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Access to justice

How Lawyers Without Borders brought e-learning to Africa

Turning unexpected roadblocks into opportunity, furthering the rule of law, and expanding justice around the globe.

Until the summer of 2014, the legal non-profit Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB) had spent years in East and West Africa helping local lawyers, judges, and law enforcement officers grapple with the complexities of prosecuting such high-profile crimes as human trafficking, wildlife poaching, electoral violence, and terrorism. Using printed pamphlets, booklets, newsletters, and textbooks, LWOB’s training programs typically took place in a classroom where the teaching involved everything from evidence collection and chain-of-custody procedures to case preparation and prosecution strategies for the courtroom.

In Liberia, hundreds of the country’s legal professionals participated in the training sessions. Then one day, everything came to a screaming halt. “Even when travel into and out of the country eased, there were severe restrictions on public gatherings, there would be no shaking hands, gatherings had to be small and regular hand cleansing with disinfectant was mandatory,” recalls Christina Storm, the founder of LWOB.

The reason: Ebola. The government was shutting down the borders and setting up quarantine zones. Schools were closed. The Ebola virus was spreading, and no one knew when it was going to stop.

“Historically in Liberia, we used old-fashioned print materials because in many of the places we work, people don’t have access to computers or the internet, or even in some locales, electricity,” Storm says. “It quickly became apparent that print materials distributed by hand were no longer going to work. We faced a grant deadline and had no way to deliver.”

The search for a solution

Until that point, Thomson Reuters had been helping LWOB defray the high cost of printing by offering to publish the organization’s training materials for free. When the Ebola virus struck, however, Storm made a call to Sharon Sayles Belton, Thomson Reuters’ vice president of community relations and government affairs, and explained the situation.

“It was awful,” Sayles-Belton recalls. “People didn’t want to gather in groups. They were reluctant to travel, and they didn’t want to be in the company of others.”

The solution wasn’t immediately obvious, but Sayles-Belton and Joseph Kubes, director of Strategic Alliances at Thomson Reuters, called a meeting to discuss how the company might be able to help. “That’s when we started thinking that we needed to identify and develop a new delivery model,” says Sayles-Belton. “Since people wouldn’t gather in groups, we started talking about shifting from an in-person model to an e-learning model.”

Thomson Reuters already had e-recording facilities in key markets where LWOB was located. To create a series of e-learning modules that could be deployed over the internet, all LWOB had to do was bring its subject-matter experts to the closest facility, record the training sessions, and deliver them through a custom portal hosted on the Thomson Reuters network. In addition, the company could offer LWOB access to its Webex conferencing tools for live sessions, which could also be recorded and archived for future use.

All of which sounded great, except for the tiny matter of technological access. To solve that problem, LWOB solicited donations to purchase dozens of laptop computers and trained locals how to use the new digital platform. Once the sessions were recorded and edited — in cities as far-flung as Chicago and London — they were archived and distributed via hard drives and online.

E-learning in Africa

The new system worked. In fact, it worked so well that LWOB decided to transform its entire training and delivery model to incorporate e-learning. “Once we set them up with laptops and drives, we left the country,” says LWOB’s Storm. “We realized then that if we could make it work in Liberia, we could make it work anywhere.”

Since then, with the support of Thomson Reuters, LWOB has replicated almost all of its training and course materials in a digital format, a shift that has expanded the organization’s reach and improved its effectiveness. In other countries, LWOB’s work has been periodically interrupted by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, political upheaval, and acts of terrorism; but the availability of online training materials has made it possible for the organization to continue its work under circumstances that would have otherwise prohibited it.

“If I had to identify the top four or five junctures where a significant difference in our organization was made, without question, one of them would definitely be our relationship with Thomson Reuters,” says Storm.

In order to build on that relationship, LWOB and Thomson Reuters recently signed a two-year agreement to continue developing e-learning modules for LWOB’s work in Africa, particularly in Liberia, Kenya, and Tanzania. In addition to providing e-learning development and platform support, as well as continued pro-bono printing services and mock-trial advice, LWOB and Thomson Reuters are also working together to develop e-learning components as part of larger effort to combat terrorism in Kenya.

Terrorism cases often involve extensive research, complex litigation, and international cooperation, all of which is difficult in places where the local justice system is compromised by corruption and governmental instability. The training that lawyers in those countries receive helps them conduct investigations, gather evidence, and mount successful legal strategies tailored to the challenges faced by prosecutors in those regions.

“We have a shared interest with Lawyers Without Borders in that we’re both dedicated to furthering the rule of law and expanding justice around the globe,” says Sayles-Belton. “Our partnership with LWOB helps justice professionals around the world establish the economic and social stability necessary to address systemic inequities and improve people’s lives.”

Throughout its work in Africa, LWOB still uses printed materials to ensure that even those in remote areas have learning materials, but e-delivery of the organization’s content has been a game-changer, says Storm. “Access to justice is much more sustainable now that our training and course materials are available online in perpetuity.”

By Tad Simons, Blogger, Legal Executive Institute

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