INTERVIEW | African citizens responding positively to AU-ECOSOCC-AfDB COVID-19 awareness webinar series – Zéneb Touré

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Zéneb Touré, Manager of the Civil Society and Community Engagement Division at the African Development Bank (AfDB), speaks about the Bank’s COVID-19 awareness webinar series, in partnership with the African Union Economic, Social and Cultural Council (AU ECOSOCC)

 

Zéneb Touré

 

Newspage: What inspired the AfDB Civil Society and Community Engagement Division’s awareness webinar series in support of the continental response to COVID-19, in partnership with AU ECOSOCC?

 

Touré: The African Development Bank is firmly convinced that the ambitious development goals for Africa can only be achieved through the active engagement, consultation and participation of the civil society. This was why the Civil Society and Community Engagement Division was created in 2016, to lead the coordination of the Bank’s civil society engagement work and provide strategic guidance to the AfDB on engaging with civil society. Our goal is to ensure inclusivity and make sure the voices of citizens are heard and taken into account in the Bank’s programmes and policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic is spreading across Africa leading to significant social and economic impact. Who are the first to be affected? Communities. Populations.  Since the beginning of the outbreak, we have more than ever before, seen the role of civil society organizations as change-makers, policy influencers and first responders during emergencies. The number of community-led initiatives in response to COVID-19 on the continent is impressive, and needs to be highlighted.

In the current context where physical gatherings are not possible, organizing webinars to exchange ideas on the crucial role of the civil society, and most importantly, on ways civil society organizations can continue to have an impact, despite the constraining yet necessary measures taken by governments, seems only logical to us.

Therefore, early in March, following the outbreak of the pandemic, a team from AU ECOSOCC Secretariat and our Division, jointly initiated a periodic webinar series to raise awareness, and sensitize African citizens, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and diaspora at large about the pandemic. In the interest of transparency and accountability, the webinars also provide a platform to inform the civil society on the Bank’s and the African Union’s different response efforts in fighting COVID-19. The webinar series allow for the sharing of lessons drawn from the interventions that CSOs are undertaking at local and national levels, in response to the pandemic.

The webinars bring together its primary targets, CSOs but also community leaders, government representatives, decisions makers, as well as representatives of international organizations to strengthen the relation between duty bearers and right holders and strengthen community engagement in the post COVID19 reconstruction agenda. All these elements are essential and will contribute greatly to the continental response to COVID-19.

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Newspage: Now that you have held several editions of the webinars, how can you describe the experience in terms of the responses of African citizens to your awareness raising activities on COVID-19?

Touré: From the hosting of the very first webinar until now, there has been increasing interest about the webinars by African citizens but also by others from all over the world. The experience has been about exchanging and sharing of ideas and learning from one another. From solidarity chains distributing health and food supplies to the most disadvantaged citizens, to youth groups creating mobile health applications or farmers committing to feed Africa, the number of experiences shared seem endless; the webinars have aroused enthusiasm and engagement from participants.

Among other topics, we have discussed gender implications of Africa’s COVID-19 response, exchanging ideas on innovative approaches and solutions that could be implemented in response to, for example, the increase in gender-based and domestic violence during quarantine in countries such as South Africa. The webinars are always very animated with series of questions, and the urge from the public to learn more is being very clearly felt. From over 100 participants during the first webinar, we have seen the webinar participants grew steadily up to more than three hundred participants, and the figures keep rising.

Online, the webinars reached an impressive audience. The social media statistics (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) show that the pre-event promotion provoked almost 167000 impressions on Twitter while the event live-tweeting generated 220000 impressions. Not only did the promotion reach the people, but the public were engaging with us by clicking, liking, retweeting and commenting on our posts; so far a total of 3,646 engagements were documented for the pre-webinar promotion of the webinars while 2,018 engagements were recorded during the live tweeting of the webinars.

African citizens are clearly very well responding to our awareness raising activities, including influential personalities. So far, we have been opportune to host a diverse array of high profile speakers which comprised of artists, government figures, influencers, and various subject-matter experts.

They include the Senegalese-born world-renowned musician and activist Youssou N’Dour; Zambia’s Minister of Health H.E Chitalu Chilufya; Facebook’s Public Policy Manager Ms. Balkissa Idé Siddo; Sierra Leone’s Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education H.E David Moinina Sengeh and many more. Moreover, both the African Development Bank and the AU Commission have had their respective vice-president and deputy chairperson as well as senior management persons took part in the webinars. This shows how much the significance of the role of civil society in the pandemic response is acknowledged and appreciated by both institutions.

Consequently, discussions at the webinars have resulted in concrete actions and initiatives. Just to name a few, after speaking at one of the webinars, H.E David Sengeh, members of whose family tested positive for COVID19, wrote an open note entitled “What it is like to fight COVID-19 at home and at work”  in which he testified that COVID19 exists, emphasizing the absolute necessity for community engagement to achieve more impact.

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Also, Mr Alan Bacarese, director of the Office of Integrity and Anti-Corruption and acting director of Compliance Review and Mediation Unit (BCRM) of the Bank, was one of the speakers; he received numerous questions during the webinar on accountability which resulted in the hosting of a specific BCRM-focused webinar on the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) of the Bank. Another speaker, Nelson Kwaje, team lead at 211CHECK, a fact-checking and information verification platform focused on countering misinformation and disinformation in South Sudan, was contacted by CSOs from other countries to replicate his model of community resilience.

No doubt, African initiatives and responses have proven to be fast, effective and innovative in these times of COVID-19 and all this experience sharing can only encourage and inspire other citizens and civil society organizations to launch initiatives and contribute to their continent’s response.

 

Newspage: As now we are already in the recovery phase of the COVID-19 crisis, how do you plan to refocus the webinar series to address key recovery issues to do with economy, livelihoods etc?

Touré: For the first stage of the webinar series, we clearly had to focus on the outbreak and the emergency response. This was why we addressed themes such as health and sanitation, information and misinformation, the frontline experiences of CSOs, resource mobilization, gender mainstreaming in the pandemic response, and the use of innovative technologies in the context of COVID-19.

The main recommendations that came out of this first series are the necessity to reinforce public institutions; the need to maintain the partnership between governments and civil society as it remains among the most indispensable; the need to integrate gender at the heart of the response; the need to establish a mechanism for building resilience against future shocks in Africa; and finally, the need for a harmonized regional approach. These recommendations are contained in the report of the first series of webinars that will soon be disseminated online.

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We are now preparing for the recovery phase and are proactively working with civil society across the continent to reflect on the questions that concern our future such as the type of education system we need post-pandemic? What type of health infrastructure do we need? How will we now better engage with the youth? We are preparing for the continent’s response to the pandemic as it transitions to the recovery and post pandemic phases. In that sense, we do plan to refocus the webinar series and have already started addressing diverse themes, including accountability, solidarity, youth, education, health infrastructures, and the African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) etc.

 

Newspage: Beyond COVID-19, what plans do you have in terms of your partnership with AU ECOSOCC, to continue to raise awareness about critically important development issues in Africa?

Touré: As leading institutions for the development of the continent, the African Union and the African Development Bank Group recognize the ability of Civil Society Organizations to position the interests of African citizens at the center of its growth interventions. These webinars are for us just the beginning of a significant collaboration that must go beyond COVID-19, as we share the same vision and mandate.

Webinars are now the “new normal” and are part of our new approach for engagement with communities, via CSOs and Information and Communication Technologies, due to the need for social distancing. This new form of civil society engagement enables us to promote the concerns and ideas of citizens including those from hard-to-reach communities.

We have seen how impactful these webinars have been, through the number of people reached thanks to our joint efforts. Unity creates strength and it would be unfortunate not to use this strength to continue supporting community oriented responses. This partnership with AU ECOSOCC made it possible, from the first hours of the response, to rally the forces of the two institutions to aggregate citizens’ concerns, put them on the agenda and provide organizational, technical and material resources to CSOs, donors, diaspora and policymakers.

Let’s continue to do so beyond COVID-19 and on a wider scale, to contribute to reaching Africa’s ambitious development goals. The future of our relationship with AU-ECOSOCC potentially includes a deep dive mission into the African Union so that both institutions can learn even more about each other. Going forward, we are also planning a joint funding program for civil society and leading joint advocacy initiatives.

 

 

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