Many organizations around the world have suffered a significant impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on their daily activities and in their relationships with project partners. The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an international charity that supports more than 5,000 projects per year to aid the persecuted and suffering Church in around 140 countries, has also felt this impact. What changes have occurred during the past year and a half with those pastoral workers who find themselves in need of ACN´s help? What are the long-term effects on communication and working practices that can be expected if – and when – the current pandemic becomes a thing of the past?
The lockdown measures that were necessary to stop the spread of the pandemic unfortunately also caused a significant decrease in the regular pastoral activities of ACN´s project partners around the world. “Compared with 2019, in 2020 we experienced a decrease of 20 % in applications received for project support. At the same time, we also had to focus on specific project types that grew in urgency and required our full attention, such as supporting mass stipends, sending existential aid to religious sisters, and overseeing the upkeep of seminarians,” says Regina Lynch, Director of Projects at ACN International.
Furthermore, restrictions on air travel resulted in a complete standstill of project partner visits to ACN International’s headquarters in Königstein, Germany, from March last year to June of this year. ACN´s representatives were also thus unable to make their regular visits to international project partners around the world.
The importance of being on site and welcoming people in person
The first thing to expect after the pandemic ends and a return to “normality” ensues is an even greater zeal and appreciation for visiting project partners and meeting with them in person. “It is lovely to come back to face-to-face encounters, because it is important for us to visit those places that are the furthest away from us even more frequently, to gain a true insight into their situation and be able to offer encouragement personally. Our project partners there really appreciate it when we do that,” adds Regina Lynch.
Marco Mencaglia, Head of Department for Europe agrees: “The onsite visits of ACN personnel to projects is about so much more than regulating and checking that is everything going according to plan. Meeting project partners in their daily habitats is rather about looking forward together to the future: discovering the pastoral plan and delineating the vision of the local church. Understanding the challenges that are being faced involves more than just listening to requests. It includes much that is unspoken but that can only be noticed by being on site.”
Often, the presence of ACN can help in finding a solution to a challenge. Kinga von Schierstaedt, Head of Department for Africa, explains: “During one of our visits, one of our project partners expressed their sadness about the lack of money to buy a simple cross for one of the chapels in the countryside. Speaking about, we came up with the idea of making a cross out of two branches. The bishop, who was present, took the initiative to pick the branches from outside and nailed immediately a cross at the wall of the chapel. You can only work together on a solution when you are there, on the spot, to actually see what can be done.”
Furthermore, she pointed out that communication alternatives like online conferences might not work in every country. “There is a lack of stable internet in this region, with many locations lacking even basic coverage. Also, many bishops there spend hardly any time in the office, instead travelling constantly to interact with and aid people. This means that it can take time to set up a proper meeting”
Nevertheless, von Schierstaedt also adds: “Online video conferences did help us to establish contact with newly elected bishops in Sudan and Ivory Coast, for example. A video call helps us see our interlocutor’s face and familiarizes us to each other; but relying solely on audio and video is limiting, especially when there are a greater number of people participating.”
Finding a proper role for remote communication tools
Online communication tools have played an important role for a while now. Since 2013, ACN has used email communication alongside printed post as another standard channel for receiving requests and project applications, and for maintaining contact. Because many of the local communities that need ACN’s help live in far distant countries, email correspondence is an effective way to override the problems of difference in time zones and inadequate postal systems.
This practice has proven to be beneficial especially during the pandemic. Already during the first wave, ACN conducted most of its communication with international project partners via email. Recently, the pandemic catalysed a surge in online meetings and conferences (via Zoom, Skype and other platforms) and increased the use of online chatting applications like WhatsApp or Signal. How might ACN be able to make use of these tools and practices to improve its work in the future?
Three fundamental long-term effects can be expected, according to Philipp Ozores, Secretary General for ACN: “First of all, bishops, our main project partners, have now grown accustomed to using tools for online chat and video conferences. This is a very positive development. If a sudden emergent humanitarian crisis occurs, adequate information can now reach us much more quickly, with a subsequent discussion and problem-solving taking place almost immediately. Secondly, it is now easier to stay in touch and up to date, in coordination with both our partners and benefactors, enabling us to organize ACN´s internal communication with national teams. Finally, these tools can be very useful during any kind of image or management crisis to distribute adequate and accurate information to media and staff.”
Rafael D’Aqui, Department Head of Latin America adds: “Video conferences helped us to reach out and establish close relations with bishops from the new prelature of Alto Xingu Tucuma in the Amazon region. Partners became closer to each other. In a similar way, we are now discussing solar energy projects with the diocese for Conceicao do Araguaia. We were also able to support bishops in this region with video equipment and published material like YouCat, in order to facilitate pastoral activity that had been stymied by the pandemic.”
“Remote communication platforms can give us an advantage in overseeing construction projects,” notes Regina Lynch, citing as an example an online conference call, in the context of a current project in Africa, that included a bishop and his assistants, the project department ACN staff in Europe, and a collaborating engineer based in North America. “It was a very good experience, and it allowed us to more easily gain a clearer oversight on the project’s technical data.”
Lynch also remarked that the challenge of the pandemic accelerated the implementation and improved the organization of data digitalisation. It also led to the development of new methods of staff recruitment because of so many preliminary interviews having to be held online. Additionally, it could also be serving as an impetus for ACN to communicate more by mobile phones and video conferences, as more and more project partners have expressed a desire to contact ACN representatives through remote communication. “Our experience shows, however, that such international meetings should ideally be limited to only 7 or 8 participants if we are to have a chance at fruitful discussion,” Lynch concludes.
In the long term then, ACN plans to always prioritise in-person communication and working practices, as much as it is reasonably possible. It must be kept in mind, however, that online tools can be a beneficial supplement and do provide a way of staying in touch, helping to keep a steadier or more frequent pace of information exchange, or serving to establish new contacts more easily. What must serve to guide us is the awareness that both ACN and its project partners belong to a Church in need.
Fr. Danko Kovacevic