A conversation on dignity at a refugee home

Human dignity is a very simplistic term that appears in almost very often in discussions around humanity or in day-to-day life. However, when we look at the governments and how our nation states endorse it as an important value for our society, we see it appear as “Article 1 – Human dignity” or the well known Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is very clear that everyone understands the concept of worth of a human person naturally, however, we also make a very common mistake of assuming that the world revolves around us, and the “I” is very important. Somehow the “I” is so important that we are constantly fighting to keep the “I” very special, unique and most of the times “better” than the “other” person. It is very easy to give in to our emotional state and fall prey to discrimination, alienation and distance from what is different to us, i.e. the other. Emotions, Identity, Collective worth etc. all matter here.

citation
Forgas, J. P., & Fiedler, K. (1996). Us and them: Mood effects on intergroup discrimination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 28–40. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.1.28

All of this probably makes us conduct a value assessment of “human worth” on the other person as less deserving than the “I”, because the “I” is special, unique, more deserving, more hard working (better, bigger, faster, stronger). As I continue to read on dignity, “Us v/s Them” (refer more academic readings: one, two, three), I am also trying to write on conversations with friends which I find having the same meaning and helps us understand these concepts.

I love my friends who have kids, as there is a lot of simple stuff going in their lives and so much to talk about. The incident involves two moms, each having a daughter (let’s assume they are both of the same age). The local citizen, city living mom (let’s call her Mom A) takes her daughter and visits the local refugee home to give away some of clothes, toys etc. which she does not need or can do away with. After giving away the stuff to the homes, while walking out she bumped into the second mom who was a resident of the refugee home (let’s call her Mom B). Mom B was with her daughter who looked at the other girl wearing a teddy bear school backpack. She (Mom B) asked Mom A if she can have the same backpack for her own daughter or if she can give the one her daughter was carrying to her.

tedd
The bag probably looked something like this.

Mom A, was very reluctant to give away the bag from her daughter and told Mom B that she just dropped off a lot of stuff and maybe there’s something she can use from there. Mom B was insisting that this is a very lovely bag and her daughter will be very happy to have the same one, now that she can see that another little girl like her as something pretty and shiny. Many assumptions can be made here as to what happened in the head of these moms but, our conversation went into the discussion on what is dignified and not, and the idea of “left overs” was a starting point.  Using this as an example of worthiness and humanity in general, simply put, the other person had enough already and it would not hurt much to just give away the bag. Mom B can go and buy a new one, and it would have made the Mom A and her daughter happy, at least for the moment. Maybe even made them feel like normal equally deserving humans for that short time. The question I asked was a simple one, Why do you think the other child wasn’t deserving enough to have been given that bag?

However, I used a simpler and more visible example of how crowded the refugee homes were to further the conversation. In this given society, you have a certain minimum standard of life that is considered as a basic human right. I mentioned that when I had to apply for a German residence permit here and provide proof of accommodation the officer told me that my address had too many people and not enough space for me to be living here, so I was told to find another apartment and re-apply.

Basically, every member of the family over six has to have twelve square meters of living space, members between two and six need ten square meters, members under two years old are exempt from the regulation. In addition they must be able to share kitchen, bathing and other facilities.

A quick search gave me this explanation as it being a “policy recommendation” and not a law. But I used it as an example to support my argument that, if there is a certain standard that is a given here in this society, then the same should be applied to refugee homes? Of course the answer is not simple when we talk about realities like, enough houses, money to build it, infrastructure etc. But we are talking on a moral level right now, and ignoring the realities. Things like justice, dignity etc are all moral concepts which our society constantly deliberates on shaping our realities.

In the example of the girl and the bag, it is very simple to assume that for some reason the refugee mom felt like she wanted to be treated as an equal and her daughter should have the same bag. While the other mom, was probably in a tricky situation to sacrifice her way of living, at the cost of her daughter’s emotional attachment to the bag. Both are very valid human responses and expectations. To which I posit, a little bit of naive idealism, that once everyone has enough of what they need, and we combine the sense of happiness and empathy to that equation, it is very easy for people to “give” away so that others can have the same. Also when we create the inevitable distinction of Us v/s Them, we dehumanise the other and distance ourselves as the better deserving or worthy. Which essentially means, the moment we are using labels like them, others, refugees and move away from our way of referring each other as just humans, we are going away from the concept of dignity at it’s core. What would it take to work towards a “One Of Us” definition rather than the “Us v/s Them” is something I am sure a lot of people think and work towards.

There are other questions, to be written at another time, on the approach to integration, aid in the context of refugees that come to my mind. If you remove the word “refugees” from its technical, legal definition, we are all migrants, immigrants of some form looking for “safe havens” and have a “better life”. Even an academic looking for that tenure position will have to move to a different city or country is looking for something better, stable and secure to have a good and meaningful life. The alienation and distancing here is real, and at times the refugee homes are mainly located outside of the normal civilisation even in regular cities. There are enough empathetic and willing local citizens and communities who are willing to help and support and work should be done in allowing the locals to accept and invite people into their localities to help integrate well. Most of the refugee aid work done by agencies is in “containment” mode and keeps them away as the “other” and a lot of integration efforts needs to be done right.

 

 

We need plastic bans in villages to protect our agricultural infrastructure

During one of my fieldwork visits last year, I was doing a daylong interactive discussion with NGO staff and community representatives. At some point we had a tea break, and the tea arrived in plastic cups. Obviously, I was not an expert in how plastic can damage our environment and all the ill effects of having that around us so prominently, because as an Indian, I was accustomed to seeing plastic being used for everything. From protecting our TV remotes, to covering anything possible with plastic as a mechanism to protect it from dust. Then it hit me that, this is a sacred land. India is what it is today, primarily because of our agricultural revolution in part. The land is also sacred, because it is where our food comes from. Moreover, the farmers are the protectors of these lands and the caregivers, not just the caretakers, of our land. These lands are also the main source of income and livelihoods for our farmers, either who own these lands or are just working as labourers to feed their families on a daily basis.

The fact is that plastic waste is a known hazardous material not only for the health of humans and wildlife, but also nature in general; that includes our land, rivers, air etc. When I go out to buy food, vegetables or just have a cup of tea at the local tea-shop in the village, I see plastic everywhere. It is cheap, I get it, which is why it is very popular and the supporting industry around it goes well for the same reason. Local shop owners find it cheap to buy it and give it to their customers, and customers find it easy to dispose. Because you can just throw it anywhere and it automatically disappears. Maybe that is why India decided to ban plastics in its capital city of Delhi. However, my concern is to draw attention to the villages, and especially those agricultural lands that feed not just the people in the region but the whole nature. Then go a step further, in incorporating behavioural change in the use, disposal of plastic waste in the villages. When I walked around the people settled around the rivers that come down from Nepal to India, one could see disposed of plastic bottles or bags here and there. The amount of waste obviously increased the moment you went to the more populated areas, which was a bigger hub for everything from markets, to local bus stops to doctors. However, even in the remotest part of our civilisation, plastic made its way. I felt that our modern and developed lifestyle of the cities is corrupting the innocence and vitality of the villages. In addition, the recent ban in Delhi makes one applaud the move as it is a problem in the most polluted city of India, but what about the villages?

Earlier I was attending state of Bihar’s attempt of formalising the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction into its state DRR strategy i.e. the DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 endorsed and formalised by the state government. If you look at the document, the section on “WASH & Waste Management” probably fits for the problem I am talking about. Also the recent national campaign for clean India drive i.e. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan compliments the commitment top this problem and raise awareness across the country talking about issues like open defecation which speaks to rural India too. So it was really nice to see the inclusion of this strategy in the DRR Roadmap of the state talking about implementing it down to the village (Gram Panchayat) level.

“Include the WASH and waste management related actions in the GP planning through the Standing Committee, Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committee and partnership with civil society organizations.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 78)

What I wanted to understand is that, “Can we consider agricultural land, rivers or our natural resources as part of critical infrastructure?”

Going back to one of the targets of the Sendai Framework,

“Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030. ” (Sendai Framework – Targets)

and connecting it to the DRR Roadmap’s 10 point commitment #7:

“Resilience of critical infrastructure and delivery of essential services will be ensured, including restoration of functionality and continuity, in case of disruptions.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 10)

I understand that conceptually the mention of critical infrastructure is not used in the same sense and context that I am proposing. What I am merely suggesting is that, maybe there is a need to address adequate attention to our natural resources as something critical, especially when it concerns with a multitude of problems that are man made. And when our government can take such measures like banning plastic in Delhi or other bold moves like banning currency or internet censorship, it shouldn’t be difficult for the government to make a blanket ban on plastics in villages too, to protect agricultural land? In disaster prone areas, especially in chronically flood prone areas like Bihar (multi hazardous pp. 47); havoc of nature can cause damages in a flash. Probably a small change like a plastic ban, would have large scale impact or at least not add to creating more hazards (Ref: Chennai Floods). Maybe this requires more thinking on my part.

“I thought this was expected of me” #IWD #IWD2017

Some of the close friends who know me, also know that I look forward to the day when I will have my daughter and how I have a name for her already. And I sometimes think of writing letters for her future self, to prepare her for this world.

While I do that, this post is about something that happened in an email conversation with a work “hire” from India, that I started to take assistance from through an online platform over email. She was late in her work commitments and I was trying to remind her to look at her own communication and commitments, to point out her mistake. At some point, she started to refer me as “Sir.. Please” etc. I wrote back saying she shouldn’t refer to me as “Sir” and just keep it professional and address me with a Hi or Hi Ajay. Her response, “I dont know I felt obligated and thought this was expected of me.”

I responded again said, “I am a stranger for you, and I am just a work contact. You shouldn’t feel obligated or assume that a certain behaviour is expected of you. Just because I a man.”

That made me think of the word “Sir” we use in our culture, but most importantly it made me question, why she had to feel like that. I also remembered how my sister would talk about her frustrations of working in the male dominated IT industry, in India.

If I were to talk about this to my daughter, I would tell her:

The world might seem like a place designed by men, for the comfort and privilege of men. But do not let that bog you down, for that might be a reality you will need to fight for and prepare for. Do not feel obligated to feel threatened, or inferior to anyone, let alone people who would make you feel that you are expected to act and behave in a certain way in our society, just because you are a girl.

You will always have the power and control over what you want to do, and how you want to live your life. Do not let anyone talk you down, even if its a person who you love or adore. You have all the right to tell anyone on their face that it is none of their business to tell you how you should act or live your own life. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your life choices, how you dress, how you eat, how you love – because its your own life. You should never feel obligated to sacrifice your dreams, aspirations just because you are a girl. One day you would realise that when you walk with your head high, and back straight, the world would find it not easy to handle or accept. They would probably be puzzled, as to why your eyes are not lowered and your head down while you walk on the streets. They would be puzzled again, when you are able to speak your mind out confidently, and they’d expect you to not be so loud and bold, because they expect women to be submissive. Do not give in to the demands of the society, its a facade.

You should never feel obligated to justify or answer for your choices and decisions either. There will always be people around you, who care and love you for who you are. Be there for them, be with them. May your life be filled with such people.

More soon.

#InternationalWomensDay

Questioning technology and its implementation

Reflecting on some of my past projects, and trying to study the thought process of some of the projects that I have worked on, I thought of laying out some questions which can act as a set of “tips” for my future projects.

  1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.
  2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?
  3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.
  4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.
  5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve. [If answer to 4 is still no]
  6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.

When you are told about a problem that possibly requires a tech solution, you might start immediately with brain storming in your head(alone) and maybe search for existing solutions that have been tried and tested elsewhere in this world. While that might seem to be a good thing to do, I feel the first thing should be to have an open mind and just try to understand the problem statement at hand. That should be done by direct interactions with everyone involved in the process that involves the problem. For an NGO, it could be project staff, administrative staff, the community or volunteers. Technology enthusiasts often let invention be the mother of necessity. They think of the new thing on the block and then force it to work as a part of the solutions, even when it does not fit the context they are working within.  So having an open mind that isn’t clouded by the next big thing that you’ve read about in the technology world or any other special tool that you fancy, helps in coming up with a more just approach to finding a solution to the problem.

2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?

Start by asking those involved, “What if there was no technology available?” How would they then, solve this problem? In any case, technology is mostly just a tool and real solutions are only aided by technology. So in a parallel universe, where no form of technology exists, how would this problem be fixed? I think that if a significant amount of time is spent trying to find answers to the above two questions, things would become clearer as to whether the solution should have anything to do with technology or not. If the answer is in the negative, as a technology practitioner, it’s best to move on and call it a wrap.

3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.

The keyword here is “observe”. What exists around? Radio? Computers? Mobile Phones? What kind? What make? How do they use it in their daily lives? What is the extent of their usage? Are they able to use all the features of a mobile phone? What Operating System are their computers running? What tools/software do they use frequently? How do they power these devices? We should observe the behaviour of the people who are supposed to be part of the solution as well, because in the end they are going to use whatever you propose to them. So studying their current level of knowledge in using technology & general behaviour is useful to understand the user experience aspect.

4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.

The idea here is to include existing technology as a part of the solution if possible, or to understand the extent of effort that might be required in case something new is proposed to them and then match the training aspect with their current behaviour so that it saves time and effort later on and learning becomes easy.

5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve.

I read somewhere that “the best technology is” that which is “invisible“. It’s something that we should keep in mind always, from the usability perspective, when designing solutions. I tend to focus on decreasing the time and effort I need to spend in training people to use the solution I design for them. How does one achieve that? The best way would be to include existing skills that have already been trained to them(by their own self or otherwise). If they know how to make a phone call using their mobile phone – let’s try to think if we can do something using their mobile phones which just involves making or receiving a phone call. If they know how to write an SMS, maybe we setup an SMS system and interact or communicate with them using that. What if the staff only knows how to use Excel and to check their email? Then maybe, I’d design a web form simple enough to do their task.

6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

If people are still calling you with questions on using the system or with some problem they have, quite frequently, chances are that the job was not well done. Implementation includes training well, troubleshooting and hand over the system to its users. Of course there will be problems, but the idea here is to minimise that by training the ground staff completely.

This post also appeared on ICTWorks in 2012: http://www.ictworks.org/2012/07/16/6-simple-guidelines-ict4d-project-success/

Uttarakhand Government’s Operation Connect and How can you help!

As a part of the ongoing efforts by the government, the task of reaching out to families seeking information about their relatives has been on top priority by the government officials. I was amazed at the government’s quick deployment of the “people finder” on the Disaster Management portal of the Uttarakhand government which initially had information about tracking rescued people, since army was involved in evacuation or search & rescue. Progressively the site kept being updated with more information and data being gathered and managed by the Uttarakhand government. When I saw a lot of people online volunteering to help with data collection and putting everything at one place and have their own versions of the same task which was already done by the government round the clock, I was just worried about this whole duplication of effort as something that was adding to the chaos. While I was traveling back to India and was in London, I just called the District Information Officer of Rudra Prayag, to check information and convey that some of the documents of rescued people that was being uploaded on their website were actually printed and scanned documents (some word documents but still printed and scanned and some hand written, both in English and Hindi – ref: Screenshot) are not easy to search and ask them if they can upload at least in some searchable format. That is when he informed me that although some of the documents being collected at district offices are scans, there is a separate team that is also translating (from Hindi to English) all the data and putting it online on their own DMS site in searchable format. Now on the same website, you see all the information being managed by any of the offices being put at one place. Like the website says: “This search module has been provided to track a person as per the information provided by concerned District Administration. The original list provided by District Administration has been re-entered/converted in English at State control room to facilitate its users.Kindly refer original list of District Administration to confirm the information provided through this website.” Ref: Screenshot here & Direct website link here.

There is a lot of information coming in and the need to effectively communicate to the families any relevant news and update the status of missing or found people on the database regularly. One of the ways the government is doing it is by Operation Connect where they are reaching out to the general public through Facebook and Twitter and integrating all that information coming in from existing mechanisms like the phone helplines and feeding everything on the central DMS system. They are also reaching out to any organisations, NGOs working on ground who are helping affected people with relief materials to supply them with the information of the people they are taking care of and make use of the already available information.

Mediums – Phone, Fax, Email, Facebook, Twitter. So organisations or people can report or access information about missing or found people using any of the mediums. The team aggregates information from all sources and puts it into the centralised database and ensures any new information is instantly added to the database and made available.

The team designed a form that any organisation can use, they have the same form available on their Facebook page under and various other information being put up online which is also being fed to their twitter feed.

operation-connect-uttarkhand-facebook
Operation Connect – Missing Cell Uttarakhand Government – Facebook Page Features

The page has links to the following information and forms that you can access/fill up on the facebook page itself like the List of Missing People, Report Missing Person, Report Found Person, Request Supplies (for people/organisations on ground involved in relief), Sponsorship (for donations) and Operation Connect Found People (list of people found using this operation). You can visit their facebook page directly to check those forms or check their screenshots below or by clicking here.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=124984

How can you help?

  • Encourage people to use the government official site/tools in case they are looking for someone.
  • Spread the word. A lot of people are still missing and being found. Just by sharing a photograph of a missing person you might be able to connect missing families.
  • If you are involved in relief activities and are part of an organisation – provide them with any information you have over email or any other medium you have access to (refer contact information below). Help all information reach a central place, and prevent scattering of information everywhere.

Contact Information:

  • Official Site: http://dms.uk.gov.in/ (this website also has links & information on how you can donate directly)
  • Email: missingcell.uk@gmail.com
  • Phone: Missing Cell – 0135-2104175, 0135-2104176,0135-2104180, 0135-2104181 (more numbers on the site)
  • Facebook. Twitter.

If you look at the following images, you can see the team behind this is engaging and constantly updating information.
operation-connect-uttarakhand-united-10July

operation-connect-uttarakhand-1

operation-connect-uttarakhand-2

PowerCutsIN: A video interview I did in Karcha Village

(originally posted on the PowerCutsIN Blog)

September 16, 2011: This is the house of Mr. Sukhdev from Karcha Village, Banda, Uttar Pradesh where I had a chance  to visit during one of my work visits.

In this report we hear Sukhdev highlight the following key points: [link to report]

  1. When the transformer at their village burns out and needs repairing, unless they pool in money to pay to the district electricity department, they do not get a replacement. Which technically seems to be a bribe.
  2. The load on these transformers is high since many people use wire tap to the source lines to draw electricity to their homes even without a connection, which adds extra load on the transformer beyond its capacity due to which it fires and goes bad.
  3. They have electricity for around 10 hours mostly only during the nights when the transformers are working.
  4. Due to electricity, his kids can study during the dark for a couple of hours.
  5. Using fans, when there is power helps them to get rid of mosquitoes & diseases caused by them during summers.
  6. When there is no electricity during the night its scary because of threat of theft in the village.

You can view the video here with English subtitles below: [YouTube link]

Can a basic (mobile) phone be used for learning?

Recently in conversation with a school teacher, I was told by her how she used to clear doubts and answer questions of students nights before their examination, over lengthy phone calls. Does that ring a bell? We all did that during our school days, calling up friends or teachers and clarifying doubts or maybe even getting the whole lesson explained to you on phone. Let’s keep this thought in mind for a moment and move to the next picture.

Picture#2: Women health workers in India called ASHA sakhi have a major role to play in providing health care services in Rural India. We all know, mobile phone is something which everyone has these days, especially in Rural India where they often have two phones. Usually the ASHA’s would meet and greet from time to time to be made aware about new developments and given training. If we can connect say 20 of them, on a particular day of the month over a multi party conference call with an instructor who can tell them about new things it becomes easy and a good use of existing resources.

The way it works is the instructor using a service which lets him/her create a Voice Class room with students connected over a conference call and talk to them.

Design Considerations:

  • Accessibility: Input Methods are key presses on the numeric keypad of the mobile phone.
  • Content Creation: The learning happens real-time like a classroom where the content is delivered in the instructors voice.
  • Ubiquity: The lessons, if recorded can be made available to everyone which can be accessed anywhere, anytime. In any case active classroom sessions can be attended from anywhere over a phone.

A basic phone is all it takes, plus the idea of sharing knowledge over voice from our own location also makes it a lot easier.

Picture #3: If I can use the similar mechanism to impart any kind of training that can be delivered over “voice” to Visually impaired or Physically Disabled person at their homes using their phones. Would this work?

In any case I agree that education or knowledge sharing is something that has higher impact only when there is a face to face or physical presence involved between the instructor and the learner. But I am sure there are some kind of knowledge trainings, vocational or life skills that can be imparted over a mobile phone using voice. Because ICT Tools in learning should be tools to help learning, not tools to learn(to be able to learn something) and who needs to learn to make/receive a phone call?

[update] Just after I posted this, I found a service in Palestine that does something similar. Read: “How ICTs Can Empower Blind Students: Souktel’s New Audio Service in Palestine”