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The Two-Way Street of Technical Assistance

May 17, 2010

Sharing Experiences and Learning

Originally published in Rights Now Spring/Summer 2010

Through its eye-to-eye partnership model, UUSC provides technical assistance to partners along with financial support to advance human rights and social justice in conflicts, natural disasters, and movements for economic justice, civil liberties, and the human right to water. And our partners also provide UUSC with technical support. But what does technical assistance actually mean?

Here’s how it works: partners or UUSC staff identify a need that has become a barrier for the partner’s work or an opportunity for the partner’s work to expand and serve as a model for others. UUSC then looks for ways to fulfill that need, providing expert assistance to our partners, both directly and with the help of members, universities, and other UUSC partners.

The nuts and bolts of technical assistance

Take, for example, UUSC Civil Liberties partner Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance (HAMSA), a project of the American Islamic Congress that integrates youth and young adults into interfaith work. HAMSA participants had incredible energy, enthusiasm, and creative ideas to build bridges across the chasm of religious hatred and profiling surrounding the “war on terror.” But they had little experience in raising funds, reaching out to the media, and designing and implementing a project. In May 2009, UUSC staff provided technical assistance in the form of a grant-writing workshop in Morocco for young social activists throughout the Middle East. Participants wrote project proposals for a UUSC-funded microgrant, resulting in conferences and campus dialogues on religious freedom and an interfaith music concert.

For partners working in the cyclone disaster and conflict areas in Myanmar, UUSC Rights and Humanitarian Crises staff provided training in bookkeeping, grant-proposal writing, organizational structure, and strategic planning. Partners also share technical assistance among themselves with UUSC support, like the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, which taught grassroots groups in Myanmar strategies for community-based, participatory rebuilding schemes for cyclone-affected areas. And in Uganda, UUSC connected Massachusetts Institute of Technology experts with communities there to provide alternative fuel technology and creative problem solving.

In rural Georgia, UUSC Economic Justice staff helped the Southern Alternatives Agricultural Cooperative develop a business plan for marketing their pecans, enabling the only pecan-processing plant owned by African-American women to reach socially conscious consumers.

Members get involved

UUSC members also provide technical assistance to help partners further their goals and assert their rights. Rob Robinson of Golden, Colo., an expert in reclaiming the environment from degradation caused by mining, is helping the Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) of the diocese of San Marcos in Guatemala to hold GoldCorp accountable for contaminating water resources and damaging homes. COPAE wanted to establish a community-controlled water-quality monitoring project because neither the government nor GoldCorp would take their contamination claims seriously, even though community members were showing skin-related disease normally associated with toxic chemicals in water.

Recently retired, Robinson offered his skills in helping UUSC set up water-quality monitoring with COPAE. Robinson raised funds, put together a team of highly expert technical and support staff, and traveled to Guatemala to deliver water-test kits, train COPAE staff, and assist in reporting to the communities, government ministries, and elected officials. As a result of the project, the Ministry of the Environment has requested that the Ministry of Mines and GoldCorp establish a water-quality monitoring program to track toxic chemicals. Most recently, the team reported to the Congress of Guatemala, affected communities, and the press on damage to homes caused by the mine.

Everyone wins

Not only do partner organizations benefit from the technical assistance offered, expert volunteers also take away a great deal. Claire Barker, an environmental expert from Boston, Mass., provided technical assistance to UUSC partners Mi Cometa and Citizens’ Observatory for Public Services in Ecuador. She helped them develop a model project to protect a section of the Guayas River watershed and estuary, which is being contaminated with pesticide-laden runoff. Barker writes about her experience: “Beyond the sharing of expertise, culture, and experience, volunteering with Guayaquil’s Citizens’ Observatory for Public Services in May 2009 revitalized the long-standing mantra ‘think globally, act locally.'” Her time in Ecuador gave her a first-hand view of the global effects of the simplest of choices, like eating inexpensive bananas on her cereal in the morning, knowing that their production is connected to contaminated water in Ecuador.

The two-way partnerships of UUSC’s technical-assistance programs provide rich experiences and valuable knowledge for everyone involved — true examples of the concept that advancing human rights is the work of many joining hands.

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