The recent meeting of the Education International (EI) Development Cooperation (DC) Network gathered education unionists and cooperation development partners from all over the world, the first one since March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. They took stock of past and current projects and exchanged good practices and tools to ensure the renewal of the network and the strengthening of education unions.
Opening the meeting, held from February 28th until March 1st, in Brussels, Belgium, and attended by 32 participants from 21 unions in 18 countries, EI Deputy General Secretary Haldis Holst stressed: “We are happy to provide DC partners with this great opportunity to meet again in-person after three years, exchange with colleagues from different parts of the world working on similar projects, integrate the network’s many new members, and make new work contacts during the coffee and lunch breaks, as well as the side meetings to discuss concrete projects”.
“Through your on-going DC work, you are also showing that solidarity is strongly entrenched in the unions’ DNA,” she added.
Thematically, the content of the meeting covered 3 areas:
- EI’s current strategies and priorities and the new campaign.
- Solidarity work (how to make it more efficient, how member organisations can work better together).
- Union strengthening as a main pillar of solidarity work.
Participants expressed their satisfaction with the participatory process and appreciated the DC Cafés, focusing on the John Thompson Fellowship (JTF) Programme, the EI Arab Countries Cross-Regional Structure, the EI African region, the EI Asia-Pacific region, the EI European region and the EI Latin American region. They agreed that DC cafés offered opportunities to prepare for the DC in-person conference and to free some time for more discussions.
The project database on the EI website was another tool considered important for exchanging information on each other's projects. Several participants also asked that positive examples continue to be showcased through the EI Solidarity newsletter.
Welcoming the EI regional directors’ participation and guidance, DC partners expressed the need for information and support from regional offices, especially for unions that do not yet have external support, to coordinate activities and follow-up and set up timelines for projects.
Lessons learnt from the pandemic
A session tried to frame how the COVID-19 crisis impacted the solidarity work and if it had left a lasting impact.
Participants noted that the pandemic had placed teachers and trade unionists in an unprecedented situation. The issue of working conditions had to be addressed in new ways, with new challenges caused by the lack of connectivity of students and teachers. Virtuality also redefined working hours and work/life balance. Teachers and trade unionists have shown extraordinary adaptability. Unions have changed the way they organise and communicate.
In terms of lessons learnt, participants highlighted that technology had been of help in the continuation of projects, but that it was essential to establish the connection with partners beforehand. Just as technology cannot fully replace teachers, technology cannot fully replace in-person meetings around projects.
Participants were convinced that the essential prerequisite of a successful project was to know the terrain well and in person, as well as the partners and their context. Once in-person knowledge is gained, and the trust relationship established, technology could help move forward projects quickly and without the extraordinary cost of travel.
The pandemic also affected the way cooperation projects function. Several member organisations reported that they had the capacity to pursue projects more autonomously, by training their members themselves. Funds could be freed up when travel was disrupted, and travel budgets could be reinvested in the projects.
Underlining the benefits of unionisation
Participants felt that the issue of unionisation is extremely important. Since there is a broad spectrum of trade union cultures, the strategy for unionisation must be adapted to the political context and regulations of the country.
DC partners said that the objective of increasing membership was always implicitly or explicitly part of cooperation programmes. This is considered fundamental to achieve the final goal of a cooperation partnership, namely the sustainability of the union.
Good practices for increasing membership, ensuring that each union member understands how they can benefit from joining the union, were shared.
Two aspects are fundamental, participants noted: increasing the number of members, but also making sure that they are active.
Encouraging union renewal processes
DC partners insisted that unions need to update their actions/activities/policies to reflect their membership and its priorities.
Retaining members was highlighted as a key issue, as well as re-creating enthusiasm for trade union action among members.
Participants also stated that capacity building is key to making unions resilient, and members able to define a strategy that would otherwise be defined on their behalf.
The meeting felt that unions need to connect with members in a way that works for them and shows them how the union benefits them and what the union’s wins are. And unions must give responsibility to younger members, involving them actively in union structures and activities.
Presentation of the EI Toolkit to build union strength for more effective education unions
This new manual to strengthen education unions builds on previous DC tools, such as the Development Cooperation Handbook: A guide to successful partnerships, and can easily be used for union capacity-building purposes. It focuses on the idea that it is only at the national and local level that union building and renewal can take place.
EI acknowledges that key factors include active members and multiple levels of leadership, so that the future of a union does not depend on a handful of leaders. Education unions should listen carefully to the needs of the grassroots, being inclusive, having democratic internal processes and being open to alliances and coalitions.
Supporting the EI Go Public! campaign
Meeting participants showed great interest in the new EI campaign, “Go Public! Fund Education”. This campaign is an urgent call for governments to invest in public education, a fundamental human right and public good, and to invest more in teachers, the single most important factor in achieving quality education.