First Edgeryders Unconference in Nepal or a successful experiment

We were not sure how things will be if we just invite people over, introduce ourselves and the concept for the meeting, and then let things happen, as they should do at an unconference. Will our guests have ideas for sessions? Will they be prone to simply initiate a discussion, or give a workshop, based on their rich experience? We tried and we are happy with the result and the learning opportunity we were given.

To start with, what worked well?

I think the most important element was the combination of tech-oriented Raspberry Pi workshop given by Ajay from RAN (Robotics Association of Nepal) who introduced a group of people to what this little strange thing we brought with us is capable of, with more socially-concerned meetings and discussion that catered the needs of artists and activists who came over. This way we both had a hands-on thing going on in the Pie Room downstairs, and a parallel, dense discussion and introduction to important issues our participants are dealing with.

As a result, we had four sessions going on throughout the day

  1. Raspberry Pi Workshop

  2. Sustainable Buildings

  3. Let’s talk about (not) undermining resilience

  4. Citizen Journalism

Sustainable Buildings

This first session, taking place in the Chillout Room (one of the things we have learnt is that we need only chillout rooms for sessions, with a lot of light, internet, snacks and drinks at handy, and comfortable sofas), was sparked by a short discussion I had with the arriving participants. Understanding what are the things they work on after the earthquake, but also in general, showed a wide-spread concern about the reconstruction phase happening now in Nepal. Half of about thirty participants decided to stay and discuss it.

We started with some elements of resilience. Participant who works for Project EK on building temporary learning units that substitute demolished schools shared with us a couple of interesting ideas and observations. First of all, we were told how collaboration with the government goes in his case - as designing and building these units cannot be done without their knowledge, they took the designs available on the governmental websites and decided to improve them, sending the ideas back and asking for approval. Once that is accepted, they can go on with construction.

What everyone agreed on, the only way things could have been done efficiently in the last weeks in Nepal, was by individual and collective determination and organisation. Only improvised, grassroot response that remains until now widely unrecognised by officials and NGOs/INGOs, or entities such as Red Cross or UN, was efficient enough to actually reach devastated and disconnected places, discover which areas are in need, assess the needs and provide actual help. Even though this process obviously had its flaws and disadvantages, it spared precious time. We’ve seen it - the emergent, low-level model of coordination did miracles hacking the system and avoiding ridiculous limitations. And most of the flaws of the response, such as duplication or sending unnecessary supplies, were not harmful.

Second point: great misrepresentation of the efforts happening in the remote areas at the moment: stop covering the heroic efforts of Kathmandu’s youth and so called disaster celebrities. Indeed, there is yet another area to explore. A vast territory of so called local contacts (along with all the questions, such as who were they, how were they identified, what was their role and motivation, what is their opinion about the relief work done? etc), things that have been happening in many places without any help from any side, houses that are being reconstructed at this very moment, and incredible know-how accumulated by the villagers who were able to solve any given problem. One great example of the far-sighted thinking in the villages is the fact that some of the people spent extra time on building longer shelters as they figured out that once they move out, they would serve great as mushroom greenhouses.

What’s left then for the people in the city? Looks like the best use of technology and skills that are unavailable in the villages will be to keep institutions accountable and spend time on discovering how the money is spent. One of the participants already started: he is now writing letters to different donors who pledged and raised millions of dollars which never arrived to Nepal, asking what exactly happened to these sums? There is probably no chance that an individual will be answered that question, but if this turns into massive spamming and a big campaign, it might eventually lead to a disclosure.

(not) undermining the resilience

The transition to the next session happened organically, as speakers gradually shifted from the city to the village and started praising the response to the disaster they saw in the villages. It started with a little political anecdote from a village where one of the young inhabitants said: there will be three disasters in Nepal. One - earthquake. Second - monsoon. Third: all the politicians will have their legs cut off. Villages are incredibly resilient, which definitely has something to do with the fact that they are forgotten and neglected by their democratically elected representatives. In best case villagers are utilised in political campaigns, which they are well aware of. Left alone in quite difficult conditions, with horrible roads and hospitals hours of drive away, they were forced to be self-sufficient and independent. And this is what external perspective notoriously oversees, quoting ideas from university graduates about what is the organic, what is the sustainable, what is the self-contained. It takes just a bit of humility and a couple of hours in one of these detached, underdeveloped areas to understand where real resilience is happening all the time, without anyone’s help.

There is some space left for help here and it is mostly based on technological advantages of educated people who could contribute to creating more effective economies in these remote places and help people use and promote what is at their disposal already. This way a vicious circle of debts and migrations to countries where people earn little and live in bad conditions could be broken - by changing the perspective, both of the people, and of the villages, in terms of their potential development and self-sufficiency.

Nevertheless, as one of the participants stressed, the biggest threat comes from the high-level help - their incompetence, inefficiency and the fact that their actions cripple people and make them dependent. The questions are: how to empower and remind these people what they do is of the highest value? And how to stop big agencies from what they do - raising huge amounts of money and misusing them, showing pictures of spectacular successes in places where they just build nice tents, and so on.

I liked the way things were concluded by our participants this day: you ask how to do something? Don’t ask, go and do it.

Citizen Journalism Session

The last session this day led to both inspiring discussion but also an idea for our future workshop. Our engagement managers, @anubhutipoudyal and @Dipti_Sherchan, presented the method we have together developed to make Future Makers Nepal happen. Showing to our participants the questions they used when interviewing inspiring people, and the motivations they have while deciding on whom to talk with, they stressed important factors of personal interest in the topics covered and reward in form of a finished piece that gets published and shows a portion of reality you really wanted to talk about to the others.

The example of a student of journalism, Rai Bahing, who keeps a daily journal and writes inspiring, unique stories on her facebook profile, and whose work went viral and became an empowering source for people affected by the disasters, shows the potential and importance of civil journalism.

Another important aspect of citizen journalism is a lower entry barrier - it is accessible to regular people who want to share their story, try their skills, do not have time to submit a proper journalistic work, etc.

Having this more egalitarian model of depicting reality (even if it doesn’t have the credibility and importance of recognised media outlets, however dubious they tend to be) where opinions are not imposed, but expressed by engaged individuals, can be a great starting point to thoughtful and inclusive reflection, watchdog activities, bringing out more inspiring and positive stories, significantly contributing to creation of a more aware and active civil society.

After 8 hours of event we concluded it with a great idea of continuing the meetup with yet another workshop, this time focused on the topic of civil journalism, which will happen in Kathmandu on the 20th of June. We are looking forward to meeting you there again;)

We are also looking forward to your suggestions, opinions, and written pieces of course;) And hope to see you again very soon!

Ps. Photos done by Maria Byck.


Great, great work

I had totally missed this, @Natalia_Skoczylas, @Matthias, @Dipti_Sherchan and @anubhutipoudyal. The quality of your discussion was really very high. Are you familiar with the concept of iatrogenics, “harm done by the healer”? It was popularized by Nassim Taleb, and it applies very nicely to incompetent high level help making people dependent.

I wonder if the wisdom and competence of the villagers in building resilient systems could be brought to the table of nation-building? That was the reason that originally brought Edgeryders to Nepal; but, even more than that, there would be a poetic justice if being better at rebuilding (not only houses, but skills) would be associated to political influence.

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not familiar with the concept

@Alberto but sounds like it fits perfectly into the idea of dependency created by so much un-mindful relief work. one thing that has been bugging me is this whole idea of resilience, and the temporary nature of such an upsurge. the momentum is starting to dwindle and i think the real struggle starts now for those who are still at the ground trying to rebuild.

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Geres for long term improvements

I think this is where could come in and help in a mindful way. If you like I could write to the executive director and ask him to check out the unconference write-up for a start. Of course you’re also very welcome to contact him directly! That would probably be even better, as you could have one or two of the prospective crafts person partners in the background for the call.

That sounds like a good call

I know it will appeal to @Matthias, who likes to “do it right”. smiley

Matt, what do you think? Should Team Nepal give this guy a call?

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Looking how to fit it in

Good idea @trythis and thanks for the reminder, Alberto. I don’t really know at the moment how to fit it in, but we’re discussing it in the team and somebody might have a bright idea. Reason for the difficulty is that we ourselves don’t have any time resources to start or facilitate “reconstruction done right” projects here in Nepal. What would fit is a good discussion by the Geres people together with Nepali community members and our development studies expert @meenabhatta.

This sounds quite brilliant!

It makes me a bit nostalgic, perhaps for the Cairo visit (Which already happened) we should have marketed our event as an unconference with a theme of cooperation/sharing and seen what would’ve come out of it!