I was October 14th, 2013. This was the day of our “Constitutional Awareness Workshop” in Yangon, Myanmar. There is a need for constitutional reform in Myanmar and I was there representing LexisNexis in support of this nation’s democratization. Our goal was to get 100 lawyers in a room for a “Train-the-Trainers” Workshop, facilitate dialogue about the constitution and then give them the skills and knowledge to conduct workshops of their own.
The country is going through a rebirth, commencing an exciting journey towards democratization. There is an intense will to catch up and learn, to find out what they have missed during the decades they were shut off from the world. My interest was in law reform, rebuilding the legal landscape and helping the legal profession build competency and capacity. When we were approached to create a program to support constitutional reform in Myanmar, I knew that we needed to find a sustainable way of building competency within the nation. The people of Myanmar need to stand on their feet and the sooner they learn to do so, the better it will be for them. Becoming too reliant on aid will do them more harm than good.
On that Monday morning, we welcomed 100 lawyers from all over the country into a hall. We started with a plenary session and then broke them into three groups. My fellow trainers, Alex Goodman from the Bingham Centre for Rule of Law, Robert Pe, Senior Legal Advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi and I each facilitated a group of 30+ lawyers. I was so nervous! Here I was, shadowed by a translator, completely out of my comfort zone. What if they didn’t respond? What if they were insulted by the dialogue? What if they didn’t understand me? What if no one spoke?
I started by posing a question. I asked them what they thought of the notion of separation of powers. There was an awkward silence and I began to panic. I looked at my translator and I looked at my audience and I invited comments, their views. They were tentative, looked at each other, then looked over their shoulders. Then, one person cleared his throat and began to speak. Others nodded in agreement. Then another person spoke and he disagreed. Others chimed in, gave their views.
The people of Myanmar have been shut off from the world for decades. They weren’t used to being asked for their views. They weren’t used to being heard. They didn’t know what to make of this dialogue but they quickly warmed up to the notion. There wasn’t a right or wrong answer and they were free to debate, to say what they thought and that was liberating. Their eyes lit up, they were bolder, louder. It was an incredible transformation.
We discussed the right to vote, freedom of speech and assembly, the right to be free from torture and slavery. They asked questions, were curious about the outside world. They didn’t know what the other democracies were like and I was happy to share a bit of the outside world with them. We discussed what a Bill of Rights meant and how this would protect the people. Under the current constitution, the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” does not exist. One elderly man asked me, “in your country, can religious persons vote?” I said “yes” and there was a murmur as they digested this, gaining perspective. Under the current constitution, members of religious orders cannot vote.
The women were fantastic. They were fiery and passionate about the practice of law and I loved seeing these young women battle the senior male lawyers in that lively debate. We talked about the need for women’s rights to be explicitly protected in the constitution. We had intellectual discussions and then practical ones. The aim was to encourage independence, facilitate robust dialogue and give them the skills required to use the knowledge that they gained in perpetuity. They needed to be empowered to pay it forward. They loved it. They disagreed with each other, then said “this is democracy!!” and they would have these huge grins on their faces and slap each other on their backs, chuckling. They felt moments of empowerment. I could see it in their eyes, those light-bulb moments, the realization at what they could do with what they learned.
One woman stood up, waved the copy of the constitution she was holding, looked me in the eyes and said, “just like how we go to the villages to give vaccinations to women and children, we should go to the villages to teach people about the constitution because this is like a vaccine!” – It is true, isn’t it? This is like a vaccine. That Monday, 100 lawyers pledged to conduct one workshop of their own independently. They promised to pay it forward, take what they learned and empower others. Three weeks later, these lawyers went on a constitutional awareness bus tour around the country, teaching thousands of villagers about the constitution. They paid it forward.
How do we build competency and make this sustainable? That is the perpetual question on my mind and one, in my view, that deserves more attention than it is getting. What comes to mind when we think about training and education? Often, we think about transferring the knowledge within the trainer’s mind to the minds of the audience. Isn’t it a certainty that the trainer is the “expert”? Haven’t we established that the audience needs to be trained and so one party should speak and the other party should absorb? Isn’t that how knowledge is transferred? Once this invaluable knowledge has been transferred, the audience will know exactly what to do with it – isn’t that a certainty too?
It isn’t as simple as that. The knowledge we impart must live a life of its own. The people we teach must learn enough to pass this knowledge forward, building a network of resources within their own circle, enabling them to do more with it. We used a simple and practical formula; we took pains to understand our audience as much as we understood our subject matter. Then, we made them think hard about what they were learning and how they could use that knowledge to teach and empower others. That is the formula to successful capacity building.