner. Zoom emerged as the preferred platform in most (but not all) locations for its user-friendly interface, multiple functionalities, and ability to perform in lower-bandwidth situations. Interviews with meeting organisers in charge of arranging a number of different types of events – from large international workshops to participatory processes connecting participants from marginalised communities in remote areas – also shed light on some important lessons for running inclusive and effective online engagements. Reduced costs for data and platform subscriptions, better connectivity, improvements in the platforms, skills development on how to run virtual meetings, and training on how to use the technology would all go a long way towards improving users’ experiences of interacting online. Purchasing data bundles for participants, facilitating their travel to areas with better connectivity, and carefully considering when to hold meetings would also help to make them more inclusive. However, one must recognise that the digital divide, erratic electricity supply and restrictions on the use of certain platforms in some countries, all continue to pose a challenge to equal access to online meetings.