"Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?"

My brother and his family came over last night for Christmas dinner. He’s a business man, I’m not. He’s a salesman, I teach people about human rights. Our views on many things are as opposing as they come, our outlooks on life equally different. I showed him a human rights handbook I worked on. He flipped through it, liked the look, but wondered how the hell you could write so much about human rights (the book was about 200 pages). He looked up from the book and stared at me, saying simply, “I don’t know why you need to write so much about something that’s common sense. Human rights means you respect each other. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Yes. A simple question deserves a simple answer. A cursory glance at some of the headlines over the past year is enough evidence to show you that the common sense approach to human rights is not evident. The world’s poor reaction to the humanitarian crises following the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan, China’s reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize, the continued violence in Darfur or the Congo or [insert country/region of choice here, no shortage of options], election violence in Côte d’Ivoire…the list goes on. Granted, there have been advances in human rights this year, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi being among the most notable. But looking at the global picture of human rights can leave you wondering why we’re doing this to ourselves.

As a human rights educator, thinking about the advances and the setbacks we’ve faced in respecting human rights leaves me filled with (almost) equal amounts of hope and despair – hope does win out, as it does, I suspect, for most people who call themselves human rights defenders. I think what keeps the spirits up for those defenders is that they can effect change within their immediate spheres of influence – their neighbours, their friends and families, their colleagues, and the people in their communities.

When I think of the work I’ve done over the past year, I’m most grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to facilitate workshops for human rights defenders who are making a difference in the lives of others around them. In other words, to use overly dramatic make-me-gag-sappy lingo you’d see on sites like CNN, they’re heroes. The first workshop I facilitated this year was in Jordan in February, and the group consisted of everyday phys ed teachers in Palestinian refugee camps and people working for NGOs. They came to the workshop to learn about children’s rights and how to use games to promote human rights values. The work they do as teachers or NGO workers is unrecognized hero-stuff. They teach others to respect each one another – in other words, they ascribe to my brother’s definition of human rights. Take Thawrat, for example: a kind man with a gentle face making sure Coptic orphans in Egypt live their lives to their fullest potential.

Every workshop I’ve been part of this year has had its share of Thawrats: from Vancouver to Winnipeg, from Jakarta (twice) to Colombo to Kathmandu, everyone trying their best to make a difference in the lives of others. And for me, now in my ninth year doing this type of work, I have asked myself the following question more often that usual: Am I really needed – do I really need to do this job? Don’t think this is a cheap attempt to elicit sympathy from readers, it’s not. It’s a question anyone in “international development” should ask. A related statement would be: I should work my way out of a job. On my last trip this year to steamy Jakarta, I got the answer. My last meeting was with a group of people who have been undertaking their own annual human rights training program for the last three years. Now getting ready for their fourth year, they are well-prepared, aware of the work they must do, conscious of their fundraising needs, and fully capable of having a successful fourth annual program. The group consists of people who are part of my organization’s alumni and who needed my help and the help of my colleagues for the first three years. My role was specifically in assisting the group on the curriculum content of the program. I sat through the meeting doing absolutely nothing other than listen. I had nothing to contribute. They had everything covered. I felt unneeded. I had found my answer – at least on that rooftop in Jakarta, and I couldn’t be happier.

More end of year posts coming in the next few days…

Nowhere Man

Friday morning, about 9 AM, Heathrow Airport
My friend Daniel has wryly pointed out on more than one occasion that bad stuff happens in places I visit for my job. Not so much during a trip as much as before or after. A bomb went off in Casablanca after I was in Morocco, another bomb blasted Istanbul a couple of weeks after I left that city. Let’s not forget the civil war in Nepal – the sheer effrontery of the King who dissolved the government a month before I arrived. The 2004 tsunami hit a couple of weeks after I left Indonesia. Oh right, and let’s not forget the hotel I stayed at in Jordan that was bombed on somebody’s wedding night a couple of years before I set foot in the place. I try not to remind my family of these things as prepare for another trip. I typically focus on the gifts I bring back.

This time I’m going to Jakarta for 5 days to give a curriculum design workshop for people involved in the AHRTP, the Indonesian version of Equitas’ IHRTP. The program, run by alumni of Equitas and AHRTPs, will be in its third outing next February. About a dozen participants are attending the workshop on how to develop their curriculum skills by working and reworking the existing AHRTP curriculum. It should be fun, if I can manage to stay awake.

A few hours after that workshop ends, I fly out of Jakarta and head for Iraq. It does feel strange writing that. Prior to leaving, neighbours were asking me where I was headed off this time, and I kept my answer to Indonesia and left out the Iraq part. I had mentioned to a couple of people that I was going to Iraq and their eyes bugged out, so I figured it was better not to talk about it.

Let me talk about morons. There were two electricians at my house today – no, make that yesterday – installing some lights in the kitchen. As they were leaving, they asked me what I did for a living and I told them I was ready to go on a trip to Indonesia. One of the electricians, attemping to make conversation, asked me whether or not they let people fly with H1N1. I said they did, as far as I knew. He asked me if I was concerned about getting the flu, and I told him not really, I’m very careful. Then I told him that if I wanted people to stay away from me, all I had to do was fake a cough. He laughed and then he said, “If you really want to keep people away from you, wear a TURBAN!” He pretended to wrap a turban around his head. He laughed his head off at his attempt at a joke.

When things aren’t funny, I can’t force myself to laugh. That’s expecially true when someone utters such a mindless comment like the one I’d just heard. The most I could muster was a mild Harumph and gave him the smile I reserve for poor souls too stupid to realize how ignorant and assinine they are. But then again, I have to realize that a lot of the kids I hung out with when I was a kid said similar things and laughed their heads off at the expense of others. I can’t consider myself entirely innocent either.
Guys like the electrician worry me because I think that no amount of education on different cultures would do much good for him. The guy was about my age, and I doubt he’ll change his attitude anytime soon. I have to wonder how much his “turban” comment reflects beliefs of average everyday people who have a limited understanding, appreciation and exposure to multicultural and pluralistic environments, at least in Canada. Perhaps he expresses what a lot of people think but keep to themselves.

It’s time to stretch my legs for a bit. My friend went to Toronto earlier this week and lamented the fact he had a 2 hour stopover. My stop in jolly old England is 7 hours, and I still have still have over a day to go. I feel like I’m in a weird timeless zone when I hop from continent to continent like this. I’m reminded of when I left Africa for the first time back in 1995 after living in Malawi for two years. As we were waiting on the tarmac to take off, the song playing through the airplane speakers was “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles. The song resonates today just as much as it did all those years ago.

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans, for nobody.

It’s now over a day since the last line and I’m in my room in Jakarta, the familiar smells of clove-flavoured cigarettes assaulting my nostrils as I walked off the plane. Belly full and having greeted most of the participants over dinner, I’m out of nowhere land and the whackily unreal duty free shops of the UK, Qatar, and Singapore, and we can get down to the human rights stuff. Tomrrow’s agenda: needs assessment, learner profile and environmental scan.


Eight years on

Wednesday afternoon, in the workshop room

I cannot understand why the people at Nescafe can’t make the effort to make a better tasting instant coffee. I mean, there has to be a way to improve the stuff.

Anyhow, here I find myself at the end of the fourth day of this TOT 3. As the day comes to a close, I take a moment to reflect on how things have changed for me over the last 8 years. I began my work at Equitas October 1, 2001, just three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Those events, I thought wryly at the time, ensured my job security for years to come.

Eight years later and much has changed. Back then, I was eager to get back into the workforce. I had been laid off for a few months and felt the pressure of a new mortgage to pay and an infant son to care for. My first week on the job, my wife called me to say that our son took his first steps, and I cursed myself for not being there. Eight years later, my son wrote me a goodbye letter before this trip, the first time he’s ever done so. Things do indeed change.

Eight years later I am content with the changes I see as positive as the result of my organization’s work, but mindful of the programs which started successfully but met early demises due in large part to changing funding priorities from donors. Here I am in Beirut, a city “which was basically destroyed” as a friend of mine from Montreal wrote to me yesterday. Its people suffered greatly in the past, and even as recently as 2006 with the war against Israel, the bombed remnants of that brief but violent destruction still apparent as you walk the streets of the city. But the city, while showing the scars of that war and years of violence before, shows just as many signs of growth and rebirth, crumbling and decay.

Amidst all this we find ourselves educating each other about our work. And the most positive change I see is a confidence, an intelligence, a passion and a willingness to fight for human rights among the participants working and laughing together next to me. Eight years ago, this wasn’t possible. The training I did was top-down, written based on my assumptions and those of my colleagues of what people should learn and how they should learn it. Eight years ago, I did a lot of guesswork in developing a curriculum, and now the choices made in designing a training are made primarily by the participants themselves. It brings meaning to forever-ambiguous and ill-defined terms such as “empowerment” and “capacity building”.

Eight years later, I still ask myself basic questions like “Am I really making a difference?” and, more in-line with my craft as an educator, “Am I always reflecting on my work – and my understanding of the world based on the relationships I have built – in order to improve what I do?” As I see the participants facilitate this workshop with no help from me (or very little from one group anyway), am I being as critical of myself as I am with them?

Obviously none of these are straight yes/no answers, nor will there ever be a point where I can answer any of these questions with certainty.

There was a noise distracting me a moment ago. One of the participants was showing a video on his phone of a man on the street being beaten by 5 police officers while a crowd stood by.

Like I was saying, I don’t think I’ll ever get to answer any of those questions. Eight years on, police brutality is but one of the multitude of human rights violations – assaults on our dignity as human beings – that the people in these workshops fight against. Knowing – hoping – that a workshop like this helps them do their work just a little bit better gives me comfort.

As a friend in Toronto would say, You guys rock.