An Idea that Shouldn’t Be Revolutionary

I started writing a post about development effectiveness and it depressed the hell out of me, so let me try again.
I spoke to a human rights activist in Africa this afternoon who told me of her organization’s work in ten countries on the continent. “We do work at the community level,” she told me. “Our facilitators enable all members of the community – men, women, and children – to identify human rights concerns that matter to them. The facilitators enable everyone to express themselves in ways they have never done before, especially the women and children. And the difference is remarkable. Everyone is taking a shared responsibility to improve their lives and claim their rights. So many people think this is revolutionary.”
This is all good stuff; it’s an approach I firmly believe in. Too bad it’s still perceived as “revolutionary.” It shouldn’t be. The approach should be embedded throughout small communities around Africa and elsewhere, because it works: it’s transformative and it improves lives.
To call it revolutionary is to admit that development effectiveness has not progressed at it should have in the past few years. Fourteen years ago I did similar work in Ghana. Back then, the idea of actively engaging rights-holders to learn about and claim their rights was not new. It had been happening for years. To call these ideas revolutionary after a few decades is evidence that something’s wrong.

(Ok dear reader, it was at this point that I started writing about mismanagement of funds, misplaced donor priorities, ineffective structural adjustment programs and poverty reduction strategy papers, also unwillingness to cooperate between NGOs, governments and donors. That’s when I got depressed. So let me change the ending.)
If the notion of asking community members about their needs is revolutionary then I’m all for it. Keep this idea revolutionary for as long as you need to, until everyone is doing it. From one village to the next, I want people to say to themselves, “Do you know what they’re doing in that other village? They’re actually talking about issues that matter to them and doing something about it.” Or, “Do you know that the women in the other village actually speak up and the men listen to them?” Or, “Why can’t we speak up and change our lives the way they did over there?” Or, “Our time is now, we’ve got something to say.” Come to think of it, I suppose that is revolutionary.
To learn more: Participatory learning and action, or PLA, has a long and rich history based on experiential learning. The website PLA Notes ( is a great resource. This is only one of many sources, but for me the ideas expressed here are what got me started in participatory approaches to education.

Social change means…uh…umm….well…

It seems as though I was just here at the airport last week. Oh wait I was. This time I’m heading off to the West Bank and Gaza for a week, trying to find out how UNRWA schools are integrating human rights in their curriculum. UNRWA is the UN agency for Palestine refugees. Last week it was a visit to Jordan and Lebanon, and now the West Bank and Gaza. The only other area where UNRWA operates is Syria, and it’s safe to say I will not be travelling there anytime soon. 

I spent the morning at my old college, John Abbott, over in the western part of Montreal today. My organization Equitas is hosting about 100 human rights defenders for a three-week program. We’ve been doing it for 32 years now, and this will be my tenth and final International Human Rights Training Program. 

I went into one of the classrooms to discuss what “social change” means, and I’m glad I did. Social change is becoming one of those catchy development terms that loads of people are using without bothering to think what it actually means. This bugs me. “Capacity building” also gets my goat, as does “empower” when overused. Anyway, I think that if you can’t explain what you mean by social change, don’t go saying your work is about social change. So we took the time to define it. I thank my friend Bonnie for helping me clarify my own thinking in her post.

The approach was one in which small groups of participants sat down together and brainstormed what social change meant. Four groups came up with plenty to write about in ten minutes. Common terms were surfacing: democracy, personal change, governments changing, equality between men and women, change of values and beliefs, transformation, and so on. So far so good.

What we did next was to examine more specifically some realistic changes that could take place in two different target sectors, namely family and governments. The participants in the other six groups looked at INGOs, civil society, educational institutions, media, the general public, and businesses. Each group identified changes that could take place within 1) individuals and 2) their organizations or groups. For example, the government group looked at changes among civil servants and their institutions.

A lot of rich discussion ensued, and participants got the opportunity to provide feedback to each other by posting their results on an online community. I won’t share everything that was developed by the groups, but here are a couple of examples of changes they identified:

  • Among government institutions: Awareness and understanding on human rights and equality in the institution. ensuring the integration of human rights in the institution policies and implementation of human rights in practice and the legal consequences.
  • Among individual family members: – Equal participation in decision making i.e. share information, women and children have voices in discussions and decision making.
The activity was a first step at deconstructing our understanding of “social change.” Examining changes among different sectors is only the beginning. Participants mapped out individual and organizational/group changes, but this begs further questions: how do individuals transfer knowledge, skills, practices, beliefs, attitudes, and values among each other? When is there enough “critical mass” of individual changes to realize that these changes become organizational or belonging to a group? And what of the interconnectedness between the various sectors? And what are the roles that human rights defenders play in ensuring that true, measurable, definable, realistic, positive social change takes place?

The mayo’s sticking, or: human rights educators like the participatory approach

The first day’s over. I spent most of the day busying myself with the tedious but necessary work of writing daily plans for the facilitators. The real work was in the hands of the facilitators. The first day of any workshop sets the tone for the remainder of the training: do great and it bodes well. Do bad: well…
The ebullient facilitators’ were unshakable in their enthusiasm and their readiness to get going and do well. They did not disappoint. From the morning break the participants were saying how fortunate they were to be part of the program. Another mentioned he was having so much fun he didn’t realize he was learning, but in fact he was.
I’m glad, relieved, but most of all unsurprised that the first day went well. I would have preferred a slightly later starting time of 8 AM, but that decision wasn’t mine and I wasn’t about to question it either. Thankfully we ended early at about 4:30, which is basically the only time that will happen over the next two weeks. It meant that the end of the day came refreshingly early. However, the facilitators still had to meet to plan Day 2, and that meeting lasted for two hours. Planning for a Minister of human rights and an ambassador’s arrival takes a fair bit of though – the protocol issues were hard to agree on.
Something I insisted on –
Hold on, screaming women in the distance, hard to concentrate. Ok, they’re still fighting, but walking away from me at the same time. Not any of the participants, though.
– was to invite some of the participants to attend our end of daily debrief. One volunteer from each group showed up and shared their thoughts on how the day went. At this point I admit I was surprised, because they spoke of the things we normally hear about our programs, but it’s as though they were saying everything I would normally hear after a two-week program now stated after one day. One said, “Each one of us felt important.” Another participant: “We see we’re not only receiving something, but we have something to offer others as well.” One participant remarked how easily the facilitators opened the discussions by asking the simplest of questions, most of which require not-so-simple answers. Asking Why? How? goes a long way.
La mayonnaise a pris,” was a common phrase heard from many of the facilitators. Essentially meaning “Things have caught on,” it alludes to the readiness with which participants are easing into the participatory approach and happy that they’ve found a learning environment where they learn, express themselves, and are listened to.
For me the greatest comfort I get out of this day is to see how useless I have become. I’ve said that before about my work in Indonesia and the Middle East and I don’t mean it in a self-deprecating way. Anyone working in “development” should make damn sure that their work has an expiry date. If you’re doing the same “development” or “capacity-building” work over and over again, you’re not doing it right. You should be working your way out of a job. The process Equitas has gone through to make sure that its program alumni can do the stuff we do works. It takes time, and the alumni here in West Africa are not fully independent from our support, but they are certainly getting there. There’s a lot more to a training session other than facilitation. The entire organization of the session, including the fundraising efforts, is not to be neglected. My job is to work with the facilitators, and judging what I’ve seen so far, they won’t miss me when I leave by the end of the week and let them complete the program on their own. It’ll be time to move on.