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Creating Capacity for Democracy: The West African Trade Unions Education for Democracy Project of the Canadian Labour Congress

Case Studies Prepared for the Canadian Council for International Co-operation
March 2003

Lessons in Aid Effectiveness from Civil Society
Creating Capacity for Democracy

The First Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Harmattan School in Bauchi, northern Nigeria, brought together 133 Nigerian trade union leaders and activists in December 2002 for a week of intensive education with instructors from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and Canada. Five courses were conducted concurrently during the week: National Leadership, State Level Leadership, Workplace Representatives, Educators Training, and Women’s Leadership. Nigerian and foreign instructors were twinned in each course as co-facilitators. The courses were designed to provide specialized training to the five focus topics using manuals developed by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in 2000/01. A second objective was to assist affiliated union officials to develop new skills and methods of addressing members’ problems.

Participant evaluation of this first NLC Harmattan School spoke eloquently about its origins in both the West African context for trade union movements in the 1980s and 1990s and the central role of international trade union solidarity:

The Harmattan School is the outcome of a long struggle to rebuild the trade union movement in West Africa. Education played an important role in this journey. During the period of political and military repression of the 1980's and 1990's trade unions were under serious attack in several countries in West Africa. During this period union leaders in West Africa met regularly in sub-regional trade union workshops, which involved the sharing of ideas and developing new strategies on how to survive as a movement and rebuild trade unions organisation. The solidarity support from the Commonwealth Trade Union Council in the 1980's, and in the 1990's by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) was very important for the success of these events. These workshops helped to keep the vision of democratic unionism alive and importantly introduced democratic and participatory ideas to trade union education.

The school was modelled on CLC Winter Schools. Every year, the CLC conducts a series of schools, running as many as 12 week-long courses, in various regions of Canada on a variety of themes, including collective bargaining, occupational health and safety, global solidarity, and many more. The participants, Canadian trade union leaders and activists, spend six hours per day in a class room setting. In addition to class work, learning takes place by participating in evening sessions with external guest speakers, informal sports events, and cultural activities including singing competitions and skits. During the five years of the West African Trade Unions Education for Democracy Project, between 1996 and 2001, over 20 trade unionists from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia participated in these CLC schools. It was impressive to see during the Harmattan School in Nigeria, how our Nigerian partners had adapted the active learning methods and the evening competitions to their culture and needs.

The West African Trade Unions Education for Democracy Project began in 1996. At that time, the Nigerian military regime had hanged the Ogoniland activists during a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting despite widespread international protests, and Canadian assistance was made available to support civil society as a means of promoting democracy and good governance in the region. Trade unions in West Africa had a broad membership base, and it was anticipated that training in various aspects of democracy aimed at trade union activists and leaders, would lead to the formation of a cadre of democracy activists who would help to install civilian rule once the military was removed from power.

While designed with funding from CIDA’s Africa and Middle East Bilateral Branch in two phases over a total of five years, the project drew upon critical organizational support in both Africa and the Commonwealth.

The project was launched with a planning workshop held in Accra, Ghana which brought together participants from the West African countries then living under military dictatorship with representatives of the Ghana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), the Commonwealth Trade Union Council (CTUC), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions/African Regional Organization (ICFTU/AFRO), the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), and the CLC. The outcome of this first session included the identification of priority issues to be addressed (Conflict Resolution, Women and Democracy, Environment and Democracy, Internal Trade Union Democracy, Trade Union and Other Human Rights) by means of national and regional workshops in order to reach the target groups in all the participating countries.

Coordination and continuity were two key elements that contributed to a successful North/South collaboration. Two overall coordinators – one located in West Africa, from the Nigeria Labour Congress, and one in Canada, from the Canadian Labour Congress – communicated on a regular basis and both participated in all the regional workshops. Continuity was achieved by making sure that some of the same participants were present throughout the process while a multiplier effect was achieved by the addition of new participants at national workshops who would then attend some of the regional ones.

Throughout the life of the project, there was synergy between the regional and national workshops. Participants at national events worked on developing the priority themes according to their specific realities, and these were then reported to the regional workshops where new ideas were generated to take back to each national centre. For all activities, gender parity was sought, and often attained, although there were some workshops where less than half the participants were women.

The regional workshops included at least one Canadian resource person from the CLC. The Canadian expert(s) provided comparative experience on the particular theme being discussed. The participants appreciated the Canadian perspective that was added to their deliberations.

The Nigeria Labour Fact Sheet, a publication with a wide circulation, was an additional tool used to communicate knowledge and lessons learned to a wider audience beyond the participants themselves. In addition, learning also took place during study visits to Canada, which all the participants evaluated as a most useful experience allowing them to acquire new methods of education, to witness trade union democracy in action, and to bring new ideas back to their countries.

Education manuals on Conflict Resolution and Women and Democracy were developed, piloted, widely distributed and used in education sessions in each of the countries with rank and file trade union activists. These manuals in some cases became models for the subsequent creation of other local materials on issues of immediate and local relevance.

It is noteworthy that a number of "graduates" of this project moved on to occupy leadership positions in their unions. This is the case of the General Secretaries of both the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Ghana Trades Union Congress, the Education Directors of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Sierra Leone Labour Congress, the Women’s Department Coordinator of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Secretary for Women’s Issues of the Sierra Leone Labour Congress, and the Director of the International Department, the first woman to hold this post anywhere in Africa, of the Ghana Trades Unions Congress. In addition, a graduate of the project became a Minister in the Government of Sierra Leone.

The evaluation, conducted by an independent evaluator assisted by three of the West African participants, listed the following outcomes:

The project played an important role in strengthening union structures and building union institutions in West Africa.

The project fostered linkages between Canadian, Nigerian, Sierra Leonean trade unions and contributed to strengthening the democratic practices within the trade unions.

The project enhanced the presence of women within and outside trade unions, helped to build confidence and empower women.

The project influenced the education agenda of unions and built their capacity to develop new courses and teaching methods.

The project provided models for "best practices" in union education as well as in building and maintaining democracy.

The project encouraged and prepared trade unionists for democratic action in their workplaces, unions, communities, and countries.

The project was visible in the unions, among civil society organisations, as well as the public in West Africa and among trade unionists in Canada.

It is always tempting to claim credit, but in all modesty it is fair to say that this five year project which brought together trade union educators and activists from West Africa, Canada, and South Africa has had a remarkable affect on the development of the union movement in West Africa. We began this "case study" with the Nigerian Labour Congress’ Harmattan School. This is indeed an excellent example of how the Nigerian union movement took part in an education and learning process, how it took ownership of this process, and developed an education model to suit its specific needs for continued capacity building in workers’ education.

The following comments, made by the former CTUC education officer who was instrumental to the inception and development of the project, illustrate some of the elements and principles needed for positive North/South cooperation:

One of the reasons why the West Africa model of development was relatively effective is that there was a shared approach to the form of trade union education that transpired. It was decisively learner-centred, and rested upon a methodological approach that was relatively simple to replicate, and which was based on the expressed needs of the trade union movement itself. This is an important consideration.

So much of what passes for international solidarity fails to acknowledge that each ‘donor’ often (sometimes unconsciously) superimposes its own models for educational practice and delivery, and often fails to see the confusion that can be created for local trade union movements who have to adopt what is essentially a different approach to each donor! The answer, of course, is to use project work to ensure that whatever models are developed take into consideration the strengths which have emerged from local experience and test them in practice. The West Africa project was able to provide this ‘process of assimilation’ while at the same time providing a critical focus to test effectiveness as new approaches were developed.

What emerged over a period of years was a refinement of a shared pedagogical approach, open to innovation, but based on many shared educational principles and practices. This is an important point, not least because it allowed material and facilitation expertise to be developed and shared across a region, without losing touch with what was needed in each country. This in effect is what made the educational work of the project sustainable.

In conclusion, the trade union movements of West Africa give credit to the five-year project for helping them to become the most broadly-based and vibrant sectors of civil society in each of their countries. Both the NLC (Nigeria)and GTUC (Ghana) today play leading roles in local and regional struggles to provide decent jobs and living conditions for workers and their communities, and in doing so interact with their governments on appropriate strategies to reduce widespread poverty.

In addition, the lessons learned from the West African Trade Unions Education for Democracy Project are being applied by the CLC to programming in the area of workers’ education and capacity building in other regions of the world, for example in the Middle East.

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