quite some years ago I helped open a Fab lab in Grenoble, France (it was burned down by anarchists not long ago, but that makes for another fun story..) where we eventually developed really wonderful communities of people making guitars, skateboards, printers, all sorts of electronics, and even stuff for biology. I often did projects to show people what was possible and to inspire (at least, I hope I did), and tried to show it was good to look at personal things and the world around them – what would YOU like to make? And what do YOU need? And others? What could help the people around you?
One of the projects I did was make wooden glasses – I broke a pair of my glasses, and instead of throwing them away, I got the lenses out and made wooden frames for them –
Getting into Gaza is an experience in itself. Basically you have to cross 3 borders.. bag scanners, little cabins with people who want to see your passport and ask questions, turnstiles and camera’s – Israeli border, Fatah border, Hamas border.
Between them you take a little bus, and a taxi (2 shekels), because if you’d walk they might shoot you (I asked, I like walking).
Humanitarians form our own community. We eat together, talk together, drink (sometimes entirely too much) together. As in any community, there are hierarchies. Part of the hierarchy is traditional – do you work for a prestigious organisation? How many people do you manage? Do you have a big budget? But in addition, there is a humanitarian-specific hierarchy related to the difficulty of a posting. South Sudan is high on this list– not only are you supporting vast numbers of displaced people, but you are doing so without electricity, running water, internet. Jordan is comparatively easier – the caseload is huge, but you go home to a hot shower and Facebook. Greece – easier still. After all, it’s in Europe.
Tdh implemented a FabLab in Greece. It was successful. Terrific. But how robust is the concept when you try to apply it to countries that are higher up on the hierarchy? Will it survive lack of infrastructure? Will people come if they are not literate? Will it be useful to youth who have nothing?
The second phase of Tdh’s pilot is to implement a humanitarian FabLab at an artisanal gold mine in Burkina Faso. This context rates pretty high on the humanitarian hierarchy. Infrastructure is poor, and while there isn’t any conflict, people who work in artisanal gold mines are constantly moving as multinationals buy up concessions, close artisanal sites and start formally exploiting mines.
When we signed the deal to set up a fab lab in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, I was excited. They are going to do so much cool stuff with the technology! I had been working with laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers and much more for a long time, but always in ‘wealthy’ and ‘safe’ environments. People made cool stuff; skateboards, guitars, little portable speakers… but nothing life changing. Oh boy, seeing all that is possible, this is going to change peoples lives in Tana!
Or so I thought.
One evening, after installing a part of the new lab in an SOS children’s village, I left the compound to go to the hotel. On the curb there was a girl, sitting in the dirt, with two little babies in her arms. Above her head, the spikes of curled barbed wire warned the less fortunate to stay away from the house on the other side. She must have been 14, maybe 15. It hit me all of a sudden that her main occupation that day, and most likely the ones in the foreseeable future, was survival. Her’s and that of the babies, none of whom wore socks, or decent clothing.
It was my first day at Tdh. I was sitting at a pretty desk in Switzerland with hot water, electricity and a box of chocolates. Tdh had given me millions of documents to read. I had a clear task – figure out how to use FabLabs to help young people in situations of conflict.
Everything about my life – the internet speed, the clarity of my task, the chocolate – was significantly better compared to Afghanistan. Or Somalia. I was happy.
I’m a technological dolt. An absolute dud. I can’t keep a phone. Apple products are too complicated for me. I don’t have WhatsApp. Twitter is … well, what is Twitter?
My excuse for being technologically useless is that I’m doing humanitarian work. I’ve spent years in countries that most people consider scary. Somalia and Afghanistan, for example. Most people can’t read or write – 63% of Somalia’s population, and 69% of Afghanistan’s population are illiterate. Unsurprisingly, internet penetration is low (1.7% in Somalia, 6.8% in Afghanistan).
“Let’s first focus on IDP’s – perhaps we can produce some WASH items…”
“Isn’t DRC working on that? I think one of the guys at DAH knows.. Let’s check with him first!”
If you don’t know what’s going on here, welcome to the club.
According to UNHCR there were 68.4 6 million displaced people in 2017 – meaning these people are on the move, or in camps – most importantly, they are not ‘home’.
In 2017, 44,000 people were newly displaced every day. And for those of you new to all this (like me) the average time people spend ‘away from home’ (to say it in a nice way) is a staggering 18(!) years. If you are 36 (like me) that’s half of your life. And your entire youth.