17. ELEMENTS FOR A HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVISTS COURSE AND CURRICULUM.

Introduction

  1. Many of our fellow development professionals are not satisfied with the training future generations of our colleagues are receiving. Quite a few have been vocal about it and discussions have ensued for the last few years. More recently, a sizable part of the discussion has centered around the mix of technical and other skills Human Rights advocates need to acquire given the challenges they are sure to face in their future careers. Not much of the content of this discussion has found its way into concrete changes in the curricula of schools that train different types of future development workers.
  2. Not enough has been done to address the training needs of future Human Rights advocates as relates to their role as activists. As development workers, we are simply still ill-prepared to act confidently in the realm of Human Rights. It behooves us to get prepared to contribute to the central issue in the upcoming phase of development work worldwide.
  3. As part of the effort to find our professional niche in tackling the basic causes of maldevelopment more proactively than we have done so far, we cannot escape our obligation to look for workable training options that will prepare future colleagues to better do so. Alternative modalities of training for different groups of them will have to make up for this deficiency in their current training. Here, I will concentrate primarily on graduate students training –thought to be an important group to start with. I will opt for a modality that can be accommodated without necessarily entering into conflict with already crowded curricula in masters degree programs.
  4. Giving graduate students in the different disciplines of development work a chance to practice activism skills vis-à-vis the problems which we are training them to resolve is a duty that ideally should be woven into all courses of their degree program. This not being the case, a second best (and hopefully transitional) approach is to set up an additional course that will better confront these students with their future ethical and political responsibilities, i.e. those they will surely have to face when they start working.
  5. When facing this challenge, one has to keep in mind the possible strong and valid opposition of those who will say we might as well use our energies in such an endeavor to work directly with people, communities and budding civil society organizations. They would argue that working with the future “development engineers” might be less well spent time since they are not the ones who are going to actually make the needed changes anyway. But then –if we are lucky– engineer-activists retooled in an activist’s course may become additional advocates/multipliers/strategic allies in the huge task ahead of us of more proactively removing the basic causes of malnutrition worldwide.

The Course: A Technical Note

  1. A summer school course (or equivalent) of 10 weeks in a graduate school will fit the needs well.
  2. The course will be primarily based on a series of student debates and role plays. [A debate/role play format is the closest I can think of to mimic the real life challenges nutritionists-as-activists will face in their careers].
  3. The students will be given access to a specially stocked room in the library and to the internet to research and prepare their debate strategies and contents.
  4. A set of rules will be made explicit and a team of 3 faculty (teacher) judges will preside each debate. There will be one 6 hrs. debate per week for a total of 8 debates.
  5. Guest lecturers will be invited to discuss their Human Rights or other advocacy experiences in two-hour seminars twice a week. The rest of the time the students will be preparing their case, reading, reviewing case studies and hanging the key pieces of what they find up in the form of a poster of 3-4 square meters.
  6. There will be two teams of 6-7 students each with one faculty tutor each to support them. Each team will elect a leader.
  7. Each debate will consist of an opening statement or argument which will refer to the poster which will be unveiled at that time. This presentation will be academic in style and will bring up the key debate points.
  8. A full range of audiovisual media will be made available for the teams to use in their presentations.
  9. The opening statement will be followed by a mandatory role play in which one set of ‘actors’ will represent the community and the other set the activists who are trying to learn from and discuss with the community representatives the best relevant action measures to take for the Human Rights problems brought up; simple language and convincing examples will have to be used.
  10. In a strategizing exercise, the team will then say how they want to implement what they propose.
  11. The first role-play will be followed by the second team presenting their opening argument, their poster, their role play and strategy.
  12. After a break, the actual debate will start; one chosen student will act as a rapporteur and the chairperson of the panel of judges will direct the debate. The teams will challenge each other on issues. Faculty will also challenge them.
  13. The format of the debate will be such that it will attempt to convince and persuade others about a certain reality and about the corresponding course of action needed. The contrasting potentials of top-down, bottom-up and bottom-centered approaches to solve the Human Rights problems unveiled need to be brought up and critiqued. In other words, the debaters have to point to a way out that they think is better than what we have had so far. Creativity will be encouraged in the presentation of their arguments.
  14. The two posters will stay up for 4-5 days each week for closer scrutiny.
  15. The whole proceedings will be videotaped (by two students themselves). The teams will have access to the tapes, to look at them so as to plan better strategies for their next debate. Later, a professionally edited version of the debates can be used for an internet version of the course. [Graduate students from the Communications Department of the University can do this work for academic credit].
  16. The debate will be followed by a wrap-up session in which each team leader will summarize the major points made by his/her team; the student rapporteur will highlight the key points of the debate. The judges will then point out which elements of the debate are relevant to the students’ future engineer-activist’s role, as well as pointing out strengths and weaknesses of each team; good leadership points will also be pointed out.
  17. Practicing negotiation skills, the students will then be called upon to produce a short synthesis statement on the topic of the debate (summarizing the best of both positions presented). Efforts will be made to post such syntheses in different pertinent email list-servers and web sites; the better ones may be considered for submission for publication.
  18. Guest witnesses will be welcome and an open audience will be encouraged in the debates by advertising each of them on campus in advance. The audience could give a show of hands to the team they thought did a better job.
  19. The students will be allowed to switch groups provided there is another student in the other group who is willing to swap. The faculty may also have some say on this, early on, to better balance the teams.
  20. The first week will be an introductory week with instructions on the mechanics of it all plus a couple of lectures on “effective and critical reading” skills that will allow the students to more effectively scan printed and electronic materials, on “how to build a case”, on “principles of role playing”, perhaps on the use of a conceptual framework of causes of Human Rights violations and the Triple A approach (Assessment, Analysis and Action) that facilitates participatory decision-making; other relevant topics can be thought of for this introductory week.
  21. The faculty will set up the reading materials in the special room in the library by doing a systematic search and networking with colleagues worldwide to collect relevant documents. Graduate students on work-study assignments can be used for this (as well as for the videotaping). At least 2 computers with internet access are needed for each team.
  22. The following weeks will each have one debate plus 2-3 scheduled guest lecturers’ seminars –making sure that these do not preempt topics of future debates.
  23. A choice of topics for the debates on Human Rights might be the following: [In no particular order yet]

– 20th century Science, Ethics and Politics and their effects on Human Rights.

– Corruption, bureaucracy, accountability and transparency and Human Rights.

– Development ethics and ideologies/paradigms: the last 40 years and why it has all worked poorly for Human Rights.

– Engineers and activists in Human Rights and development work: What’s first, the chicken or the egg?

– Equity and Human Rights.

– Foreign aid, debt and Human Rights.

– Genuine people’s participation in Human Rights and development work: community-based programs.

– Human Rights and demographic trends in developing countries.

– Human Rights and economic development.

– Human Rights and empowerment.

– Human Rights and Globalization.

– Human Rights and income distribution.

– Human Rights and land reform.

– Human Rights and rural credit for women.

– Human Rights and small scale income generation programs.

– Human Rights and SRA, LRA, PRA, PLA and other such letter soup acronyms.

– Human Rights and sustainable development.

– Human Rights in emergencies.

– Human Rights in the 21st century: New needed commitments.

– Human Rights in the times of AIDS.

– Human Rights work as a career.

– Human Rights: networking and coalition building.

– Human Rights: NGOs and civil society; the need for NGOs to ‘revision and remission’ their mandates to regain an activist’s role as true allies of the poor.

– Making sense of the myriad of “World Reports” (WDR, State of the World’s Children The Progress of Nations, State of the World-Worldwatch Institute, ACC/SCN Report on the state of the world’s nutrition, etc.).

– Nutrition, health and Human Rights.

– Paulo Freire and the ‘conscientization’ movement: relevance for Human Rights work.

– Sectoral World Declarations and Human Rights (3 Rome declarations on food issues since 1984, Rio, Copenhagen, Beijing, Cairo).

– The new Human Rights approach of the UN.

– The political economy of Human Rights.

– The role of donors in worldwide Human Rights: blessing or curse?

– The role of government in the battle against Human Rights violations.

– What is really empowering?

– Women’s role in Human Rights and development: what is really empowering for them?

  1. This list of topics should be edited and completed after a wider discussion of this idea. Conversely, the list of topics may be replaced by a list of sharply pointed questions that would stimulate students to find appropriate answers for.
  2. The students will be given this list during the first week and will vote the 8 topics they want to cover in the whole course. They can also combine two or more topics in one debate or propose new topics for faculty consideration. Topics not chosen may become the basis to decide which guest lecturers to invite.
  3. The last week of the course will focus on lessons learned by the aspiring engineer- activists on the topic of Human Rights. Each team will do their own presentation on this followed by the faculty. Each team and the faculty will hang their conclusions in a last poster. Suggestions for improvements on the course will be a part of this exercise. Each of the 12-14 students will then be given an opportunity to tell the class what they want to do with all this in their upcoming career and will receive peer and faculty feedback on it. In their presentations, they should also bring out their own personal and professional enthusiasms and apprehensions for the coming decade.

Note: The format here proposed follows the North American environment of a graduate course. Adaptations can be made to suit other academic environments. The course could also be adapted as a distance education course, perhaps with the debate being carried out in an electronic ’chat room’ or asynchronously via email.

Acknowledgments:

I would like to thank George Kent from the Univ. of Hawaii for his valuable comments to this draft.

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