Teaching in Closed Societies

I work in a closed society*. My colleagues do as well. In fact, we are all from the country in which we work and are passionate about what we do. We facilitate learning sessions with individuals in small and large communities, from grassroot organizations and concerned civil servants, victims as well as perpetrators of violence, activists and teachers, young and old, those marching in the streets and those working ‘underground’. 

Like most places in the world, people want to learn. But, how do we ensure their safety and security in closed societies? 

Here are a few lessons learned.

  1. Develop a ‘code of conduct’. This is essential and is sent to all participants before coming. Attached is always a note: If you are unable to commit to this code, we ask that you not attend for the safety of all present. 
  2. Name when the code of conduct is being broken or at risk. This should be done immediately and without hesitation. 
  3. Ask everyone to select a pseudonym. Using real names can be unsafe, so everyone is asked to attend under another name and use it while present (in-person and online). This is also true for facilitators and some guest speakers. 
  4. [During online sessions] Invite everyone to keep their camera off. Although in some cases adults will select wisely for themselves, in some cases you may wish to mandate it. 
  5. [During online sessions] Share audio recordings only
  6. Discourage use of specific names, places, or events. Although there are instances where this can be important, note that naming these may put the speaker or named at risk. 
  7. Intentionally and thoughtfully select technology. Each country and region has technology that is less (or more) safe to use. Do your research and don’t assume what you use in one place will be best for another. 
  8. Check the backend storage of the virtual meeting platform you use. Uncheck the countries who are not recognized as safe to mirror and store the data. Tell the participants what actions you’ve taken to protect their data.

As well,

  1. If you, as a facilitator, are unfamiliar with the risks people in closed societies may face, question your assumptions and insist on robust designing and planning participation with individuals who are familiar with the risks. The slightest tone, the smallest remark can amplify unintended consequences.
  2. When inviting special guests, especially those with expertise or lived experience in the closed country, honour and acknowledge their bravery and don’t forget their efforts after the event has ended. Check in with them, when possible.

As hosts and facilitators of gatherings, learning events, and meetings, we are responsible for the safety and security of each individual present. When working in closed societies, this can be a life-or-death situation. However, all learners – regardless of their situation – need to feel safe: emotionally, physically, and psychologically. 

How do these tips inspire you in your work, regardless of where that is?


* A closed society is one in which an individual’s role and function can theoretically never be changed, as in the traditional Hindu caste system. An open society, on the other hand, allows the individual to change his role and to benefit from corresponding changes in status.… (www.britannica.com); A closed community intentionally limits links with outsiders and outside communities. Closed communities may be of a religious, ethnic, or political nature. Governance of closed societies varies. Typically, members of closed communities are either born into the community or are accepted into it. (https://en.wikipedia.org)  


Sima has been involved with project management and course facilitation for the past 8 years. She has a degree in science and work experience.

With input from: Jeanette Romkema is GLP Senior Partner, Partnerships & Network Director. Jeanette has worked and lived in closed societies. Here are more GLP blogs by Jeanette. 

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