The Regional INS Workshop: A workshop we ‘did’ even though we ‘don’t’

As a rule, we don’t go to workshops. Well, some of us do, but only in moderation and definitely not as a priority. In fact, I have a personal fear of becoming another serial panel member who frustratedly contributes dated and increasingly less relevant inputs to the Communicating with Communities ‘echo-chamber’. Many of us in the team know at least one of these stale ‘usual suspects’ – to the extent that ‘guess the panel member’ isn’t a fun game anymore. In this world, I speak for refugees rather than with them. The irony then to recently find myself on a plane to Nairobi, about to fly several thousand miles to participate in a regional workshop. As is human nature, during the flight, I began to rationalise my attendance – was I complicit in fuelling the workshop ‘machine’? Thankfully, throughout the 2-and-a-half-days, I realized that this workshop felt comfortably and complexly different. Here’s why:

Knowledge sharing: Beyond Tokenism

The Instant Network Schools Regional Workshop was held in Nairobi this November (2017) and led by UNHCR in collaboration with our partner the Vodafone Foundation. The Instant Network Schools project runs across 30 ‘instant classrooms’ in DRC, Kenya, South Sudan, and Tanzania. It brings connectivity, learning equipment, capacity building, and online content to students, teachers and parents, and was designed in collaboration with the Vodafone Foundation. The project started in 2014, in Dadaab Refugee Camp Kenya, now more operations – including Ethiopia – hope to start INS activities in 2018. The project directly engages refugees as ‘INS coaches’ who work in the centres and support teachers to leverage technology in their classes. Uniquely, this was the first regional workshop I’d attended where refugees travelled from across the region to participate – joining partners and UNHCR staff to share their knowledge and experiences.

Refugees from over 7 nationalities joined the workshop, including from Somalia, Sudan, and DRC. I’ve always been a proponent for practitioner-to-practitioner knowledge sharing (in this case refugee-to-refugee); advocating that teams can exchange practical problem-solving tips and swap creative ideas and solutions. However, until Nairobi, I’ve been espousing the idea without actually seeing it work in practice. On paper it seems like a good idea, but is it worth the investment? In short: Yes. The enthusiasm and interest of meeting INS peers was palpable amongst the participants. As INS coaches shared their challenges there were clear commonalities in the difficulties teams were facing. This helped generate a collective empathy and understanding of what ‘might work’ when it comes to solutions. There was also a healthy and noisy sense of competition – if the Kakuma team can run girl-focused boot-camps then why can’t the Dadaab crew? When the Tanzania corner explained how they have developed French language exam papers, of course, the DRC centres wanted to prove they can use these too.

I’d only met a few of the participants before, so everyone was new to me. For most people, it was also their first time to meet the other teams. While everyone was wearing name badges (quickly fashioned out of masking tape), nobody wrote their role or job title. This was great. It was impossible to determine who was a coach, who was a project manager, who worked with UNHCR directly or as a partner. This helped eliminate some of the challenges we face with refugee-participation. There were no ‘and now let’s hear from a refugee’ moments – no delineation between an ‘our voice’ and a ‘their voice’. This was my first experience of ‘meaningful’ participation from refugees at the workshop level, and definitely something I would push for again.

Simple on paper, challenging in practice

So, it’s simple then. Bring refugees to Nairobi. Share learning. Repeat. No: the administrative feat of this task should not be underestimated. None of the refugees traveling had a passport, so all those crossing international borders required a CTD. A Convention Travel Document, which needs to be issued by the state where each refugee is currently resident. This in itself involves challenges, from experience UNHCR notes that “certain governments do not issue CTDs to refugees” and that restrictive practices can significantly impede refugee movements. In short, it is not a given that a state will issue one, nor the receiving state will accept it (even though there are specific limited grounds for refusal outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention). In practice, this means that the preparation for a workshop like this is absolutely key, and involves a host of stakeholders. I’ve not attended a workshop where I’ve seen this level of effort dedicated to bringing participants in – the contrary in fact, where keynote speakers from the ‘global south’ often fail to attend because of visa challenges.

In November, it nearly didn’t work. Despite the preparation efforts at regional and country level, the teams from South Sudan and Tanzania were initially denied entry. In part due to increased security restrictions in East Africa. This is a reflection of the prevailing security environment there and the need for further verifications and checks before the refugees were authorised to enter. This lead to stressful hours both for our teams at the airport, and for our tenacious Administration staff rapidly pulling together the final paperwork. Experiencing this, very much by-proxy, made me appreciate again my freedom of movement, and how critical it is that refugees’ ability to travel outside their normal country of residence is maintained. We also learnt a lot about the process as a team, this is something we’d not previously attempted. With support from regional colleagues, it was very much ‘learning by doing’. Definitely worth it and, with hopefully a smoother process, we’re already planning a workshop follow-up in 2018.

Beyond the workshop

Another key ‘difference’ with this workshop has been how the interactions and sharing have continued amongst participants post-workshop. During the two-and-a-half days, a WhatsApp group was created with the majority of attendees registered. While this had a logistical objective to begin with, it has become an ongoing forum for knowledge sharing. It’s now over two months since the workshop, and participants are still using the group to share screen-shots for troubleshooting, exchange photographs of boot-camps for inspiration and more generally continuing to foster an online ‘INS community’. It’s interesting to note how the conversations on the WhatsApp group reflect the interactions within the workshop. Again, people are present by their name and their number only – not their role or ‘status’.

I wish I knew ‘how’ this happened, as this type of post-workshop engagement is something I’ve tried to sustain in the past – and never with such success. On reflection, there are a number of assumed enabling factors – including a common ‘starting point’ for each participant (everyone works on the INS project), as well as a shared understanding of the inherent challenges. These, combined with a genuine interest in other team’s contexts, have helped keep the WhatsApp group ‘alive’ – and we still use it as an effective way of updating the team across the region.

Mind the gender gap

Despite these ‘differences’, there were several elements which echoed the challenges of previous workshops I’ve attended. Perhaps the most significant, particularly for workshops with a focus on ICT, would be the limited participation of women. We had some great female representatives, who were extremely passionate and dedicated – as well as male colleagues and coaches who worked to specifically target and engage women in online learning activities. That said, there were only a handful of female participants in the room. Those that joined were encouraged to contribute, and were listened to by their peers – the challenge seems to be: getting in the room in the first place.

If we are to successfully ensure that all groups in our communities have access to the INS centres, and can benefit from connected learning opportunities this needs to be addressed as a priority. We should continue to work with communities to find ways to meaningfully engage women in ICT activities and ensure that workshops where programming decisions are taken are relevant and accessible for everyone.

Workshopping in 2018?

So, we do go to workshops – but with caveats. The benefits of my Nairobi experience help define a set of questions that could determine our participation in workshops in 2018.

  • Is this an opportunity to hear from those that ‘know’ – I mean really know? Does it really engage people who are at the ‘coal face’ of the subject matter?
  • What has been done to seek participation from refugees, and how will they be engaged – tokenistically or at the centre of decision making?
  • Will the discussions move beyond ‘theory’? Will practical learning be exchanged, and will this inform the development of solutions to overcome shared challenges?
  • Are there significant commonalities and shared challenges between participants that will enable sustained engagement post-workshop?
  • Have accessibility challenges been considered? What outreach has been undertaken to reach underrepresented groups?

These questions can also help define ideal ‘criteria’ for workshops the Innovation Service plan and support over the next year. Not an easy set of parameters to meet – but we’re keen to rise to the challenge in 2018.



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