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Poor Internet Connection during COVID-19 Stalls Catholic Charity’s Initiatives in Africa

Burkina Faso Sr. Anne Marie Kaboré SIC (Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Ouagadougou) during Covid-19, giving an interview and taking part in a programme for children from the catechesis for 14 Radios. Credit: ACN

As the Catholic charity foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, switched to blended communication, including online engagements with its partners following the COVID-19 outbreak, many of the foundation’s collaborators in Africa lagged behind in communication with the aid agency.

In a Friday, September 10 report, ACN Head of Department for Africa, Kinga von Schierstaedt, notes that African countries that suffered the most are those that do not have stable Internet connection.

The ACN official pointed out that moving forward, communication alternatives like online conferences might not work in every country. 

She said, in reference to Africa, “There is a lack of stable Internet in this region, with many locations lacking even basic coverage.”

In the September 10 report, ACN official notes that just like many other organizations around the world that have suffered a significant impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on their daily activities, the Catholic charity has had to devise new ways to engage with its project partners.

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Kinga von Schierstaedt says that virtual meetings, particularly, have helped the organization to establish contact with Bishops in various African countries who ascended to the helm of Church leadership at the height of the pandemic.

“Online video conferences did help us to establish contact with newly elected bishops in Sudan and Ivory Coast, for example,” she says, and adds, “A video call helps us see our interlocutor’s face and familiarizes us to each other.”

Relying on virtual interactions such as audio and visual is, however, limiting especially when there are a greater number of people participating, she says.

Bishops in Africa who the organization says are its major collaborators are also hardly available for virtual engagements as they prefer to go to the field to interact with the people of God.

“Many Bishops there (in Africa) 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,” the organization reports.

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ACN International Director of Programs, Regina Lynch, also stresses the importance of virtual interactions with the organization’s collaborators amid limited physical interactions owing to the COVID-19 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 collaborators, the project department ACN staff in Europe, and a collaborating engineer based in North America.

She added, in reference to the online interactions, “It was a very good experience, and it allowed us to more easily gain a clearer oversight on the project’s technical data.”

Ms. Lynch also remarked that the challenge of the pandemic accelerated the implementation and improved the organization of data digitization.

According to the Catholic charity, the COVID-19 pandemic also led to the development of new methods of staff recruitment because of so many preliminary interviews that the foundation had to conduct online.

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The pandemic, ACN notes, could also be serving as an impetus for the pontifical organization to communicate more by mobile phones and video conferences, as more and more project partners have expressed a desire to contact the charity’s 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,” Ms. Lynch says.

In the long term then, ACN plans to always prioritize in-person communication and working practices, as much as it is reasonably possible, Ms. Lynch further says

“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,” she adds.

The international charity supports more than 5,000 projects per year to aid the persecuted and suffering Church in around 140 countries.

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In the September 10 report, the leadership of the Catholic charity notes that 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 its project partners around the world.

“Compared with 2019, in 2020 we experienced a decrease of 20 percent in applications received for project support,” Ms. Lynch says, and adds, “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.”

In addition to the plunge in applications for project support, the 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, the leadership of the Catholic charity reports.

ACN´s representatives were also thus unable to make their regular visits to international project partners around the world.

The foundation is optimistic that better days will come after the pandemic when it will tour various countries where it supports thousands of projects.

“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,” the leadership of the Pontifical charity says in the September 10 report.

Commenting about the plans of the organization should normalcy return, Ms. Lynch says, “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.”