Four lessons from running our first interactive online workshop

As we adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, how to recreate meaningful and in-depth communications through video conferencing and other online tools is a challenge (and opportunity) many of us have to confront in our day-to-day working. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of the lessons we are learning from this enforced period of isolation may hold long-term benefits for the operation of international research projects.

Drugs & (dis)order recently hosted an online knowledge exchange workshop on data management, led by our Data Manger Veerle Van den Eynden. This workshop was aimed at the 40 or so GROW (Growing Research Capability) projects under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) managed by UK Research Innovation.

It was originally planned as a traditional one-day, face-to-face workshop in March 2020. As it became clear that we could not hold the event at SOAS, we moved it online. We decided to use Zoom – the seemingly ubiquitous technology of the pandemic – due to widespread familiarity and uptake. We combined it with other online tools, such as Mentimeter interactive presentation software and Google docs to encourage engagement and participation.

In spite of the inevitable compromises of not meeting face-to-face, there was much to gain and learn from this shift in approach. Outlined below are some key take-aways that others might be able to benefit from!

Planning and practising

Rigorous planning, practice and detailed instructions for everyone involved helped to make sure that the entire workshop ran very smoothly and to time.

Ensuring your event is engaging and allows for active participation is key. It is a given that you need the content to be sufficiently interesting and well-pitched to sustain interest. But online meetings pose an additional barrier in that they can feel quite detached and there is more scope to disengage.

The temptation to stick to a presentation and Q&A format is compelling and, in many cases, especially larger meetings, completely appropriate. But when something is planned as a participatory workshop more consideration needs to be given to active participation, and this requires thinking through the resources at your disposal and what will work in the context and time available.

It is also wise to rehearse – more than once – to ensure you have a grasp of the functionality of the software you are using and how it will work within the session. The process of rehearsal often provides a steer on how to incorporate new technology in a way that is timely and effective. Finding some trusted colleagues to run this through really benefitted our event. 


In our case, it was clear that we should not try to simulate a full-day workshop online and it would need to be shortened.

We thought about the key elements we wanted to cover and streamlined the content into just over two hours. This included over an hour for plenary and half an hour for structured breakout discussion groups.

On reflection more time could have perhaps been devoted to the breakout groups, but dividing the workshop between one plenary and one break out worked well.


Ensuring that participants could actively engage with the presenters and with each other was an important consideration. The Zoom chat function allowed participants to submit comments and questions during and after the presentations, which were responded to by the presenters.

In addition, we used an interactive presentation software that was integrated into the main plenary session. Instructions on how to submit responses to questions through Mentimeter and a couple of test questions were given at the outset. Then, between each set of thematic presentations some associated interactive questions were posed to participants and results were visualised in real time. This complemented the limited time available for Q&A through the chat, which was moderated by the workshop facilitator.

Within the breakout session, instead of the flip charts that are so familiar to us in conventional workshop settings, links to Google docs with four key questions were given out. All participants had permissions to submit synchronous notes and resources within the Google doc, but there was also an assigned note taker and facilitator for each session.


Ensuring that the workshop – as primarily a knowledge sharing event – had scope to incorporate presentations from a number of projects was important.

Six project presentations were included. We gave them guidance on thematic focus, number of slides and timing (five minutes only) in advance.

Invariably there was overlap in terms of issues raised and solutions sought, but it allowed for a broad range of perspectives, which was critical.

Managing the timing of such a structure is vital and it was decided that people could raise questions of clarification in the plenary, but the main discussion would be kept to the breakout sessions and this worked well as a format.   

Emerging from the pandemic

There is much to be gained from our exploration of new ways of engaging with our online environment. Running this event online not only meant that we could include more people, but also that we could extend it internationally in a way that would not have been possible for a physical event.

What was lost in depth of discussion and the informal networking opportunities was largely compensated by wider participation, the ability to easily record proceedings and the savings in financial, administrative and environmental costs (no name badges, no rooms to book, no catering to organise, no institutional IT and AV support required, no travel or accommodation to arrange and pay for) resulting in a much more efficient use of people’s time.

Clearly there are still issues when it comes to online access and bandwidth, especially when extending events to participants in the global South. But physical events often pose far greater obstacles for international representation.

Whilst I do not advocate replacing the richness and opportunities for relationship building that physical events offer, I am slowly converting from an online sceptic to champion.  My hope is that international projects such as ours, which have always faced communication challenges, will emerge out of this current situation with more tools at our disposal to promote meaningful collaboration.

To end, a summary of practical tips from our Data Manager:

  • Decide which tools you will use: we chose Zoom, Mentimeter and Google Docs.
  • Have one person dedicated to technical facilitation: for example, to admit people, mute mics, send people to breakout rooms, monitor chats, and so on.
  • Streamline your event: we asked participants to send us their slides, so we had one single Mentimeter presentation and could move on seamlessly.
  • Have clear housekeeping rules and show them to the audience: for example, when participants will be (un)muted, will they share video or not, how can questions be asked, and so on.
  • Build in ways for participants to engage so they feel part of the event and can contribute their views: we had polls and surveys, presentations, Q&A and breakout groups.
  • Prepare materials and practical organisation in advance: for example, who will facilitate and take notes in breakout sessions, or how will participants get allocated to breakout groups.
  • Rehearse … a few times.

Adapting Drugs & (dis)order to the COVID-19 pandemic

The disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused us all to adapt our priorities and activities in response to the new challenges we face. Across the Drugs & (dis)order partnership, this need to adapt has manifested in a range of ways.

Our project, of course, is part of the world-wide shift to home-based, virtual working. It is always worth re-stating that this presents far more acute challenges for those in places – Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – where bandwidth and data are restricted, and has been relatively straightforward for those already set up for it.

In the UK, the SOAS Drugs & (dis)order team has adjusted some of its ways of working. We are having more frequent meetings, aiming to ensure better communication and substitute for the in-person, informal exchanges that take place in the office. Conversations with our funder, GCRF, are ongoing, and the project’s budget has been restructured to allow for as much flexibility as possible, in support of the kind of adaptation that is proving necessary in the field.

Adapting research to new circumstances

Perhaps the greatest need for adaptation has been around field research. In Afghanistan and Colombia, carefully planned fieldwork visits have been postponed. Remote data collection is being approached in a number of different ways.

  • In Colombia, the CESED, Universidad de los Andes team is piloting the application of different sections of their planned survey instrument by phone, while the Universidad Nacional de Colombia team is discussing how fieldworkers may be able to keep field diaries.
  • In Afghanistan, the OSDR team has carried out some guideline interviews by phone, facilitated by local middlemen.
  • In Myanmar, the SHAN team has done some remote collection of data on the impact of COVID-19 on drug users and their families, and is also reflecting on whether some of their planned qualitative research could be replaced with a quantitative online survey if the situation does not allow planned fieldwork to go ahead.

As well as altering plans for new fieldwork and considering remote data collection, teams are working on analysis of data already gathered. In Colombia, one of the threads of Universidad Nacional’s research has adapted its methodological expectations by taking a decision to make do with a smaller number of interviews than originally planned, and to use data from interviews carried out for other purposes that contain information relevant to the research question.

Of course, the pandemic is also raising a whole new set of research questions in the borderlands of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia where our project is working. These include analysing cross-border movements as borders open and close in response to the pandemic, the effect of structural inequalities between centres and borderlands on pandemic response, and the responses of non-state armed groups. All of our country teams are reflecting on how our research can include these new substantive issues.

Virtual learning, capacity-building and engagement – plans and dilemmas

Across the board, plans for capacity-building have altered from face-to-face to online. From GIS mapping to life histories to knowledge exchange, different consortium members are working virtually, actively exploring different modes of interactivity. We are grappling in particular with ways of enabling the group work and peer learning that usually takes place in our annual face-to-face partner meeting. 

Planning for uptake and engagement events is also taking into account the need for virtual approaches. Our panel at the World Bank’s virtual Fragility Forum is being recorded as a podcast, while the launch of our Voices from the borderlands flagship report will be a webinar, supported by a wider range of multi-media content than originally planned. Here, the challenges are about managing virtual platforms effectively across time zones and bandwidths, using technology effectively to create high-quality outputs, and engaging those who need to hear about our research despite webinar fatigue and an overwhelming focus on the pandemic.

In terms of research-based engagement and advocacy at the national level, Christian Aid Colombia’s plans to contribute to a campaign against the stigmatisation of coca growers in Colombia also shifted online. The campaign, #RostrosQueSiembran (Faces of Growers) relies in part on data from the Universidad Nacional’s survey of crop substitution. It was delayed only slightly, running for the whole of May and combining webpages, social media, radio and online newspaper articles. This adapted approach allowed both broad reach and the engagement of new actors in the debate. Work with the coca-growers’ association is now focused on whether the sub-national advocacy campaign planned as a follow-up is possible to carry out virtually in remote borderlands with poor infrastructure, and how a planned training programme for legal facilitators can go ahead.

Altered politics: challenges and opportunities

Responses to the pandemic are shaping politics, policy and public spaces in very different ways across the world. This will have implications both on the processes and narratives we are trying to influence with our research, and the strategies that are available to us for doing this.

In Myanmar, consortium members observed that the government may be more open than usual to public participation in its COVID-19 response. A meeting with a top-level official saw a more open attitude, there has been some relaxation towards the armed conflict, and some freeing of people incarcerated for drug-related offences. On the other hand, the mechanisms of international NGOs and donors are weaker; their hands are tied by financial and travel restrictions.

By contrast, in Colombia, there has been a distinct change in public space. Public protests are severely limited both in cities and in the countryside – an important shift for those opposing either governmental repression or forced eradication of coca. The pandemic has resulted in a narrative shift which legitimises government authority: the government is suddenly ‘taking care of the interests of the people,’ and there was a significant upsurge in the popularity of the President at the beginning of the lockdown. The shift in narrative obscures increased and sometimes extreme repression, particularly in the countryside. It also reduces the possibilities of mounting opposition to policies related to drugs and health.

Many stakeholders involved in influencing policy have observed that the pandemic has resulted in policy processes becoming more opaque: that important decisions are being taken behind closed doors, that influencing decision-making is becoming even more reliant than ever on personal contacts, and that the power of the media to lead rather than follow the conversation has diminished. This challenges us to rapidly find new ways to offer our expertise and knowledge to the policy stakeholders that we are seeking to influence.

This blog is based on responses to an email to all consortium partners requesting information on adaptations to Covid-19 and new substantive research themes. Responses were received from: Sai All, Ana Arjona, Richard Brittain, Karen Brock, Veerle van den Eynden, Jay Kubler, Adam Pain, Frances Thompson Lynce, Ghulam Rasool and Susana Vesga. Also included were comments from Dan Seng Lawn and Francisco Gutierrez made during the first meeting of the Drugs & (dis)order Covid-19 work group.

El PNIS en terreno: Voces del campesinado cocalero

This publication is currently only available in Spanish.

Este informe tiene como propósito mostrar los principales hallazgos obtenidos de la encuesta aplicada a usuarios del Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de cultivos de uso ilícito (PNIS) en los municipios de Tumaco y Puerto Asís. En este sentido, la encuesta se enfocó en dos aspectos fundamentales: primero, caracterizar las condiciones socioeconómicas de la población relacionada con los cultivos de uso ilícito; segundo, indagar sobre el estado de implementación del PNIS, sus alcances y dificultades.

En el informe resaltamos dos resultados claves: por un lado, mostramos que la economía cocalera ha permitido a los campesinos acceso a educación, vivienda y tierras. Sin embargo, este avance social es contrarrestado por las condiciones de violencia e inseguridad que trae consigo la participación en los cultivos de uso ilícito. Por otro lado, encontramos que, si bien hay una percepción favorable sobre las instituciones y agencias encargadas de su implementación, el PNIS ha tenido graves fallas relacionadas con el retraso en la llegada de los recursos prometidos a los usuarios y la falta de acceso a información relevante sobre el programa.

After coca, what? Colombia’s failing illicit crop substitution programme

By Frances Thomson and Camilo Acero Vargas

The original article was published in Spanish in El Espectador on 9 May 2020.

In 2017, more than 2,800 families in Puerto Asís uprooted their coca bushes under the national illicit crop substitution programme (PNIS), that was created as part of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the country’s oldest and largest armed insurgent group FARC-EP.

Last October, these families received the last of a series of cash payments that were supposed to temporarily compensate the loss of income they endured as a result of the voluntary eradication of their coca crops.

At least that is the situation of the ‘fortunate’. Many never received these payments or received only part what was promised. These payments have long since ended and the substitution projects have not yet begun. What are they living on now? ‘Miracles’, some reply.

The peasant farmers of Puerto Asís survive each day however they can. Many have been forced to sell their cattle and other assets they had acquired with their coca incomes. Some try to sell other produce from their farms, such as black pepper, but it’s difficult to find buyers and those they find offer very low prices.

In the case of plantain, after transport costs and the cut taken by intermediaries, farmers are typically left with a meagre $3,000 pesos (circa 0.60 UK pence) for each bunch, and each plant produces just one bunch at a time. The list could go on. Under current conditions, most ‘alternatives’ to coca do not offer viable livelihoods for one reason or another.

Meanwhile, PNIS is moving forward at a turtle’s pace. The food security component of the programme, which seeks to boost subsistence farming, has only just begun – the technical assistants have been visiting farms, but they haven’t yet supplied any materials or inputs.

More worrying still, the Government has not provided a start date for the commercial ‘productive projects’ that are supposed to replace coca incomes in the long-run. Apparently, it has not even allocated funding for this yet.

When agrarian leaders ask about the delay, they are told ‘there’s no money’. In other words, the substitution component of the programme, the most important of all, has not commenced and is underfunded. ‘Why do they have money to fumigate and forcibly eradicate but not for the productive projects?’ – the farmers ask rhetorically.

Some 40 families are no longer even waiting for the productive projects because they were expelled from the programme. Another 590 have been suspended and remain in limbo, unsure if the Government will reinstate their registration or not.

There are a few who signed a PNIS contract with the Government, eradicated their coca, and were later suspended because the UNODC didn’t verify the eradication – allegedly because there were too few enrolled in the area to justify visiting it.

Some were suspended because they accidentally overlooked one of their bushes during the eradication. ‘What am I going to do with a single bush?’ – another rhetorical question.

Others were in hospital or couldn’t attend the verification visit for one reason or another. They send letters to Bogotá, offering explanations and evidence, but most don’t get a reply. They repeat their complaints in meetings, but little changes.

There are those who say that the Government is deliberately trying to ‘tire’ as many farmers as possible, reduce the number of programme participants by exhausting them with bureaucratic obstacles.

The thousands who uprooted their coca were left adrift, without an income to pay for food, healthcare, their children’s education, and other necessities. The people of Puerto Asís have sacrificed a lot.

Community leaders have even risked their lives, struggling for the programme’s success. Sadly, the Government has not reciprocated this level of effort. So far, it has not fulfilled its side of the agreement. And so, there is a serious risk that people will see no other option but to replant coca.

Social organisations in Colombia have long demanded gradual voluntary substitution to avoid precisely this type of situation. Experiences in other parts of the world suggest that graduality is key to ensuring illicit crop eradication is sustainable. Some drug policy experts call it ‘proper sequencing’. As explained in a publication by the German development agency GIZ: Alternative development ‘should not be made conditional on prior drug crop eradication’ and if ‘drug crops are eradicated, alternatives need to be in place beforehand in order not to deprive farmers of their livelihood’.

While the Government claims it is implementing regional Development Plans with a Territorial Focus (PDET), which are supposed to complement the PNIS, in the case of Putumayo, this plan seems to exist only on paper.

Social leaders from Puerto Asís also claim that the proposals elaborated at the community level were not incorporated into the final PDET document. In other words, the Integral Community and Municipal Plans for Substitution and Alternative Development (PISDA), which include proposals for things like tertiary road construction or improvement, ‘disappeared’ from the PDET.

Many rural subdistricts in Puerto Asís still do not have running water (aqueduct services) to wash their produce and comply with certain hygiene standards, for example. They still lack electricity for processing/transforming or refrigerating produce. And they still lack roads or other means to transport bulky goods out of the rural subdistricts they live in.

Even if the Government moves forward with the productive projects component of PNIS, all of this remains an obstacle to alternative development.

The peasant delegates that form part of the Municipal Commission for Participatory Planning (CMPP) and the Territorial Advisory Council have tried to dialogue with the representatives of different State entities.

Sometimes, no one from the Government attends the CMPP meetings, as happened in December 2019. On other occasions, the central Government sends functionaries without decision making power.

The farmers’ patience begins to wear thin. They have shown a strong will for change, but the lack of answers is making them weary. That is why so many say that ‘if coca makes a comeback in Puerto Asís, the Government will only have itself to blame’.