Twenty-one people from 14 countries gathered in an unusually hot Vienna in the beginning of August. The participants represented 12 countries: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, North Macedonia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. I am a Japanese national who was joined by my colleague, a Slovak lecturer. We were a diverse group, geographically ranging from Central Europe (Croatia) to Far East (Japan), with different cultural backgrounds, languages, experiences, jobs, and affiliated institutions. One thing we had in common was a desire to learn about public sector debt statistics.
Given the diversity of the group, not to mention that we all just met for the first time at the JVI with masks on, it was quite natural that on Day 1 everybody was quiet, shy, and reserved…to say the least. I felt as if I were back in one of those virtual courses that all of us experienced for the past 2 years. However, I was glad to discover that my first impression turned out to be completely wrong!
What caused the change? Our innately engaging participants were spending time together and personally connecting – whether in a lecture room, smaller breakout rooms, or coffee breaks. They began to feel safe and to fully engage with each other and with the lecturers. The participants opened up while observing others’ body language, making eye contact, and speaking up spontaneously — “real-time improvisation”, which is impossible to replicate in a virtual setting! Our personal bonding culminated at a farewell dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant. Outside in the restaurant’s garden – free of masks! – we enjoyed the food, drinks, and company…and of course, discussions on debt statistics!
The course on Public Sector Debt Statistics (PSDS) – Fundamental is an introductory course organized jointly by the JVI and the IMF Statistics Department. This course is designed to familiarize participants with the necessary theoretical concepts and practical skills to effectively compile the PSDS, which has become increasingly important in recent years to enhance debt transparency. Thanks to the engaged participants, the course achieved its main objective as evidenced by the significant increase in post-course test scores.
In their course evaluation, the participants were satisfied with the overall value of the course as well as its content. In particular, they expressed their appreciation for the interactive nature of in-person connections and the peer-to-peer learning opportunity from selected country presentations (Croatia, North Macedonia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan). For suggestions to improve the course, the participants suggested more group exercises.
Despite the successful delivery of the course, we were reminded that our lives are still affected by COVID-19 and the need to expect the unexpected…and be flexible! The JVI required all the participants to take an antigen rapid COVID-19 test before classes began. Unfortunately, one person tested positive. This participant isolated in his hotel room according to JVI guidelines and was able to participate remotely.
Is COVID-19 a thing of the past? Unfortunately, not yet as our experience shows. What is certain is uncertainty. Yet, what is also certain is that we all enjoyed the in-person course despite some challenges. For the first time in almost 3 years, I personally tasted the enjoyment of genuine – not virtual – human connections in a course. I don’t want to let that go again. Despite lingering COVID-19 risks, I am confident that collaborative efforts and teamwork at the JVI will overcome any challenges while offering in-person courses. I look forward to another opportunity to teach and meet engaging participants and to experience the “human touch” again at the JVI.
Naoto Osawa, Senior Economist, IMF Statistics Department