A Box of Inspiration and Ideas


IMG_4362_2Should humanitarian assistance consider only an individual’s physical needs? What becomes of refugees who have lost everything, if “once their lives are saved and food and shelter found, [they] are without activity, unable to read, write or communicate?” For Libraries Without Borders and the eight Nobel Laureates and hundreds of internationally acclaimed writers and academics who signed their ‘Urgency of Reading’ petition, cultural and intellectual needs are insufficiently acknowledged in international aid efforts. From this concern, the Ideas Box was conceived, a transportable library and media centre for refugees and vulnerable populations.[1]

With the average stay in a refugee camp at 17 years, it’s not hard to see that food and shelter alone will not sustain an individual’s well-being. Yet, intellectual and cultural dimensions have often been beyond the purview of humanitarian organizations, the result of meager, short-term budgets, organizational bureaucracy, and complexity restricting adaptation and change. Libraries Without Borders’ aim has not been without criticism – when they provided mobile libraries in Haiti after the 2010 earthquakes, several aid organizations were quick to question whether the provision of books and educational resources should be considered a priority. But, in the words of the Idea Box’s designer, Philippe Starck, “With a project like this, we’re not physically saving lives, but we’re saving the soul, the mind, the heart, everything that makes a human a human.”[2]


Click to enlarge

The Ideas Box includes 15-20 tablets, 5 laptops, an internal server with internet access, 250 paper books, thousands of e-books and 50 e-readers, educational apps, an HDTV and 100 films, a projector and screen, games and art materials, 5 cameras with video and graphic design software, furniture and a built-in stage for theatre performances, and electronics kits.[3] These items are combined within six durable, field-deployable boxes to fit on two shipping pallets, all of which can be set up by a team of four in under 20 minutes – a design feat in and of itself.  The specifics of the contents and equipment are selected in collaboration with in-country partners to correspond with the needs and expectations of the population and the environment. [4]

The Ideas Box is a connection to the outside world, to the lives and ambitions that exist beyond the walls of their current location. It is a mobile solution for formal and informal education, providing a resource centre and safe space for classes and workshops, after-school studying, professional training, and social interaction. The intellectual stimulation and community connection foster creativity, helping individuals rebuild their sense of self and look towards the future.[5] Whether the Idea Box is within a refugee community, a camp for displaced people or an underprivileged community, it is a tool to build resilience, providing psychosocial support for a fuller, richer life.

Where has the project reached so far? In the African Great Lakes region, four Ideas Boxes have been provided to Congolese refugees in Burundi, with an expansion in progress for the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya. For Syrian refugees, the first box will arrive in Jordan in late 2014, with more extensive regional coverage planned for 2015. [6] Each box costs $60,000, a small amount considering the potential cost of building a full library and media centre. They are currently looking for corporate sponsors to provide tablets, laptops and electrical generators.[7]

So far, the results have been extremely positive. The six month report for the first two boxes shows an average of 400 unique visits a day, with community ownership of the project. It is seen as a public good; nothing valuable has been stolen, despite the extreme poverty of the regions.[8] There are some challenges, such as diversifying their user base to include more women and those with low levels of schooling. But as an example of its success, one refugee, Sedar Zamukulu Watula, has used the Ideas Box to start a community newspaper, the Kavumu Gazette. In his words, “With the tools in the Ideas Box we’ve understood that we still have purpose, that we can start to live again and get our hope back… It’s something precious beyond description.”[9]

For more information, see the Ideas Box website or the Libraries Without Borders’ Facebook. For a video on what it looks like, click here, and watch an overview of the project below.




[1] http://www.urgencedelire.fr/index.php?lang=en

[2] http://www.worldpolicy.org/box-ideas

[3] http://www.ideas-box.org/index.php/en/the-ideas-box/discover-the-ideas-box

[4] http://www.ideas-box.org/index.php/en/the-ideas-box/discover-the-ideas-box

[5] http://www.ideas-box.org

[6] http://www.ideas-box.org/

[7] http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303725404579459770368396100

[8] http://www.ideas-box.org/

[9] http://www.worldpolicy.org/box-ideas

Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott

Rachel Pott is a writer, teacher and human rights advocate from Peterborough, Canada.

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