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Local ownership creates project resilience

Strengthening universities’ legal education in remote areas in times of COVID-19

Creating local ownership of a development project greatly increases its resilience to crisis. This is an important lesson we are learning in our SLEEI project, which has continued largely unaffected in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is thanks to the strong sense of local ownership among our Indonesian trainers and the deans and lecturers of participating universities. How did we cultivate this sense of local ownership?

SLEEI: Promoting the rule of law

SLEEI aims to strengthen university-level legal education as a way of promoting the rule of law in Indonesia. For this, graduates from law faculties need to develop the capacity to solve legal problems in a way that promotes legal certainty and justice. In Eastern Indonesia, universities are struggling to provide legal education that meets this challenge.

Funded by NUFFIC’s Orange Knowledge Programme, this project is supporting four universities in the region to change what they teach to law students and how that material is taught. KIT and Van Vollenhoven Institute of Leiden University (VVI) provide expertise and coaching in collaboration with Jentera Law School (Jakarta) and the Law Faculty of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

Matching local realities

From the outset, we were keen to make sure that the project responded to the priorities of the Indonesian universities and matched the context and system in which they operate. This meant translating our fairly general, donor-based goals – in this case, promoting the rule of law – to more specific objectives driven by the concrete challenges faced by the participating universities.

To bridge this gap, we organised an app-based survey among students and lecturers on current legal education, its challenges and ideas for joint work. During the inception workshop – pre-pandemic – each university presented the results of their analysis. It showed that updates to course content, higher responsiveness to the local context, and greater attention to improving legal analysis and writing skills were topics of particular interest.

The survey also showed that universities in remote areas of Indonesia face unique challenges. For example, they have small and overburdened staff (compared with the top universities on Java), and many students lack high-quality secondary education. There are also problems with facilities, including poorly functioning electricity supplies and limited access to the internet. Most of all, it showed that while SLEEI cannot solve every problem, it nevertheless takes their individual context and views seriously.

The key moment came when one of the deans smiled as he concluded that project work apparently could be tailor-made to the situation at his university. And that it would support his overall strategy for strengthening his law school: getting higher accreditation ranking and thus more staff and budget from the Indonesian Ministry of Education.

In all subsequent planning and learning activities – such as our training of trainers workshop in Ambon – this process of tailoring our activities to fit local realities continued to strengthen this sense of relevance and ownership among the target universities.

At the same time, our use of local training workshops at each university created additional space for the lecturers to analyse the abstract goals and concepts of the project to better understand what they would mean in concrete terms for their courses, and allowing them to adjust and plan accordingly.

Working with local expertise

Another important choice was to rely on Indonesian experts for the majority of the work. In many Dutch-Indonesian higher education collaboration projects, expertise flows in the same direction as the money. By contrast, in the SLEEI project, four mid-career law and legal education experts from top Indonesian universities play a key role in the capacity-building process of the eastern Indonesian universities. All have a long history of collaboration with VVI, are national experts in the field of law and engage in legal reform or empowerment activities across Indonesia.

During the training of trainers workshop – which was conducted face-to-face, just before the coronavirus lockdown – the project helped these four legal experts develop in their role as trainers and also worked with them to jointly develop training materials. They then became responsible for conducting the training workshops for law lecturers at each of the four participating universities.

In the process, the four trainers further reviewed and adapted all materials to better fit local realities. As they are based in Indonesian universities, they are also well-equipped to advise the target universities on how to practically strengthen legal education in the Indonesian context. Law faculties also got access to the larger national and international networks of legal experts and rule of law activists affiliated with the experts. For example, one of the trainers put the university in Sumba in touch with the deputy director of the National Judicial Commission to discuss in a webinar how to safeguard the professional ethics of judges in Indonesia.

The significance of translation

Another factor that helped to create local ownership was our choice to do the majority of project activities in Bahasa Indonesia. Very few of the participating law lecturers and deans speak and understand English well enough to truly engage in deeper discussions. Our solution was to rely on a team of Dutch experts who can speak and write the Indonesian language.

Speaking a common language, however, does not rule out the possibility of misunderstandings during project design and implementation. For example, individual contexts and frames of reference may influence one’s interpretation of key concepts and terms. To address this, we dedicated extra time to promoting shared understanding among the SLEEI partners. This included not only conversations between Indonesian and Dutch partners, but also between the academics and the more development-oriented partners, and between younger and older generations involved in the project. Dedicating time and attention to sorting out such differences inevitably helped to ward off miscommunication and deepen our collective understanding of the project.

Process is key

Another key success was the organisation and facilitation of truly participatory interaction, whether through engaging workshops or other exchange and planning mechanisms. When done well, this interaction further strengthens partners’ motivation and ownership. Making this work required a partnership on the Dutch side between a university with the relevant content expertise and an organisation with the experience and capacity to design and facilitate bottom-up partnerships. Thus grew the collaboration between VVI and KIT. Asking KIT to organise and co-facilitate critical learning and planning sessions allowed VVI to interact freely with Indonesian partners on content and strategies without dominating the debate.

Adapting to the pandemic reality

Following the training of trainers, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, threatening further project implementation. The series of capacity building and planning workshops scheduled to take place at each of the four universities were postponed and then reformatted to be done online.

It was during this period of transition – which differed from island to island in Indonesia – that our project design and process really bore fruit. One by one, the four universities took the lead in re-planning these crucial activities. They interacted directly with “their” Indonesian trainer in adapting training design to the new virtual realities. In some cases, they chose to have their staff meet in one room for the workshop with the resource persons joining online. Where this was impossible, all the training participants joined online from their homes.

In the meantime, the COVID crisis encouraged the four Indonesian trainers to intensify their interactions in coordinating preparations for these workshops and adapt these to online modalities. The new virtual set-up of the workshops also allowed the trainers to link-up and contribute to capacity building in each of the four universities rather than handling only one face-to-face workshop with “their” target university.

Even though the level of participants’ interaction and engagement in the virtual workshops was less than in a real-life workshop, the creativity and commitment demonstrated by our Indonesian partners through the adaption of the capacity building process allowed SLEEI to systematically work on its agenda even in times of corona.

This is the second blog in a series by Van Vollenhoven Institute of Leiden University (VVI) and KIT Royal Tropical Institute, partners in the Strengthening Legal Education in Eastern Indonesia (SLEEI) project. Read Part One of the series.