It’s Wednesday the 13th of November and I am in Brussels as a delegate for AidEx 2019. I travelled for most of the day yesterday, arriving on a very late Eurostar into Bruxelles Du Midi, having had only the chance for a short nap before waking, grabbing my delegate pass and speeding north on the number 3 tram out of the centre of the city to Esplanade, the towering steel-baubled monolith that is Atomium and the Brussels Expo conference centre for AidEx 2019.
Now in its 9th year, AidEx is a hybrid: part trade exhibition, replete with a huge range of items, systems and software that would be applicable in a humanitarian context, part conference, covering a vast array of topics—hosted by experts and leading voices in the NGO and private sector– that explore a primary theme. This year’s theme was ‘the importance of inclusiveness to global progress – is the aid and development sector doing enough?’.
For the exposition aspect of the conference, I met many private organisations whom I believed would have applications for Syria Relief, such as UNHCR, who showcased their designs for refugee tents, a number of which Syria Relief actually distributes through the course of its own programming. I also met with several small businesses who provide blue-water shipping for the exportation of life-saving items such as medical equipment, food packs, NFI kits and technology such as solar panels to regions which need it most. Syria Relief regularly ships containers to its field office for distribution and it was good to meet with other like-minded NGOs to get their opinion on the best applications for shipping in the delivery of humanitarian aid. Additionally I met with suppliers for food and non-food kits, including a company named 42 Degrees who provide self heating tinned food and drink kits for use in a range of contexts and an organisation which produced highly powered solar technology for a range of purposes, from small lamps for use in IDP camps to huge installations for hospitals, healthcare centres, places of worship and so on.
Outside any particular application for Syria Relief, I met with some organisations out of sheer interest, for example the WFP (World Food Programme) who—while providing funding to Syria Relief for several projects in the past—were there solely to demonstrate hydroponics and their application in producing edible crops within six weeks without the presence of any soil whatsoever. While in the context of Syria, irrigation is a large element of our programming, it is very interesting to see the ways in which the NGO sector consistently innovates in order to improve the lives of beneficiaries all over the world, and I was eager to learn how technology could apply within the Syrian context.
The conference itself took on a considerable task in centring around the idea of inclusion in aid and development. With such an expansive topic to be covered in only a two-day event, there were always two talks being hosted at any one time. I therefore made it my mission to take part in the talks which would apply directly to Syria Relief’s programming. Of particular relevance to my work was “Inclusive education through innovation”. This talk covered, as the name would imply, education and inclusion, touching on topics such as workforce readiness, upskilling and community building in the health sector, and giving advice on how plans can directly involve and promote the interests of individuals with disabilities. Syria Relief manages several hospitals and over 170 schools within Syria, and making each of these spaces both inclusive for women, LGBTQ, disabled people and children with SEN (in the case of the schools) is a constant consideration when we design our programmes. We know is extremely important to include the opinions, ideas and direct involvement of people with disabilities, especially within the context of education (in terms of providing adequate access and protection for those involved in our projects) and healthcare (ensuring an adequate offering is provided to meet the needs of disabled patients), however many NGOs struggle to apply this knowledge into practical project design. This talk was further explored in “disability needs in a humanitarian and development context – how accessible are working environments for employees and what projects, devices and services are required to deliver effective aid to people with disabilities?”.
Other talks I attended were of significant importance to Syria Relief’s work, such as “WASH and Women: The Challenge of Gender-Inclusive Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Services”. The WASH Sector is a cornerstone of Syria Relief’s programmes; it brings fresh water to hard-to-reach communities, rehabilitates schools and provides safe spaces for women and children to access sanitary products. On this topic, the speakers Rockaya Aidara from WSSCC and Sandie Blanchet from UNICEF in particular highlighted the foolishness and potential damage done by programmatic design being implemented without an understanding of the culture and social dynamics of the location and communities in which a project is based. They used the example of girls in Kenya who would often completely avoid school and increase their risk of dropping out if they were not able to access safe, protected environments in which to wash, or sanitary products.
Mainstreaming considerations of inclusion or protection into a project requires that NGOs go further, not only designing a project with ‘othered’ communities in mind, but actively promoting the involvement of these beneficiaries in the design, implementation and feedback of the project cycle. If an NGO designs a project for disabled people without speaking with or involving disabled people in that project, how can it be either relevant or sustainable in the long term? Simple things such as building a school without adequate or safe toilets can tremendously impact the life of young women in particular, and it is extremely valuable that we as development and relief actors continue to prioritise conversations such as these, or we will continue to make the mistakes of the past and risk implementing projects that prescribe, rather than improve the lives of beneficiaries around the world. For that, this conference, and the organisations which facilitated it, should be praised.
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