Alex Batesmith September 23, 2019
Getting Ready For Your First Justice Assignment? Check This Out
Editors Note: If your next assignment is not your first, please check out Alex’s post anyway and share experiences of your own by replying below.
You’ve been hired to work on a rule of law project in a country you’ve never visited. You know little about the culture and less about the language. You’ll be living and working with local and international colleagues. There will be stakeholders to work with, from civil society, government and international organizations.
You will have your contract, a list of deliverables and a security briefing. Once you’ve arrived you’ll be left to work out the rest for yourself. If you’re lucky, your employers may have given you a cursory factsheet about the country or the city in which you’re stationed. It’s not much to go on and once you arrive there won’t be much time for study.
What can you do both before and after you arrive on your first justice assignment and to ensure that you work as effectively as possible? Here are my five top tips. Please help me to develop this list by sending in your comments.
Tip #1: Start Early To Understand The Culture Of The People You Will Be Working With
Your success really does depend on understanding the context you are about to enter. You need to know lots more than you do now about its history, its people, and its legal framework and institutions. Spend lots of time on this – you won’t regret it.
For basic facts about just about anywhere, try the World Factbook. Sure, it’s a CIA product but it’s useful. Your own government’s foreign office website, Wikipedia, or the individual country pages of international NGOs and development agencies will all help. Check out your employer’s own website. You may not know Reliefweb, an excellent source recent reports and country profiles. (And btw Reliefweb features comprehensive job ads, searchable by expertise and region).
“You have to learn as you go and live with your mistakes. But intensive preparation is a big help”
Two #2: You Can Improve Your Intercultural Skills Before You Go
Successful justice reform practitioners are good at adjusting to new cultures. It takes a while to figure out how to dress, how to greet, how to thank and what if anything to say about sensitive topics. You have to learn as you go and live with your mistakes. But intensive preparation is a big help.
Before you go you can check out Global Affairs Canada’s Centre for Intercultural Learning. You’ll like its Country Insights pages which explore country by country everyday issues such as communication styles, dress, formality and punctuality, preferred managerial qualities, attitudes towards displays of emotion, relationship building, and religion, class, ethnicity and gender.
Have a look at their ‘Profile of the Interculturally Effective Person’. It focuses on the personal and inter-personal skills, knowledge and attitudes of a culturally effective person. This is a detailed description of the required behaviours, rather than simply a list of characteristics. Hard copies for free.
“Experience of what has worked in other countries can be useful, but what you really need to do is figure out what will work where you are.”
Tip #3: Nothing Will Go According To Plan
If everything at your destination worked like a Swiss watch, you wouldn’t have a job, would you? So, embrace the uncertainty – it’s a good thing. But prepare for change.
For example, your terms of reference may have been prepared a year ago by someone who didn’t know the country much better than you do. Some of it might not be consistent with what you’re learning. Other parts might just not make sense to you. The Chief Justice may have changed her mind. Be ready for the moment when someone suggests change. Think about it in advance.
You may have submitted materials for a training in advance. What will you do if the Director likes them so much she decides to invite the whole junior cadre? Your seminar just became a lecture. What to do?
A few days on the ground persuade you that the ‘interactive learning’ mode you adopted in your training materials is going to be too big a barrier for learners raised in an authoritarian society. Your ministry contact suggests lectures. What to do?
Try to make your plans adaptable as you pick up more knowledge and understanding ‘on the ground’. Experience of what has worked in other countries can be useful, but what you really need to do is figure out what will work where you are.
“Yes, there really are 21,800 people facing the same challenges you do”
Tip #4: Relationships Matter. Work on Them
Every rule of law assignment will require you to develop and sustain relationships with a diverse range of actors. The success of your project depends on your ability to maintain effective, open and inclusive communication within your team and with stakeholders. But building relationships and networks in a new and unfamiliar environment takes time.
Sometimes, relationships with your international colleagues will be as challenging as those with the nationals you are working with. Use your listening skills, don’t be afraid of asking questions (even if they might seem obvious), and avoid making assumptions or jumping to early conclusions. Don’t neglect those who make the project logistically possible, such as the ‘fixers’, interpreters, drivers, and catering staff. Not only is it polite to respect them and their work, such people can be sources of invaluable local knowledge and cultural learning, which can go a long way to building your acceptance by and ease with the local population.
Tip #5: Work On Your Resilience: It Really Is An Essential Quality
Rule of law assignments in a foreign country are accompanied by major stressors. Getting the job done in an unfamiliar environment is difficult enough. And then some the multitude of cultural unknowns relating to where you will live, who you speak to, what you eat, and virtually every aspect of everyday life. The idea of not understanding cultural norms can leave rule of law workers disoriented and frustrated, neither feeling in control of their immediate working environment nor their wider cultural surroundings. Cultivating personal resilience will help to combat this.
You can develop resilience by approaching your life and work in a foreign country with a positive, open-minded, and adaptable outlook. Realism in what you can achieve also helps, as does maintaining a sense of humour and humility. And take time out to relax, even if it’s just going for a walk to the local market. For more on the personal challenges of working abroad, join Fifty Shades of Aid, a Facebook group focused on the practical challenges of new assignments in new places. Yes, there really are 21,800 people facing the same challenges you do.
Welcome to justice reform. Please let us have your comments.
2 Replies to “Featured Post: Alex Batesmith’s Five Tips For Your First Justice Assignment”
Thank you Alex for your post. These are excellent tips that will be very useful for new colleagues. They also invite reflections from the rest of us who have been around a bit.
One additional tip I would share with junior colleagues, especially international ones arriving in a new country, is to be humble and avoid any sense that you know more just because you are assisting a poor/war-torn country. While this may sound obvious, the reality of the international development industry is filled with junior ‘experts’ from the global north advising work in developing countries, often armed with a UN contract but not much in the way of technical expertise, cultural sensitivity or contextual experience. The other reality is that you might get an incredible opportunity to work with officials decades your senior, so take advantage of that opportunity to learn.
Apart from learning about the formal legal system (laws, courts, mechanisms, structures), talk to as many local legal professionals and advocates as possible to get to understand the real legal system, looking at how people seek justice and resolve legal disputes, how legal institutions really work, and importantly, the influence of politics on the legal system. Does the system deliver justice and enlarge people’s freedom, or is it primarily a tool for political ends by the elite? What makes up the legal profession and how are lawyers, judges and law schools valued within the society? Examine the meaning of law, justice and rights in that context to see if it is different to your definition, or that of international organisations/actors.
And don’t rush to fill in matrices, log frames or budgets before having a good understanding of the context!
Check out the Featured Post on Strategic Planning: Do’s and Don’ts for some related thoughts.