“Fascinating” said one of the senior mentors in his very British accent when my colleague Hanna Centerskog and I had just demonstrated some features that can be used in an online meeting room in order to mirror a face-to-face event.
I knew that was a polite code for “I have to digest if I like this or not“. “Sorry to be a dinosaur” said another mentor with a despondent laugh, “but can you please repeat that again, I want to try it out”. When the pandemic unfolded last year, I was in Entebbe arranging an induction course for members of the Senior Women Talent Pipeline upon request from the UN. Little did I know that a year later, I would be working remotely and be part of arranging a similar endeavour, albeit completely online: the Mission Advanced Staff Training (MAST).
During our break, I turn of my webcam and do my daily ugly dance around my living room, a habit developed to cope with the frustrations of excessive screen time.
Peacebuilding hero, digital zero?
The MAST was originally designed as a residence course geared towards newly appointed Chiefs of Staff and Chiefs of Mission Support and equivalent leadership positions. The programme is intended to strengthen leadership, management and strategic skills to allow participants to respond effectively to the main challenges of multidimensional UN peace operations, in areas ranging from crisis management, command and control, and strategic planning.
FBA offered to host a residence MAST course already in 2019, but the event was postponed through 2020. First because of the UN’s ‘record level cash crisis’ and a subsequent travel ban in an effort to reduce expenditures, thereafter the rampant COVID-19 pandemic.
In January 2021, Integrated Training Service (ITS) requested FBA’s support again for taking the MAST online with the goal of delivering the activity before the summer. That meant rapid concept development and practicing working together online. Under this time pressure, my FBA colleagues and I worked closely with ITS and the senior mentors on a weekly basis, in order to establish roles, build trust and a flow in a virtual format.
For some of us, it meant approaching undiscovered territory and being a beginner, while at the same time being an expert in the field of peace operations and peacebuilding. For all of us, it meant jointly delivering a programme running three half days per week, spread over 3 weeks, which normally ran for 9 full days, without even having met all the people of this team effort in person and having to lower our expectations of what could be created.
From storytelling to pragmatism
Even after meticulous planning and months of twisting and turning the pedagogical grip, we were still surprised by how smooth it all went during the delivery. One cannot plan for potential power shortages or unstable connections. But for the majority of the attendees and most of the time spent together, fragile power supply systems and WiFi’s were on our side.
Surely, meeting colleagues from the field is hard to replicate virtually. The format of sharing intimate experiences and discussing issues from the hardship of duty stations so common within the UN (as so eloquently put by one of the participants: “we [UN] are essentially a storytelling organization”), requires a certain level of deeper sense of safety that only the physical presence of the person in front of you can give.
But conflicts and security issues have continued to unravel during the pandemic, and sometimes pragmatism is the best approach.
After all, supporting MAST is part of FBA’s overall support to the UN in developing effective leadership and cooperation in peace operations and UN’s capacity to strengthen leadership development, alongside activities such as Peer Support for Mission Chiefs of Staffs and Chiefs of Mission Support. The world keeps spinning, pandemic or not. As put by a participant, an online delivery, if one is modest, simply “enabled it to happen”. But it also provided a foundation for an exchange of perspectives, views and collective learning which would otherwise not have occurred. Enhancing the work for peace cannot afford to be postponed.
A bright (digital) future?
For me personally, MAST meant access to a room full of highly experienced professionals I would probably not be even remotely close to enter physically in the nearest decade, given I would fully commit to a career within the UN. It also meant overcoming problems by levelling with senior experts, way my senior, and sharing content glances with them through the screen when we nailed it. It meant, as termed by Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmondson, an effort to vivify ‘teaming’ in the digital era.
Despite its obvious limitations, connecting online offers an opportunity to decrease airline travel and mitigating our negative impact on our climate. In a wider perspective, beyond MAST, it also creates possibilities in terms of reaching those who cannot leave their duty station, their work or their home, whether it may be because of security and conflict, financial reasons or one’s family situation.
In my view, the IT developments and innovations that we have witnessed on the rise during this pandemic is a great leap for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. Especially for all the dedicated men and women who spend their life working for peace in various ways, whilst trying to anchor a turbulent career path and raise a family or uphold some normalcy in their life. It casts a wider net in terms of who receives access to and can partake in the international effort of peacebuilding, be it on the local, national or global level. For them, I look forward to see what the future holds.
But for that sense of deeper connection, shared purpose and safety that only a face-to-face meeting can create, let us hope that the member states continue to commit to maintaining international peace and security, human rights and equality – frankly put – by opening their wallets.
The time has come
To say fair’s fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
Beds are Burning – Midnight Oil