The WE within NATO

Last friday I’ve had a very interesting meeting with Dr. Stefanie Babst, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, at the NATO headquarter in Bussels. We’ve met at DLDWomen this summer and had a brief chat about our WE-projects.

I really enjoyed talking to Stefanie about the WE within NATO – some great and also personal insights.
Stefanie – as part of her daily job – is trying to push the usage of social media at NATO. A rather huge challenge as she said, but there is progress …

True Believers Needed

When I talk about “true believers” I am NOT talking about a syndrome. To me “true believers” are people who deeply believe in their values and act according to them. They do things because they are convinced that these are the right things to do – no matter if money comes with it or not. They “serve” society and change the world for the good. Mike Dawson truely is one. And we desperately need more of them! Especially in places like Afghanistan where corruption is natural and corporate and national interests dominate.

And Mike is a NERD. I introduced him before in this blogpost. Since 5 years he is living and working in Afghanistan. He is CEO of Paiwastoon, a private company with 30 employees. Their mission: Making IT work for Afghanistan. Mike himself is driving a car around in Kabul (totally unusual NOT to have a driver), he really goes to areas where you normally only go in a military convoi (their olpc project is in the Taliban region near the Pakistan boarder), he speaks the language and has – so to say – totally adapted to Afghanistan.

In this interview Mike explains with his very British sense of humour why he is in Afghanistan, he shares insights related to the Afghan education system, he tells us about “realities” in Afghan life and gives us some reasons why private companies – im comparison to NGOs – may have advantages in getting things done.

For me one of the most complelling interviews I’ve ever did.

To help people help themselves …

… should be the ultimate goal of each and every NGO. But this is not always easy, especially when you’re working in highly insecure areas – such as Aghanistan. Asuntha Charles, head of Oxfam office in Kabul, knows what she is talking about. In this interview she is referring to all of the more than 300 international NGOs in Afghanistan and she is trying to explain what are the challenges and what are the opportunities to build sustainable structures. The situation today in Afghansitan is a structure of dependencies which most likely will put thousands into unemployment when international help will step back from Afghanistan in the years to come. Asuntha argues that it is very hard for development workers in Afghanistan to design successful solutions because they have almost no direct contact with those the programs are designed for. (The obsession with) Security destroys many things … But security and how to deal with it is a different discussion.

Asuntha gives us some great insights into her daily work. For her – as for many others we’ve spoken to – education is key to improve people’s lives. The GREAT IDEA project is her first education project – she sees huge potential in the field of mobile learning.

Her over all outlook into the future of Afghanistan isn’t though really optimistic!

Assumptions to improve the status quo (from my naive point of view):

  • bridge the gap between locals and expats
  • decentralize
  • build “with” the locals, not “for” them
  • design communities, not just bureaucracies
  • avoid economic dependencies
  • provide max. transparency in all your activities
  • respect and accept cultural differences – the “western” model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere in the same way
  • work “for” the people and NOT for your own interests

When Design Studios Meets Nerds

A few days ago we’ve met Mike & Mike from Paiwastoon – their mission: making IT work for Afghanistan. Emer had contact with one of them before and she knew they were piloting a olpc project here. To describe them in one word: NERDS.

Since 5 years Mike Dawson, half US and half Brit, 100% british humuor, is living and working in Afghanistan. He is CEO of Paiwastoon, a private company with 30 employees. Besides his marketing guy Mike all other employees are Afghans. He himself is driving a car around in Kabul (totally unusual), he really goes to areas where you normally only go in a military convoi (one olpc project is in the Taliban region near the Pakistan boarder), he speaks the language and has – so to say – totally adapted to Afghanistan. His colleague Mike Guarino came also 5 years ago on a student exchange project, but inbetween he went back to the US for 3.5 years. He joined Paiwastoon as Marketing manager 1.5 years ago.

Their clients are military, NGOs, governmental institutions and the Ministry of Education.

So here we are in the beautiful garden of base2 …

Emer, Mike D., Merel, Mike G. (from the left)

… on our table a brand new shiny tablet and Android smart phone, simple Nokia phones and robust olpcs adjusted to the region – meaning: getting rid off the camera, removing all offending games and pitcs … On the tablet and smart phones the newest education apps, on the olpc an interactive textbook in Darsi (local language) with basic animations, videos, picts. A world of hightech in the place with the worst education on the entire planet. A contradiction?

Technology for technology’s sake? We all agreed, that this isn’t at all the solution.

But what are the opportunities when besides many cultural issues (such as: girls are not allowed to have cell phones in rural areas and to go to school) you are in a country where

  • there is a HUGE lack of teachers,
  • the knowledge of the teachers is in many cases very limited (no methodology),
  • there is no time for feedback during school time,
  • school lasts only 6 months a year,
  • there are hardly any schools and school material is limited,
  • Internet is hardly anywhere available and if so bandwidth is exceedingly expensive,
  • hierarchies and authorities are “top of the pop”
  • corruption is everywhere

We think opportunities are endless. You can start pretty much with anything when there is nothing. But you should pilot and learn what works best.

There are some guidelines you should keep in mind:

  • re-assure maintainance
  • have people on the ground
  • move in small steps rather than in big ones
  • monitor and evaluate honestly and carefully
  • fail, but fail fast
  • learn and improve

So for a project like Great Ideas which is regarding the devices technically high end it’s a huge support to have people like Mike on board who adjust hardware if needed, who find ways to access devices from a distance and who know the locals and speak their language!

A Visit to Kabul University – A Lack of Everything

One of our first visits here in Kabul was Kabul University, the faculty of agriculture. Butterfly works had contact to students back home in the Netherlands who connected them to the faculty. We felt honored to be welcomed by the dean and at least 10 of the faculty’s professors. Being asked about the purpose of our visit to the University a huge discussion among the professors started wether it was worth discussing with us or rather a waste of time. One of them left;-)

Th entire conversation was very hierachical structured and one could feel “academia”.

Most of the staff was very old, have been in their jobs for decades and many of them resist successfully change.
Many of the students join exchange programs to achieve their master or PhD in the US or Japan, hoping when they return back home to fosetr change. But “old academia” is still strong and powerful enough to keep them at least partially out of influential positions. A real challenge for the youngsters.

Butterfly’s goal was to find out if there is a chance to include the University somehow in the Great Idea project. It could be anything from translating texts, assissting teachers and students, advising regarding the content, learning how to use mobile technologies in their own environment … Two professors became really engaged and saw a chance to benefit. It was them who showed us around.

The University is only slowly recovering from the Taliban regime. There is a lack of everything.

We went to see the agriculture lab and the IT-room of the faculty: 18 workstations – partially functioning for more than 500 students. Here are two short interviews I conducted: the first one with 2 staff members (agriculture lab), the other one with the head of the IT-room. Surprisingly enough 2 students took the chance to speak up and tell us about their problems with IT (see end of second interview):

Walking over the campus I got the impression that students are happy to be there. I was surprised by the number of women (15-20% they say are female students) and I felt sad about the opportunities which will be missed because of the old staff but also because of the insufficient help coming in from third countries. Countries like Afghanistan have the chance to redefine academia and the way universities are working, they don’t need to make the same mistakes we’ve made, they should bypass and build something new according to their needs and expectations. But this is something they aren’t teached … and it is also something which development aid hardly ever puts on the table.

History (according to Wikipedia)

Kabul University was established in 1931, opening its doors one year later to students from across the country. Having benefited from partnerships with the governments of France, Germany, Russia, and the United States the university became one of the finest institutions of its kind in Asia, the intellectual heart of the country. In the 1960s foreign-educated scholars populated the campus, exposing the new generation to new topics such as communism, feminism and capitalism. Students influenced during this era included Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Dr. Faiz Ahmad, and Saydal Sokhandan.

Many different political groups were influenced in the University such as Khaliqis, Parchamis, Sholayees, Ikhwanis, and etc. In a clash between Ikhwanis and Sholayees, a poet named Saydal Sokhandan was killed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the 1970s. Saydal was fired upon and shot by Gulbuddin during an argument.

During the governance of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), Kabul University lost several lecturers and staff[citation needed]. The majority of the university’s faculty left during the 10 year period of unrest or civil war that followed after the fall of the PDPA government in 1992.

Why I am in Kabul …

… is more or less coincidence. 4 weeks ago I chatted with Emer Beamer, whom I know from Makers Faire Africa, in Amsterdam. We were enjoying a sunny afternoon with a glass of wine. Emer told me she was planning a trip to Afghanistan with her butterfly works project “GREAT IDEA”. It didn’t take us long to realise that a video documentation of this endeavour might also be a great idea;-)

No sooner said than done. So there … Here we are. In the middle of Kabul thinking about how to embed mobile technologies thoughtfully in Afghan schools and their curriculum.

The 2 interviews with Merel and Emer will give you a short introduction into the “Great Idea” project:

Merel van der Woude, project manager and education designer at butterfly works

Emer Beamer, founder of butterfly works and education designer

Project details:
Oxfam Novib, Oxfam Hong Kong, Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (CHA), Saba media organization (SMO), Ministry of Education Afghanistan, Butterfly Works, 21 secondary schools in the Parwan province of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan province:
Parwan, in specific the 4 districts of Sayed Khel, ChariKar, Bagram and Jabal Saraj.

National curriculum for Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Geometry at the Secondary school level.

Media to be used:
Satellite Telecasts of core subjects, Radio programs for teachers, Radio community awareness campaign. Mobile apps for students on core subjects, Mobile Quiz (Multiple choice) for teachers and students, Mobile push messages for parents and community leaders, voice support for teachers. A competition element, will further motivate schools and students to engage and learn.


update (June 1, 2011) – kind of disclaimer:
Since many people have been asking me, I decided to update this post.
I was in Afghanistan on my own expenses. I am not paid by ButterflyWorks nor by Oxfam nor by anyone else. I was invited though to stay in the Oxfam guesthouse.
So what I write here is my personal opinion, and only mine.