The war in Syria has created one of the most challenging environments for NGOs to operate in. Financial resources are extremely limited, communication networks are poor and electricity is in short supply. The security situation has forced almost half the population to flee to safety which means there are fewer skilled people left in Syria and those trying to enter the country face numerous risks and problems. As a result, NGOs are in desperate need of project managers but are struggling to recruit or train them.

Marifah for Social Entrepreneurship in Turkey decided to tackle this problem by utilising one of the most reliable free communication tools it has access to: WhatsApp. With the organizational motto, ‘Creative Investment in Creative People,’ they came up with the idea of providing training in Project Management for Development Professionals (PMD Pro) using WhatsApp to engage trainees directly through their phones or computers.

Dr Mohammad Abo Hilal of Marifah, conducted the training with the Syrian Expatriates Organization and Afaq Academy for Development and Change by first sending out an advertisement. “We prepared an advert and sent it out via WhatsApp to different groups,” he said. “We then selected 45 trainees and created a WhatsApp group for them, and another group for the coordination team which included a project manager, the trainers, supervisors and coordinators.”

The first day of training began with trainees filling in a pre-assessment Google Form, which was sent out as a link they could access whenever their internet connection allowed. The PMD Pro training was then rolled out over 18 days, with a total of 36 hours training. Communication rules were established on how to use the WhatsApp group, such as focussing strictly on the subject matter and refraining from using certain emojis! At the end of each training day, key points were summarised and participants shared their opinions and experiences which helped shape the training material.

“I was very reluctant about the whole idea at first but then I saw how engaged the trainees were,” said Melhem Hannash, one of the trainers, “Some were sharing excellent lecture notes and the post-assessment results were wonderful. Now the participants are waiting for the opportunity to apply for the exam. It really was managed very well. All the trainers knew their roles, cooperated with each other and actively learned from the experiences shared by the participants.”

One of the participants, Muhammed Kalash, said they had no prior knowledge of project management and had no idea how the training would work but decided to apply as it sounded like a good idea. “I was astonished at the idea of this happening over WhatsApp but very quickly I saw the benefits of it. The learning material was provided in interesting ways and we felt like more than just recipients – there was dialogue, debate, problem-solving and even a healthy amount of competition!”

Another trainee, Lamaah Al-Salamat, said “This really was a new and innovative way of training and it gave us hope that we can learn despite the siege, the bombings and the long distances between us. It felt like a virtual university experience that built up our confidence, our independence and our desire to learn. The training gave me the desire to implement what I learned. It wasn’t about getting a certificate or a good grade – it was about building the capacity of people inside Syria where the need is so urgent.”

Dr Mohammad told LINGOs that he didn’t expect the training to be such a success but was pleasantly surprised when it went better than expected. “We felt a huge sense of achievement being able to support people inside Syria and we managed to overcome the communication challenges of training over Skype, which can be difficult when internet access is poor. Training via WhatsApp was an instant, interactive experience with trainees fully engaged and able to ask questions as we went along, and this allowed us to tailor the training to their needs.”

The PMD Pro training was delivered to trainees in 37 locations across Syria and according to Dr Mohammad, it was more successful than the face-to-face training he has organised. “We find that in person people are often shy to ask questions. They hesitate to speak up and worry about making mistakes but online it was a wholly different experience. Trainees asked all sorts of questions without any embarrassment. We’ve also kept the group chat open so everyone is continuing to ask questions and support each other, long after the formal training is over.”

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