How the Pandemic Has Changed Duke's International Partnerships

October 15, 2020

Four members of the Duke community talk about what makes a global collaboration happen during travel restrictions and other constraints from COVID-19.

-By Amanda Solliday

Stress reduction is something we could all learn little more about this year, and that’s exactly what Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an associate research professor at the Duke Global Health Institute, set out to study.

In 2020, she has been studying well-being among teachers in Kenya, Cambodia and Qatar, and conducting a stress reduction trial of three interventions with United Methodist clergy in North Carolina. Due to COVID-19, the stress reduction programs had to be shifted online, and Proeschold-Bell’s team was forced to redesign intense two-day, in-person programs into 90-minute Zoom sessions spread out across weeks.

To make this work, the team tested various online platforms and created videos to demonstrate how to hook up electrocardiogram (EKG) devices, which the researchers previously showed participants how to use in-person. The researchers also had to figure out how to prevent clergy from withdrawing from the study, intended to reduce stress, when they might be fatigued with online interaction and may expect the online format to be stress-inducing. (Proeschold-Bell says they are still trying to figure out this last issue.)

“Now more than ever, productive partnerships require good communication and the ability to shift, as well as grace,” Proeschold-Bell says.

Just like Proeschold-Bell, many Duke faculty, staff and students have kept their international work going with some creativity, even as unprecedented challenges can make working with colleagues abroad difficult.

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Adjusting for COVID-19

Kalkidan Kebede is a second-year Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) fellow in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Kebede is currently working on a Bass Connections project focused on energy, water and agriculture in Ethiopia.

“Because of COVID-19, our project team has completely shifted our travel plans, adjusted some of our project activities and become more flexible in terms of deliver time and deadlines,” Kebede says.

Technology, such as video conferences, allowed his team to continue the project, and Kebede says many of the qualities that make a good partnership any year helped them pull off this feat: collaboration, cooperation, exchange of ideas and a readiness to learn from past mistakes.

This type of trust also allowed Jackson Ewing, a senior fellow at Duke University's Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions and an adjunct associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy, to continue his projects with policymakers in several large Asian countries. Together, they develop and implement market-based climate change policies, such as emissions trading systems, carbon taxes and incentives for bringing renewable energy onto power grids.

“My colleagues and I craft our work from early stages alongside the policymakers who we hope will later take it up,” Ewing says. “This helps us know that we’re addressing the true issues of need, and over time builds familiarity and trust in both directions.”

These two-way relationships are vital for applied research to gain traction, Ewing adds. “Going virtual” has made it easier to convene private roundtables on relatively short notice, he says, and much simpler to put together public panel sessions with stakeholders around the world.

“Given that I work with partners in Asia, some of these meetings are admittedly in the middle of the night. Still, that remains a lighter – and cleaner – lift than getting on a plane,” Ewing says.

Looking Past 2020

Despite the ease of virtual gatherings, Ewing looks forward to the return of in-person collaboration.

“Face-to-face meetings remain valuable for my work,” Ewing says. “And for large climate change negotiations, they are essential.”

As a special events coordinator and an adjunct professor in international and comparative studies at the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies, Miguel Rojas Sotelo is also adapting but looking forward to an in-person future.

He is developing venues to share indigenous knowledge in intercultural conversations with academic knowledge, and one of his summer 2020 projects through DukeEngage Colombia was completed virtually.

“We have strong partners, allies and students to support the work,” Rojas Sotelo says. “We are working hours and hours on end to make sure we are delivering what the communities and subjects expect from us.”

“These virtual efforts will last just enough to the moment we will have to re-engage in community building via personal exchange,” Rojas Sotelo adds. “The networks work on person-to-person contact.”