“I had a dream – a belief. I believed in the power of spreading ideas,” Yahay Alabdeli, an Iraqi who left the country at the age of four as a refugee, said to a huge crowd at the first official TED event in Qatar’s capital.
Speaking about a TEDx event he organised in Baghdad last year, Alabdeli said that he believed that it could be “life-changing for many Iraqis, in helping them to rebuild the Iraqi community”.
He is one of some 650 TEDx organisers from around the world attending a summit in Doha. TEDx gatherings are based on the TED model, but are independently organised events.
TED started out in 1984, hosting speakers from the disciplines of technology, entertainment and design, who give short talks on, as their slogan goes, “ideas worth spreading”.
Lara Stein, director of TEDx, said the Doha meet held from April 16 to 20 was a celebration of three years of TEDx.
“TED started as a platform to promote and continue the exchange of ideas, and since 2009 we’ve grown with the TEDx programme,” Stein said.
“There are now, on average, about 7 TEDx events happening in communities around the world every day,” she said, emphasising that TEDx organisers were finding “amazing local voices in their communities, allowing them to bubble up and giving them a safe space for these conversations to happen”.
The opening night of the summit, featuring speakers and performers from around the world, highlighted some of the successes of the three-year-old TEDx initiative, and Alabdeli was selected to represent TEDx organisers on the stage.
Alabdeli had attended TEDx Rotterdam in 2010 that, he said, inspired him to organise TEDx in Baghdad.
But doing so was not as easy as it would have been anywhere in Europe. The first challenge was people’s perceptions of Baghdad.
|Listen to Alabdeli describe his TEDx experience [Bilal Randeree]|
“Many asked, Baghdad? The city of killings and bombings? But no, this was not my Baghdad – a city that was once the centre of Arab and Islamic civilisations – my Baghdad is a city of peace.”
On top of that Alabdeli had no family members left in Iraq, and had no experience organising events. After announcing TEDx Baghdad online, he said, the response was phenomenal: “I found a whole new community, a community full of dreams and hopes that wanted to rebuild Iraq.”
With the support of Iraqis inside and out of the country, they managed to pull off the first TEDx event in Iraq in 2011.
“When you organise a TEDx event in a European city, it is mostly a conference. But when you organise a TEDx event in Baghdad, Cairo, Carthage, Ramallah, Khartoum or Tripoli, it is a transformational event,” Alabdeli said.
“People leave inspired and motivated, and it helps people to work together as one community.”
Criticism for TED
Bruno Giussani, the European director of TED, agreed with what Alabdeli had to say: “Events in Europe are transformational in another way, because they play in a different space – a space where the sandbox for dialogue and ideas already exist”.
“But when you do this in Baghdad for example, you are creating the sandbox – that is way more challenging, but is potentially incredibly impactful as well,” Giussani said.
“Many things have happened, for example in Africa, that were spectacular in terms of innovation, technology and entrepreneurship, and these things deserve a platform and audience that can help them spread and accelerate.
But it may have been this very notion, the idea that something like TED, from the West, can be good for people in Africa, that attracts some criticism. Most recently, during the controversy that arose around the Kony2012 campaign.
“From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growth industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex,” tweeted Nigerian author Teju Cole when the Kony2012 video went viral.
Cole clarified this tweet, and the several that followed, in an article entitled “The White Savior Industrial Complex”, where he mainly discussed the Kony2012 campaign by Invisible Children, without elaborating on TED at all.
He was contacted by Al Jazeera and asked for more details on his criticism of TED, but he said that he did not “really want to add to” what he said.
Giussani admits that this criticism of TED may have been valid in the past, and could apply to certain TED events or talks, but TEDx has changed all of that.
“First of all, on the Kony issue, I think the campaign came from a well-intentioned place, and it was misunderstood by those that just clicked the ‘like’ button,” Giussani said.
“This reveals the fact that social networks have put us in the situation where people have the impression that participating in social action, and being politically active, comes down to clicking a button.”
He explains that this takes political action down to a level “where it is not action at all. There is no friction, there is no engagement, there is no risk at all in that”.
“For many young people, unfortunately, this reveals that they think by clicking, they feel that they’ve actually done something, when they haven’t,” he said.
“I can understand that fact that there may be a sort of rejection of the “white saviour” profile, coming and trying to save the world. But it doesn’t really apply to TED today.”
At the TEDxSummit, most of Africa and Asia were represented, Giussani said, by TEDx organisers from many different countries.
“Of course, TED has a history, and a history you cannot delete – TED comes from a group of white people. But if you look at TED today, its a pretty different animal.”
Chris Anderson, the director and curator of TED, credited TEDx organisers with the spread of TED around the world.
“We often think of the world in terms of conflict between different religions, different races, different countries – I would say that the spread of TEDx tells a different story,” Anderson said.
“In every city in the world there is a generation arising that wants to view things differently, that wants to believe in what we share, because when you look at people in that way, its amazing how much we have in common.”