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Akbar, Birbal, and a South Asia Regional Meeting on Monitoring and Evaluating Legal Empowerment

On April 19 and 20 in Dhaka, Namati, BRAC, Marg, and the Open Society Justice Initiative held a regional meeting on methods of monitoring and evaluating legal empowerment.  The gathering brought together more than 50 people from all over the region, representing grassroots groups, development agencies, governments, and evaluation experts.  Namati CEO Vivek Maru began the meeting with a story about  Akbar and Birbal, a Mughal emperor and his trusted adviser.  His remarks are below.  You can also access the agenda and the biographies of the resource persons who presented.  We will soon post an online toolkit on monitoring and evaluating legal empowerment based on the presentations at the meeting.

Salaam a laikum, namaste:

It’s a rare privilege to be among kindred spirits from all over this region: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives.  Mahatma Gandhi used to say that the subcontinent had an identity, a common destiny, that transcended the boundaries that various empires had drawn.  He used to point to the pilgrimage routes, which extend from the highest peaks in the Himalayas to the southern tip of Lanka, and from temples on the Arabian Sea to mosques on the Bay of Bengal.  Perhaps by gathering here, and learning from one another, we are in our small way living out that dream of a common South Asia.

This meeting is about monitoring and evaluating legal empowerment.  I want to start by speaking about two mindsets, two ways of approaching the world: the doer and the observer.  Many of us here are doers by nature.  We were driven to work for justice out of a spirit of activism.  Our greatest hope is to change the world.

There is another mindset though, one that is perhaps equally important, and equally honorable.  That is the mindset of the observer, the one whose greatest hope is not so much to change the world, but to understand the world.

Monitoring and evaluation is about melding those two mindsets.

Many of you will recognize the characters in this picture, Akbar and Birbal.  Akbar was a sixteenth century Mughal emperor, and Birbal was his trusted adviser.  Akbar was a renowned  doer—he was said to have ruled wisely and generously.  Birbal on the other hand was a famously perspicacious observer, who sought to unlock the puzzles of life.  One day Akbar was praising his kingdom to Birbal.  “We have governed justly,” Akbar said, “and as a result our people are public spirited.  They are always ready to take action, to sacrifice for the kingdom.”  Birbal twisted his mustache. “Let’s find out if that’s the truth.”  He told Akbar to announce a public celebration, and to request that each household in the village pour a cup of milk into an empty well overnight.

In the morning, the King’s chefs would use the milk to make sweets for the entire village.  So Akbar made the announcement in the evening, and first thing in the morning he and Birbal visited the well.

To Akbar’s surprise, the well was filled with water rather than milk.  As it turned out each villager had thought to himself: with a whole well full of milk, who will notice a single cup of water?  In the darkness  of night, the public spiritedness of which Akbar was so proud had disappeared.

Birbal’s key point for our purposes was that we need to test our assumptions.  We believe we are doing good—that’s what drives us to action– but we should be brave enough, curious enough, to step back and examine our actions with open eyes.

Even when we’ve got the will, however, the way is not obvious.  If we were building bridges, we could count how many bridges we built, how many people cross those bridges, how long the bridges last.  But things like justice and empowerment are more subjective, more elusive, and more difficult to measure.

Birbal was creative about finding ways to do so.  We have come here to put our Birbal topis on, to learn and to share practical methods by which we can examine our work.  The premise of this gathering—and this was Birbal’s premise all along– is that better observation will lead to wiser, more effective action.

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