For five days in October, sixty-one justice practitioners from twenty-five countries came together at the Central European University (CEU) in Hungary for the second annual Legal Empowerment Leadership Course.
The course is the only one of its kind in the world. It brings together leaders dedicated to legal empowerment to reflect on history, strategy, and evidence, with the goal of identifying strategies to strengthen access to justice around the world.
When it was held for the first time last year, over 400 people from 79 countries applied – the largest number of applicants the university has received for any course in its history. The course evaluations were the highest they have seen.
This year, we were determined to make it even better.
The 2016 course was structured around three case studies: citizenship rights in Bangladesh and Kenya, the right to health in India, and the evolution of the legal empowerment movement in the Philippines. Together, participants explored questions like: “What are the prospects for financing community-based justice services at scale?” and “How can we translate the learning from grassroots casework into systemic reform?”
The course placed a strong emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. Each participant identified a specific challenge in their work at the outset and over the week workshopped possible solutions with peers and faculty through interactive discussions, reflective exercises, and breakout sessions. The diversity of the participants’ work experience – from grassroots to international, and practitioner to donor – made this a particularly unique and enriching experience. By the end of the week, participants had a plan of action to improve the effectiveness of their legal empowerment efforts.
Comments suggest that the emphasis on building practical knowledge and useful strategies were appreciated. As Tem Fuh Mbuh, a program officer for Open Society Initiative West Africa (OSIWA), remarked: “This course opened me up to a whole new perspective on legal empowerment. . . I am now armed with the knowledge and networks which will enable me to explore initiatives of my own and offer better support to my organization and its partners…”
A preliminary review of the course assessments shows that for many participants, the focus on peer-to-peer learning was a highlight of the course. “I was looking for solid practical guidance for the establishment and management of a paralegal system in post-conflict development,” wrote participant Helena-Ulrike Marambio in an email to Namati. “In this regard, the course offered space for sharing and discussing both challenges and successful actions for change from the ground. I am particularly grateful for the support I received from experienced colleagues who took their time to clarify my doubts, questions and who filled my gaps.”
Other notable highlights included the session on financing – a deep concern for many in the sector – and Marlon Manuel’s presentation on the rise of the legal empowerment movement in the Philippines. Sylvia Mukasa shared a photo on Twitter from Marlon’s presentation, stating it was her favorite “quote from the course” (see photo).
Another participant gamely confessed that she found his account of a group of farmers’ fight for land rights so inspiring that she nearly cried.
Indeed, the impassioned energy of the course was palpable. Throughout the week, participants were engaged, instructors were stimulating, discussions were lively, and spirits were high. One participant from Argentina summed it up in a tweet as the course came to a close: “Last day #LegalEmpCourse[.] Impressive people, exciting stories, a unique experience!!! . . .” Tem Fuh from OSIWA was equally moved. “The diverse backgrounds of the participants and resource persons and the inspiring stories of massive success of legal empowerment initiatives, as well as innovative financing models, were simply amazing,” he remarked.
As comments from participants’ continue to come in, it is clear that the value of the course was not just the practical solutions and strategies they left with, but the invigorating experience of a sharing an enthusiasm for legal empowerment with peers from the world. As Helena Marambio wrote, the course was more than just a learning opportunity, it “was an inspiring and motivating journey.”