Going the distance: Insights about our changing development practices during COVID-19

development at a distance - radio in a cocoa tree

By Ian Pringle

Even before Covid-19, I liked to say that Farm Radio International does development differently.

Take our approach. We consider ourselves a Communication For Development organization and our methods aren’t what you typically see when you consider international development projects. We use readily available, low cost technologies (radio and mobile phones) to reach a large number of people without actually physically meeting them. 

Working through existing radio stations, and innovative digital solutions, we are talking and listening to people at a distance. And evidence shows that it works. Using these remote-led, distance development methods, we consistently see uptake of good agricultural practices, and behaviour change related to health or gender equality. 

You could say that Farm Radio was a “distance development” organisation even before the pandemic. In other words, an organisation that does development differently by using distance technologies to achieve scale at low cost.

But it’s also safe to say that the pandemic brought that same work into sharp focus. Soon after March 2020, we found ourselves busier than ever. Radio — and therefore our work using radio — as a development solution became very popular. We were suddenly talking to everyone about radio — radio for agriculture, for education, for health, radio to address gender and other inequalities. We put in 15 project proposals in less than a month, a record for us.

With conventional development approaches prevented from using traditional “face-to-face” methods during a pandemic that restricts in-person gatherings (sometimes severely), many more development funders and practitioners are interested in distance approaches.

While the main thrust of our work has always been, and always will be done remotely, using radio and technology mediated approaches, Farm Radio also had to adjust. We’ve also been finding out what it’s like to work – in many cases – 100% at a distance. We’ve introduced completely new methods and approaches and further adapted existing ones in order to work entirely remote-led and at-a-distance

For us, that meant animating national and regional WhatsApp groups that draw in hundreds of radio broadcasters to our network for informal training and coaching about public health protocols. These same groups hosted discussions with local experts on mitigation strategies for farmers and increasing gender inequality. We have connected more than 2,160 broadcasters across the countries where we work through these groups.

With this focus on a “network” of broadcasters we looked at what new services could bring the most value to broadcasters, listeners and development partners alike. Knowing that broadcasters are critical intermediaries and partners in development themselves, we increased our support to them by hiring dedicated networking officers in all the countries we work in. In addition to running those WhatsApp groups, network officers spend a lot of time on the phone offering direct support, coaching and connecting broadcasters to experts. We currently employ 18 network officers; a post we did not even have two years ago.

One of the network officers’ key roles is to assist broadcasters to run a new type of Farm Radio programming that seems ideally suited to addressing the pandemic. In the past, our programming has consisted mainly of intensive impact programs that include plenty of hands-on training for broadcasters and guidance over radio program content. The new type of programming, “Script+” is based on the use of reusable scripts and other text-based resources to drive programming among a large number of stations in the network. In RECOVER, a project we’ve been running in partnership with GIZ since November 2021, impact programs were carried on five to six stations in each of the seven project countries, whereas our new “network model” of programming is carried on more than 20 per country, over 150 in total for the project. 

Working remotely brings a whole new set of challenges; at the top of the list are inequalities in internet access generally and on the basis of gender and remoteness. However, using a combination of document sharing, workshops using audio conferencing tools like Google Meet and Zoom, WhatsApp groups for discussion, phone-based surveys and interviews, our country and specialty teams managed to plan, design, train and evaluate if not 100% at a distance, then in creative and innovative hybrid approaches. 

As public health protocols allow, Farm Radio is returning to face-to-face methods for activities like research, training and design work; however, the pandemic has helped us innovate new ways of doing things, including new approaches to networking and programming that enabled us to increase access to quality information and communication programming for tens of millions of rural residents at exceptionally low cost. Likewise, we’re confident that our stakeholders, partners and funders have new confidence in distance methods to achieve meaningful results. 

While the pandemic is not yet over, it seems clear the world will never go entirely back to the way we did things before — and in many ways that’s positive. Conferences including virtual sessions mean you don’t need to afford the cost — or the emissions — of a plane ticket, and those with accessibility issues can join without challenge. The option to work from home, for those who can, seems like it will become the norm.

We should also consider the lessons the pandemic brought to the way development is done. Intensive, expensive, geographically specific face-to-face development programs need not continue to be the gold standard. Where lower cost and more scalable interventions are desired, communication for development methods are there. Radio and mobile phones still produce results, but they do it for tens, even hundreds of millions of family farmers. In areas with conflict or security issues, in hard to reach and remote communities, at a distance work can be the only way to go. 

In short, as the pandemic (hopefully) draws closer to a close, it’s time to think about how to do development differently into the future. 

For more about our thinking on development at a distance, watch our webinar “Development at a distance — changing paradigms during and beyond the pandemic.” To work or partner with Farm Radio International, reach out at partnerships@farmradio.org.

About the author
Ian Pringle is Farm Radio International’s Director of Programs. Specializing in community-based, outcome-oriented media, communication, and learning, Ian has 30 years of experience in program leadership, development and delivery — including 20 years in developing country contexts. He holds a MA in New Media in Society from the University of Leicester and a BA from McGill University. Formerly a special consultant with UNESCO and media education specialist at the Commonwealth of Learning, Ian has been the Director of Programs at Farm Radio since 2015.

Want to learn more?

Get our latest news and stories.


Get our latest news and stories.