The COVID-19 pandemic has generated many problems in different areas, all of which urgently require the population to speak out and propose solutions. This difficult period has undoubtedly exposed many weaknesses of the states, made social and economic gaps more visible, and showed that there is a long way to go. And think tanks have become a valuable means of capturing the voices of the population, spreading their ideas to reach the public agenda and enrich public debate (CSEA, Africa’s Voices, Policy Kitchen, ACODE, just to mention a few).
The Aru Foundation in Bolivia has carried out an interesting initiative consisting of a contest called ‘Young Bolivian voices in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic’. This encouraged young people to contribute to the public debate in two ways: articles and podcasts. We decided to participate in the podcast contest. Out of 45 articles and 18 podcasts submitted from various cities in Bolivia – a very high participation rate from young people – we were awarded first place. We addressed the issue of poverty and inequality in the time of COVID-19, examining how the pandemic affected the income of Bolivian households and the extent to which social disparities had widened. We also tried to address some policy proposals. These recommendations were broad and covered both the supply and demand aspects of the pandemic. On one side, we argued, it’s important that the Bolivian government deal with the thousands of firms affected by the crisis by creating incentives for businesses to stay open, as well as promoting the mainstream use of new ICTs (Information and Communication Technology) and a transition towards a more gig-based economy. On the other hand, we mentioned that it’s equally important to help at-risk families by creating a social security net for the most vulnerable groups of society, while also improving targeting mechanisms to make sure that these social policies are well focalised.
A significant challenge we had was to speak in simple, concise and understandable language. This is a dilemma for many researchers, as they are accustomed to using technical language in scientific papers. However, adapting to formats such as podcasts creates a new dynamic in how we work and is very relevant when one wants to share research with bigger audiences. Neither of us had ever made a podcast before, so we had to start from scratch. Some of the steps we followed were:
- Getting familiar with existing podcasts. We started listening to the most popular podcasts about economics (and inevitably became permanent fans of the ‘Economics Explained‘ and ‘The Sound of Economics’ podcasts).
- The next step was perhaps the most important: writing the script. We looked for relevant economic information from reliable sources, going through scientific articles, policy briefs, official government portals, etc. We faced the challenge of condensing all that information into a 15 minutes’ time limit. We knew we had to take care of the technical language, adapting difficult concepts and changing words that were too specific to economists.
- Learning how to record and edit audio files. Next, we bought a new microphone and started learning how to use audio recording and editing software (we ended up choosing Alitu, a free, easy to use online tool for this purpose).
- Finally, we were ready to record. We chose to follow an interview format and were careful to make it seem as if there were no script, talking as naturally as possible.
- The last thing we did was to carefully edit everything we recorded, to make it more neat, compact and fluid.
The end result, we think, was a podcast that was understandable and accessible to people from all walks of life. Since the main purpose of the podcast was to make an analysis based on empirical evidence, the availability of recent information was especially relevant. For all contestants, the ARU Foundation shared two important recent research studies on poverty and inequality, as well as a set of measures taken by different countries in response to the pandemic. We also searched information from blogs, statistics and studies from different think tanks, research institutes and international organisations. This served as input for an in-depth, data-driven assessment. We came to understand that the worsening of poverty and inequality in the face of the pandemic is an issue that concerns us all: those who generate information, the government, policymakers, adults, young people and the population in general. Using information produced by different institutions to generate an analysis through the ‘lenses’ of young people was a very enriching process with added value.
The space offered by the Aru Foundation in Bolivia has encouraged many young people to express their thoughts creatively. So many of us are used to listening to experts or politicians talk about issues that concern the whole of society. However, listening to young people, hearing about their experiences from their perspective, is a good way to enhance the debate. We know that the pandemic has hit everyone in different ways: the youth, for example, have suffered unemployment and pauses in their education. Listening to their analysis and their ideas is a great step to reach better and more efficient solutions. Something else that seemed relevant to us in this process was that the people who competed came from different backgrounds, careers and professional fields. This plurality of viewpoints gives more strength to the conversation. Nothing could be more enriching for the proposal of solutions to the country’s problems.
The podcast format is becoming popular in Bolivia, and some national think tanks are already making them. This valuable experience promoted by the Aru Foundation could and should be replicated by other entities, in and outside Bolivia. It seems to us that one of the goals of many think tanks is to engage effectively with the population, provide evidence and reliable information and hope that citizens can have informed discussions and contribute to their societies from their own point of view. Running contests using podcasts, short articles or other formats is a direct and effective way to engage different audiences. Joseph Ishaku’s article ‘Operationalising public engagement: four reflections for think tanks’, explores how can this be done: informing, consulting and engaging, and finally collaborating. These guidelines have been implemented by the Aru Foundation and set a precedent for how the public can contribute to the formulation of public policies.
To access the winning podcasts, click on the following link.