Par Joyce Davis, President, Davis & Goodman International Media Consultants; The World Affairs Council of Harrisburg
Nargiza Alikulova used to think that human development was all about money, helping people live better by increasing their income. Now, she knows that human development is about much more than someone’s financial status. Alikulova, a public relations specialist, was among the 60 people from throughout Uzbekistan who participated in the country's first online school sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in cooperation with the Republic of Uzbekistan. Alikulova and her colleagues spent a summer month delving deeply into some of the most sensitive issues facing the world today. The online course not only made history in Uzbekistan, but it challenged professionals from throughout the country to look at development issues in a new light – putting people first. “Putting people first means treating them with decency and respect, regardless of disability, ethnicity or class,” explained Alina Akhmerova, Lead researcher at the Center for Economic Research, who directed UNDP's “Summer School”. “We wanted to make this course accessible to people all over the country, and doing it online made that possible.”
Uzbekistan’s school was modeled after a similar program conducted at the Central European University in Budapest in partnership with the UNDP Regional Center at Bratislava. Launched in 2005, the Summer School entitled “Sustainable Human Development: Frameworks to Regional Policies” is designed to help professionals better understand human development concept. The course attracts the wide range of specialists and experts from UNDP Bratislava, universities in the region and UNDP country offices. So far the course seems to be working in combining coursework with the opportunity to put theories to practice. It was part of an initiative that UNDP began in Uzbekistan in 2008 to support government leaders in raising awareness and promoting human development principles throughout the country. UNDP has conducted a series of courses to train professionals as well as government officials in cumin development concept, partnering with the University of World Economy and Diplomacy under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan But providing the course online was a breakthrough in connecting people from different age groups, professions and regions to learn about human development.
Because classwork could be done at home and suitable to the student's schedule, it brought together a diverse group of people who might not otherwise have been able to participate because of work schedules and commuting difficulties. “I was able to track when the participants were actually online,” Akhmerova said. “Most of them did their work between midnight and 3 am, when their households were quiet and they could focus better on learning these new ideas.” Alikulova and most of the other students of UNDP's virtual “Summer School” had only minimal understanding of human development concepts. They spent summer vacation reading articles and books, debating ideas online, and undergoing regular testing in a rigorous program designed to push them to challenge their ideas and assumptions about social issues. They frequently tackled provocative issues. “For example, we talked about social inclusion and tried to help people understand just what that means,” she said. Many had never thought about whether they should make a conscious effort to reach out to the isolated groups, such as people with disabilities ensuring that they are welcome in the mainstream society. And many are unaccustomed to talking publicly about such issues. “Human development is a new concept in Uzbekistan as in other parts of the world,” Alikulova said. “I didn't really understand human development, and this course taught us that people should be at the center of development programs. “It's not all about income or money,” she said. “Development is also about gender equality, globalization and appreciating cultural differences. It even includes good health.” The school proved to be a life-changing experience for many of the participants. “I saw people's attitudes change, especially in the older people who had become more rigid in their thinking,” said Alikulova. “They were challenged to think for themselves and not to simply accept old attitudes and old ideas.”
The older participants may have benefited from UNDP's summer school even more than their younger counterparts, as well-trained facilitators prodded them to question, discuss and debate opinions about complex social problems. “Many of them were not used to doing that,” Alikulova said, “and we saw how difficult it can be to express your own ideas if you are not trained to do so.” More than 90 people applied, but 60 were chosen to take part in the online school. UNDP covered all expenses, and participants did not need to have any previous knowledge of human development issues. “They only had to be motivated to learn,” Akhmerova said. “We divided the course into four sections,” she said. The first explained what is human development and the others focused on deeper study, discussion and testing on the concepts. Reading materials were available online in three languages – Uzbek, Russian and English, and UNDP facilitators kept track of the participant's progress, encouraging them to express their thoughts online. “We were all excited about this course, and we pushed ourselves to study and learn as much as we could,” Alikulova said.
The last phase of the school may have been the best when the top 20 participants met in person at a mountain retreat in an area known as Charvak, about 80 kilometers from Tashkent. Alikulova was one of them. She said the retreat provided an opportunity for the top students to engage directly, including participating in a unique opportunity to act out human development concepts in a role-playing game in which participants were called to utilize the concepts they had learned in the online school. While the role-playing was supposed to be a game, Alikulova said, many of the participants became quite serious as they took on new personae and struggled to implement human development concepts in real-life situations. Akhmerova and her UNDP colleagues were anxious to see how the participants would behave: Would they think about how their actions impacted those less fortunate? Would they include the disenfranchised in their made-up societies? Would they make selfish decisions and take care of only themselves, or would they consider the potential repercussions of their actions on others? “In the game, some people were placed in positions of strength, while others were in weaker positions, based on access to wealth and social status,“ Akhmerova said. “The decisions they made about how to get money, how to spend it and how to invest it, impacted whether their teammates lived or died, and whether they were able to survive.” “Sometimes this brought out the worst in people when they did not include human development concepts in their decision making, when they acted selfishly,” Alikulova said. “But we learned valuable lessons in the game,” she said. “We learned that the way we live, our decisions, affect other people in ways we may not always see.” With the success of its first online “Summer School”, UNDP plans to sponsor another online school for Uzbekistan professionals in 2011. But the next school will be held in somewhat colder season, and will be aptly named, “UNDP's Winter School!”
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