Working in the Cloud: How USAID/Liberia Conducted a Food Security Assessment During COVID-19
This post was written by Kimberlee Bell, Supervisory Program Officer, USAID/Liberia.
Liberia boasts vast tropical rain forests, lush vegetation, and abundant water. While one wouldn’t expect to find a food security problem in this West African country, Liberia imports more than 60 percent of its food supply. The 2019 Global Hunger Index ranked Liberia 112 out of 117 countries on child mortality, child undernutrition, and inadequate food supply. According to the Comprehensive Food Security and Nutrition Survey, nearly one out of every five Liberians is food insecure and lacks reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. A recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization noted that 97.8 percent of Liberians cannot afford to regularly consume a healthy diet, making Liberia the worst of 170 countries examined. Chronic malnutrition among children in recent years has left one out of every three children permanently stunted.
“[S]omething had to be done,” said Moffatt Ngugi, USAID/Liberia Agriculture Development Officer. “We summarized the food security situation in late January to raise stakeholder awareness of the issue and prepare the groundwork for a multi-sector food security assessment in-country.” An interagency team was assembled and included subject matter experts — agriculturists and nutritionists — from the Africa Bureau, the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, the Bureau for Global Health, the Office of West African Affairs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Mission in Monrovia. The first task was the collection of key data points for a cross-sectoral assessment to better align nutrition and resilience programming in ongoing U.S. funded programs, including a school feeding program, a pilot cash transfer program, a social protection registry program, and the Mission’s flagship agriculture program.
“We were ready to hit the ground running ... in mid-March,” noted Ngugi. Then COVID-19 hit. Travel restrictions were issued, the Monrovia airports were closed, and the disease took hold around the world. A decision had to be made whether to postpone the assessment or find a work-around to maintain the timeline the team had established. Mission leadership cancelled the in-country assessment and challenged the team to conduct the assessment virtually. Although the group was extremely disappointed, they quickly focused on how to assess remotely from multiple locations around the world.
How do you go about doing a virtual assessment?
With a great deal of patience and determination, the assessment team co-leads — Rainer Asse, the Agriculture Advisor from the Africa Bureau Sustainable Development Office, and Ngugi — began designing the online format. With telework becoming the norm, the team could rely upon the Agency’s basic infrastructure for calls and video links.
The assessment co-leads organized a series of video or teleconference calls — each lasting two hours — to cover the full range of assessment objectives. To make each session productive, Liberia Mission teams gathered local subject matter experts to share their knowledge and experience with the team regarding food affordability, access to nutritious diets, the vulnerability assessments, the ability of households to withstand significant economic shocks, the need for greater resilience among Liberia’s poor. As Kirsten Spainhower, Country Support Officer in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security noted, “everyone came to the calls prepared to engage in and contribute to the discussion.”
By the end of the assessment in late April, the team had logged 36 hours of online interviews, subject matter expert presentations, meetings with key stakeholders, and team discussions.
How do you agree on the best time to hold a call for many people in different time zones?
Often, just arranging the calls was difficult given the number of participants from different offices and time zones. In one particularly challenging call, the team was trying to schedule 23 people working across 4 time zones.
Clive Mutunga, a Senior Technical Advisor in the Bureau for Global Health, explained that “although some of us were in the US, it was important that we operate on Liberian time, since many of our subject matter experts were key members of Liberian organizations including the Ministry of Health, and we wanted to be respectful of their time and contribution to our assessment.”
What were some of the biggest challenges in conducting the assessment remotely?
Qwamel Hanks, a Nutrition Technical Advisor in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, devised a strategy for staying focused on her virtual TDY. “To prevent getting distracted by ongoing tasks in Washington, I made sure to relay to my Washington teammates that I was on a virtual TDY. This allowed me to clear most of my schedule to focus on my TDY assessment responsibilities.”
The assessment team overcame the immense technical challenges inherent in linking people who were scattered across multiple continents by phones and computers. Government of Liberia (GOL) officials and other Liberian partners often found it difficult to join Google Meet due to poor internet connections and electrical outages. “We had to be a little creative in a low tech kind of way and just have someone in Monrovia call the GOL officials directly and put them on speaker so we could hear them and they could hear us,” explained Maurice Ogutu, Head of USAID Liberia Economic Growth Office. Connectivity issues also meant that it was difficult to hear or understand even those team members who managed to join the calls. According to Hanks, they solved this problem by "ensuring that after each call the core TDY team reviewed the conversation as a group and refined and circulated meeting notes to everyone.”
It was tough work, but after multiple online sessions over four weeks, the assessment team had done what they set out to do — complete the assessment of the food security situation in Liberia by electronic sharing and reviewing of documents, studying the data, interviewing subject matter experts, thrashing out the issues, resolving differences, and settling on the broad outlines of a plan to help improve food security in Liberia. As Ms. Spainhower noted, “We did it! We overcame the obstacles presented by the COVID-19 cancellation and figured out how best to work as a team from multiple locations.” While nothing can replace the in-person data gathering and connections to interview subjects, the current working environment (and the direct food security situation in Liberia) required an innovative approach.
USAID stands ready to support the Government of Liberia’s efforts to address the effects of COVID-19 and the destabilizing impact on food security of the most vulnerable populations. The food security assessment is being used to inform programming efforts including agriculture and resilience activity designs which are now underway. By supporting these urgent needs, USAID is helping Liberia overcome the increasingly debilitating situation that hinders Liberia's journey to self-reliance.
12 Tips for Remote Assessment Teams
- Work with your program office. They really helped shape up the scope of work and eventual report outline.
- Ensure buy-in. It's important to confirm the final product/report has the buy-in from stakeholders across the Mission.
- Ask questions early and often. Design the final report with the assessment objectives in mind. Ask early and often how the report will be used to ensure that once complete, it meets the needs of the bureaus and Missions that commissioned the study.
- Do not dismiss desk reviews. Documents outlining the Liberian context that would have merely been background to an in-country assessment became the backbone of early discussions.
- Send out calendar invites. This is helpful in order to block the time needed per session.
- Use agendas. Ensure each meeting has a well-structured agenda to encourage efficient and productive use of time.
- Log in early. As conveners of online sessions, log in early and make sure your system is connected and that participants have the correct link. Conveners should also be adept at moderating calls so that all views are represented.
- Conduct test runs with new platform users. Even with test runs, plan for some participants to struggle with the required connections — and have a back up plan (old school speaker phone for example).
- Set aside time for regrouping to monitor progress. Share feedback and learning, and determine if any aspect of the process needs modification.
- Make liberal use of the chat function. This is a good way to share key questions or document emerging issues.
- Consider recording the sessions (if all participants consent to do so). This can help document a verbatim account of each session's outputs.
- Access administrative support. Consider getting administrative support to transcribe key sessions to document conversations.