FrontlineAid takes part in BMZ and Kwf Virtual Conference on Digitalisation and Remote Management for Global Development Cooperation

By: Alessia Baker

From the 19th to the 21st of January the virtual international conference organized by BMZ and Kfw discussed how digitalisation and Remote Management, Monitoring, and Verification (RMMV) can help organisations and institutions to improve the impact in global development cooperation.

Under the title ‘Remote Beneficiary Involvement; can it work?’ FrontlineAid was invited to share their experience in using technology as a solution for localization of projects in the conflict-stricken city of Raqqa, Syria.

Ummul Choudbury, Co- Founder of FrontlineAid explained how the organisation first came to be: searching for a solution to improve the activities of local aid organisations after years of dealing with setbacks while managing the NGO Capoeira4Refugees in Damascus:

‘’Out of frustration we looked to find solutions for grassroots organisations competing for around 1% of all foreign aid – out of pot worth 147 billion dollars’’

‘’The Vision behind the technology platform FrontlineAid is to put the local community in the driving seat whilst meeting the needs of the aid system in fragile contexts, such as that in al Raqqa, Syria.

Ummul explained how local organisations are struggling to access funds because they lack the man-power and knowledge to comply with international monitoring and evaluation standards. Lack of transparency and visibility, due to their isolated and disadvantaged position, are also keeping them from receiving funding.  

Chamit Fernando, consultant and former Deputy-Head for UN Habitat Syria, provided a clear picture of the devastation and collapse of trust that the war brought to Raqqa and FrontlineAid’s intervention to support local communities.

Sanctions and restrictive financial  measures made transaction and communication impossible. Strongmen were being used for physical cash transfers, causing the diversion of funds and bad publicity in the eye of the international public opinion, leading to tightened donor restrictions. Decisive steps had to be taken to evaluate the situation and rebuild networks of trust in the area and with Western donors.

To this aim, a remapping and risk-assessment of the areas was carried out to comply with international requirements from the UN, the German government, and Kfw. 

FrontlineAid provided a platform fitted with a system that monitored progress made by following pre-agreed targets. Then, project managers close to the communities were trained to ensure that projects were in line with the needs of the beneficiaries and supported by them. Modules for the expression of community grievances were also introduced to better engage with the community and their requests.

Social media also plays a key bridging role: connecting images and information to the relevant projects and also allowing diasporic communities and individuals displaced by the war’s to recconnect.

Ummul provided a practical example of how the new platform can collect the voices of people on the ground: through its FrontlineAid changemakers node a group of 500 people in Syria (80% mums) was surveyed. They were asked what they most needed at that moment and which local initiatives were best placed to provide these services. By speaking in a language enabled phone the women expressed their need for safe spaces and activities for their kids. 

These points led to online and offline discussions among local board members who decided to fund the development of 10 schools, 4 parks, the planting of trees and city clean-ups, also establishing consortiums for collaboration between organisations.  

Ummul concluded by pointing out the modular nature of the FrontlineAid platform that can be customized to individual’s needs. Designed to meet the bottom-up needs of the grassroots, as well as the top- down needs of donors and project staff.

Workers on the ground will be able to manage and own their own data, uploading geo-tagged images and data in real time by using a smartphone, making it ‘as simple as doing a doodle on a napkin’ to collect and share information about ongoing projects.

‘The collection and upload of real time data, will allow field workers to continue to work without the weight of large amounts of paperwork and reporting, it will also make it possible to act and support communities immediately, on the basis of the information received’’.

Capoeira for all

By Catri Foot

Working to empower children and youth regardless of their gender

Capoeira4Refugees works in conflict and post conflict zones where in each of these contexts a shared experience of conflict and trauma is present. In such environments, the issue of gender equality is exacerbated. Social isolation, forced marriage, sexual violence and lack of access to an education list a few complex situations that young girls in the region could face.  In an effort to provide more opportunities for young girls in the region Capoeira4Refugees uses the brazilian sport of Capoeira to promote respect and gender equality between our programme participants.

In an interview with a school counsellor, she highlighted the impact Capoeira has had on the young women and girls,

“The girls feel that they are all equal in Capoeira. No winners, no losers. They are all the same. So this is why, it makes them feel, “we are the same, you are not more perfect than me, you are not better than me, we are all the same.”

Many trainers confirm this by finding that over time Capoeira students become more accepting of and welcoming to others.

Strong bonds between trainers and classmates also have helped develop inner strength and confidence, so much so that students have been known to train even when circumstances get in the way. Over time the students have been found to have become more comfortable and accepting of each other, with questionnaires citing an overall improvement of 10.56 % and 14.3 % of boys and girls respectively.

For shyer students and girls, the music aspect has provided a quiet outlet of much success until they are comfortable enough to learn to perform some of the capoeira moves.

Female trainers particularly inspire girls as role models of strong women, A student highlights:

[My trainer] can compete with guys and she’s given a very very beautiful image about women and females in general. She can kick and she kicks very well so um, she made me more attached to Capoeira because she knew how to train and she knew what we like and what we don’t. And she could participate in our community as a conservative community in a very good way.

In spite of the burden of balancing strong pressures of society, many girls attributed their love of capoeira to feelings of equality and independence that it gave them.  On the whole increased inner strength has been observed across all groups of students, from to children to adults for both boys and girls. This was confirmed by the general self-efficacy scale, which saw a 11.4 % and 6.8 % rise for girls and boys respectively.

By allowing girls and boys to participate side by side we can fight gender stereotypes, teaching children and youth to see each other as individuals who are able to play sports regardless of their gender. Our capoeira projects enable girls to develop leadership skills, to talk about the struggles they may face as a result of their gender and have opportunities to make their own decisions despite a surrounding culture that doesn’t often allow them to do so.

Fight the invisible virus

By: Catri Foot

There was a little girl who was afraid of the mask because of the wrong idea – the mask leads to death. She cried whenever she saw someone wear a mask, but we explained why we wear the mask and the benefits of it with the use of colours and drawings of masks. She then accepted the idea of the mask and wanted to wear it.”

Around the spring of 2011 a series of pro-democracy uprisings occurred in several largely Muslim countries, including Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain. This came to later be known as the Arab Spring. In Syria it provoked a civil war in its aftermath,  forcing many to leave the country to seek refuge in Turkey, Greece, and throughout Western Europe. 

Young people of Syria have grown up around so much war and destruction that when the invisible virus came, masks seemed terrifying – a reminder of the traumas of war, a symbol of death.

Our trainers experienced many challenges in convincing the children that these masks didn’t represent a fight against a hugely destructive enemy but could protect from the invisible one, Covid-19. They did this in the form of a series of workshops around twice a month.

One exercise involved the use of sticky notes to enable the children to share their emotions with each other. Allowing the children a safe space to express their feelings and an opportunity to open the dialogue of their concerns about the virus and the world around them.

The second activity involved designing and creating paper masks with the children to further highlight that the mask was nothing to be fearful of.

Muhammed, a Capoeira trainer describes his experience,

“The children found a safe and shared space between them and the coaches. Some coaches drew a house, whilst others drew trees, flowers, sun and clouds to express a children’s love for nature. Other coaches also drew instruments like Agogo and Bandero, as well as writing some Capoeira songs.” 

UnitedNonsense by Ummul Choudhury: What 10 years in the field taught me about the aid sector

By: Alessia Baker

There are many academic books written about the aid sector that claim to give a comprehensive overview of the humanitarian world. However, these often offer a predominantly western perspective and lack a fundamental understanding of local realities. UnitedNonsense parts ways with the already existing literature by offering a direct and accessible view of what it means to manage a local NGO in a war zone. The book also stands out for adding a female, non-white voice to the conversation. Ummul Choudhury’s 10 years experience working in multiple countries in the Middle East is a first hand testimony of the obstacles and limitations that one is faced with when working in the field.

Starting from its title, “UnitedNonsense’’, the book wants to nudge large aid organisations, as well as the whole sector, to reflect on their shortcomings when supporting the communities that they pledged to help. It also offers ‘hands on solutions’ to the practical problems that many local NGOs are facing today, as well as exploring the growing potential of technology in empowering local actors.

The book would be of high interest to students from International Development programs that wish to gain real insights into the sector and how they can contribute concretely. UnitedNonsense is also aimed at experienced professionals and philanthropists that wish to reach a deeper understanding of the dynamics within the aid sector and the structures behind the allocation of aid funds.

Ummul’s experience starts in Syria at the beginning of the Arab Spring. She’s working for a start-up, Capoeira for Refugees (C4R), that organises capoeira trainings for displaced people in Damascus. Once the war breaks out in Syria, she relocates to Palestine to work on a number of capoeira projects in the refugee camps, after some time, she also opens an office in Jordan.

Although Capoeira for Refugees’ activities are extremely successful, Ummul has to deal with recurring limitations. For instance, the lack of agency of local organisations in deciding where the funds are allocated.  She explains how she continuously had to adapt projects to fit in prearranged categories of aid support, established by Western donors and high-end humanitarian professionals, what she calls the ‘Golden Circle’.

Another contradiction that Ummul points out in her book is the significant presence of young people from wealthy Western countries. They are the only ones that can afford to volunteer and get a ‘leg up’ in the aid sector towards securing those leading roles in the ‘Golden Circle’. Ummul explains that while the volunteers’ actions are most of the time driven by the best intentions, they were often in contrast with the needs of the communities. Without speaking the language and understanding very little of the refugee’s culture, it was often counterproductive for these volunteers to be present.

The realisation that the NGO in Jordan had come to reflect very closely the same structure and problems that she had criticised throughout her career, pushed Ummul to close the office in Jordan, continuing to support the local capoeira training groups from afar.

Coming to Germany in 2017, Ummul had to face the dilemma of pursuing a career in the humanitarian sector that seeks to act and influence projects from afar, through overarching western organisations. By losing her local standpoint she felt she was losing relevance, following the career trajectory that she had always criticised.  Her search  for a solution pushed her to start writing this very book,  to fill a knowledge gap in the humanitarian sector and suggest ways in which funds can be better allocated by empowering NGOs at local level.

Ummul also co-founded the tech startup FrontlineAid, an online platform that supports local organisations in Syria in improving their workflows, making it easier to attract funds and receive support from online volunteers. In the last chapter of the book, Ummul further details how technology can be harnessed to reverse the power dynamic within the humanitarian sector and build up the agency of local organisations.

At the end of the book, through a series of essays Ummul reflects more in depth on some topics that she mentions in the book, offering her take on a number of issues that are central to discussions in the humanitarian sector.

Ummul Choudhury

UnitedNonsense will be released in the summer of 2021

Capoeira4Refugees at the Social Forum 2020: Good Practices, Success Stories, Lessons Learned and Current Challenges in Combating Poverty and Inequalities

Author: Alessia Baker

Every year the Social Forum is convened by the Human Rights Council to provide a platform to allow multiple stakeholders to discuss human rights issues. This year the Forum took place on the 8th and 9th of October at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. The session focused on actions and practices for poverty relief under the guiding title: “Good Practices, Success Stories, Lessons Learned and Current Challenges in Combating Poverty and Inequalities”.

The first session on the ‘Factors perpetuating inequality and intergenerational transmission of poverty, and how to overcome them’, addressed the importance of the role of government institutions in implementing reforms at societal level that will help people in poverty to receive support and build new opportunities. Special emphasis was made on the urgency of supporting women, especially in the face of the current pandemic crisis which has resulted in even bigger burdens on women. The interlinked nature of the causes of poverty was also highlighted, showing how issues are often closely connected, locking individuals in vicious cycles of poverty. The importance of food systems was also stressed, drawing connections between the lack of food security and the aggravation of dependence from aid support and the deterioration of environmental resources.

Capoeira4Refugees contributed to the event by sharing a video of the NGO’s activities in conflict areas and in refugee camps in Syria and Palestine, where learning Capoeira offers a safe place for kids to ‘let go’ and play with their friends and families. The video testimony explained how the kids living in these difficult conditions find in Capoeira away to release the tensions and also learn the self- discipline to face the challenges oftheir daily lives.

The video also stressed the importance of listening to the local community’s needs and tailoring support to real necessities. Furthermore, the people need to own the projects that are supporting their communities, in order to meet their necessities effectively. Adopting better technology to streamline processes within the aid sector and external players was also highlighted as a key factor in improving the activities of small organizations and their access to funding.

The closing session: ‘Global-Local Interlinkages I: Obstacles to Realizing the Right to Development and to Addressing Poverty and inequality’, echoed in many ways one of the leading points of Capoeira4Refugees’ activities: technology can help communities support their own development. Panelists discussed how technological transfers can help narrow the divide with developed countries, giving access to sources of information and networks. Especially in the wake of the pandemic that forced people into lockdown and restricted their movements, showing how technology and access to the internet has gained ever more importance.

Overall, the Social Forum 2020 presented an important opportunity to come together to tackle issues of poverty and inequality that affect many vulnerable communities worldwide. For Capoeira4Refugees it was a great chance to share the ‘magic’ of Capoeira, as well as valuable insights on how to work better within the aid sector.

Podcast Blog

In a sit down with our Head of Communications, Jack Anderson, our co-founder Ummul Choudhury has a quick chat about her forthcoming book ‘United Nonsense’.

Having worked in the global aid sector for over a decade – including Syria, Palestine andmore recently with refugees in Berlin – Ummul has immense first hand experience andworking knowledge in the field. After setting up C4R and winning several internationalawards (including best small charity), she has turned her attention to exposing the flawednature and disconnected culture of the international NGO system.

Not only does Ummul’s role as a female leader add a necessary salience to the narrative, but her account is made even more unique because it comes from the perspective of someone from “a minority background, [a] Bengali Asian who grew up in London from aworking class background”. This is a perspective, which unfortunately, is just not present in international aid. From a narrative perspective United Nonsense also looks through the optics of a small, newly-formed NGO that is trying to find its way the tricky bureaucratic terrain of the aid sector.

Throughout the book and in our chat, a point that keeps coming up is the disconnect between International NGOs such as the UN (described as ‘The Golden Circle’ and as ‘aidcartels’) and the needs of the local people on the ground. Ummul along with C4R have been at the forefront of the pushing the localisation dialogue – something which aims to put the needs and voices of local people at the centre of any project. Have a listen to the podcast below and find out more about what Ummul’s forthcoming book United Nonsense and the push for localisation in the aid sector.

Have a listen to the podcast below and find out more about what Ummul’s forthcoming book United Nonsense and the push for localisation in the aid sector.