Re-envisioning Community Engagement in the Coronavirus Response

Innovative tools for community engagement in a time of social distancing

In recent years, tech tools connecting people, governments, and project decision makers have grown increasingly popular as a means of improving civic engagement and feedback. In the right context, these tools can have real benefits. However, virtual engagement should always be a supplement, not a substitute, for in-person consultation when it comes to internationally financed projects. Communities — particularly Indigenous and traditional peoples who often bear the brunt of project impacts — face steep barriers to accessing such technology, including language and literacy, connectivity and energy access, security concerns, and gender disparities. Relying solely on tech solutions to share project information and receive community feedback risks excluding the voices of the vulnerable groups who most need to be heard.

Principles underpinning good remote consultation practice

Building a messaging system with the Twilio API opened up many powerful avenues of communication, allowing us to send voice messages, texts, multimedia messages, WhatsApp messages, and more — reaching hundreds of individuals with the click of a button. It would be easy to be lulled into a false sense of effectiveness through tools such as these. But as with in-person community consultation, meaningful engagement must be a carefully designed, well thought out process that both mitigates harm and maximizes effectiveness. Compared with in-person engagement, remote consultation systems face additional hurdles, since any feedback must be channeled through a single and often unfamiliar medium.

  • Safety: Does participation in a survey have any possibility of putting community members in jeopardy, from a government, private entity, or other community members? Can the responses themselves cause, or be perceived to cause, adverse effects to the person or community?
  • Preferred modes of communication: Are voice calls common or considered an intrusion? Is texting more common, and if so, which platforms are most widely used; SMS? WhatsApp? Facebook? Surveys should be conducted in familiar forms of communication to reduce friction, increase engagement, and ensure higher quality results.
  • Accessibility: Is the preferred communication modality broadly accessible to all swathes of the community? For example, if WhatsApp is the primary form of communication for most community members, does this exclude lower income individuals who may not have smartphones or access to data plans? In addition, lower literacy rates may preclude text-based forms of surveying in favor of a voice-based approach.
  • Community-borne costs: Given the plans offered by cellular providers in a given region, how likely is it that respondents will have to pay to participate, by sending response SMS, accepting a phone call, or using data to engage on WhatsApp? Do any of these costs change if the number used by the surveyor is local or international?
  • Expectations: Have respondents been clearly and plainly informed about how responding to this survey will and will not affect their situation?



Accountability Counsel amplifies the voices of communities around the world to protect their human rights and environment.

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Accountability Counsel

Accountability Counsel


Accountability Counsel amplifies the voices of communities around the world to protect their human rights and environment.