Untapped Nomad Values in Building a Sustainable Community

February 17, 2021

Nomad family in front of Yurt - a construction, which is designed to meet all needs of nomadic lifestyle. Photo: foto.kg

In November 2020, a small team of Accelerator Lab (AccLab) was established at UNDP in the Kyrgyz Republic. We are bringing in a new model of development works to UNDP through sense-making, exploring and experimenting innovative solutions to tackle frontier challenges. Unlike traditional development processes, we start with tapping into local innovations and existing solutions in grassroots communities. This stems from a strong belief in our value system that local people have the power to solve local problems, as long as they are given means and equal access to necessary resources. One of our first learning questions is to understand the needs of people for local development. We keep asking ourselves during the learning cycle, “Do we really understand people’s needs?"

Yurt Concept

While international communities are sharing universal values on global civilization through concepts such as Sustainable Development Goals and Community Development, not everyone in Kyrgyzstan fully understands the meaning of such concepts. Occasionally, they are misinterpreted as foreign concepts or western values. Hence, if grassroots people cannot fully align with the values UNDP is advocating for, how can we ensure the sustainability of our development work on the ground?

Moreover, we observe a growing relevance gap on the needs of stakeholders towards development, especially in the current context resulting from the pandemic and political instability. How do local governments, citizens, and UNDP understand what is needed for development in local communities? This is the learning question we are exploring in the AccLab.

The building process of Yurt (or Yurtah) is effective and efficient and cannot be automated. Remarkable, that the process requires the participation of each family member, making it inclusive and participatory.

Have you ever seen the process of building a nomad house called “Yurt” (also known as Yurtah)? If so, you might have noticed how effective and efficient the process of building is. Let’s uncover the meaningful messages in each step of Yurt construction. Just imagine:

  1. Building a yurt is a human-centric process that cannot be automated. The final design is adapted to the environment where the Yurt is located. There is not a one-size-fits-all design.  
  2. The construction process is participatory and inclusive. Different tasks are assigned to different people based on their skillsets. Both young and old, women and men work together in a joint effort to build their shared space of living.
  3. The frame of the yurt consists of simple segments integrated into a complex structure. There are no useless parts left over. Each segment has its own place and function.
  4. The top of the Yurt, “Tunduk”, is multidimensional to securely balance the frame. (Fun fact: you can find a Tunduk on our national flag!)
  5. The space inside is multifunctional and efficiently allocated. There is a certain ecosystem where people cook, eat, sleep, learn, keep their working instruments and welcome guests.
  6. The framework of the Yurt is resilient and flexible, so that it can withstand snowfall and wind.
  7. The Yurt is designed by people, for people. Family members are capable of building a Yurt by themselves and dissembling it within several hours to migrate whenever.
  8. The special features of the felt and the key materials used to cover the Yurt make it comfortable to stay inside during various weather conditions.

Do these unique features of yurt’s building resonate with what we imagine as community building? Bingo! The combination of the symbolic meaning of yurt with its practical value and feasibility encouraged us to consider a new model of local community development based on the “Yurt Concept.” We believe, the development model designed by people for people will be embraced by the grassroots communities as something inherent, understandable and valuable for them.

"After displaying the fundamental principles of community building through the Yurt Concept, we want to elaborate on the wisdom of Nomad Philosophy applied to shape the mindset and lifestyles of Kyrgyz nomad tribes for more than 3,000 years. In modern terms, it is called community development". Photo: foto.kg

Nomad Philosophy

After displaying the fundamental principles of community building through the Yurt Concept, we want to elaborate on the wisdom of Nomad Philosophy applied to shape the mindset and lifestyles of Kyrgyz nomad tribes for more than 3,000 years. In modern terms, it is called community development. Interestingly enough, one of the interpretations on the origin of the word Kyrgyz is 40 tribes. We are curious how Nomad Philosophy can create a strong sense of community despite the differences between the tribes. In our world of development, we call this social cohesion.

Nomad Philosophy is about collective intelligence and engaging participatory decision making. When issues big or small rise in a tribe, people get together to discuss needs and opinions before any important decision takes place. Accelerator Lab Kyrgyzstan is now assessing whether all citizens have equal access and choice to actively participate in the development and decision making of their communities. In modern governing institutions, we question whether citizens’ voices are heard, regardless of their gender, religion, political belief and socio-economic status.

Nomad Philosophy reveals the wisdom of nomad people using minimum resources to maximize the values. In an example of a shepherd family, sheep is not only the main source of food. Its skin is used to make cloth, wool is turned into beautiful handmade “shyrdak” (felt rug) and sheep dung is organic manure. Even its bones can be utilized for various household purposes. Kids love playing “chuko”, a traditional nomad game, made of sheep’s kneecaps. In short, nothing is left unused. When nomads migrate from one place to another, no waste is left behind. Doesn’t it perfectly depict the green economy or circular economy that the modern world is strongly advocating for?

Kyrgyz women played the same incredible role as men in shaping a nomad community. Kyrgyz women are courageous, brave and they openly express their affection towards guys while playing this traditional nomad games, called “Kyz Kuumai” (both men and women racing on horseback). In Kyrgyz history, there was a Queen of the mountains, Kurmanjan Datka. In modern times, there is Roza Otunbaeva, the first ever female Central Asian Head of State. We don’t need to help women get a voice. Women have their voice, but their voice must be ensured to be heard.

Last but not least, Nomad Philosophy is about people living in harmony with animals and nature. Nomad people clearly understand that they are only a part of an eco-system. They treat mother nature with deep respect and genuine care. This is exactly what international communities are urgently calling for - a sustainable development model to tackle the climate change and loss of biodiversity.

In a nutshell, we recognize that nomad people have already formulated principles and have been exercising the Nomad Philosophy – to build an inclusive, empowering, resilient, and sustainable tribe community. These are not foreign values, but instead, deeply rooted Kyrgyz culture in the form of nomad values. We do not need to impose development concepts based on the definition of international communities. We simply need to give recognition to the indigenous nomad values and help them accelerate local development with innovative technologies, as well as with better governance. By tapping into nomad values, we create P-R-I-D-E in local community activities. Essentially, people own their yurts – they own their communities!

Development in the VUCA World – Go Nomad!

Now we live in a world full of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, or a VUCA world. Human mobility is being accelerated faster than ever (except the current temperate lockdowns due to the global pandemic). By tapping into nomad values, we are also tapping into the movement of human minds.

The Nomad Philosophy is reborn today with the growing popularity of digital nomads, who are driven by the desire to live a life of freedom and adventure. Digital nomads can work virtually, while traveling around the world. This is a wonderful manifestation, that people without historical nomad roots are willing to embrace nomad values. Nomad values in today’s world help people become more tolerant and adaptable towards the change we encounter. By integrating nomad values in the VUCA world, we can build a more resilient society together.

In the end of our blog, we’d like to conclude with a beautiful saying of African Masai nomads to reflect on the global nomadism:

"We are Migrating.

Where we were, is not where we are.

We are evolving."

--- Benson Muntere, Maasai

About UNDP Accelerator Labs

An initiative of the United Nations Development Programme, Accelerator Labs are co-built as a joint venture with the Qatar Fund for Development and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany. Accelerator Labs are designed to tap into local innovations to create actionable insights and reimagine sustainable development for the 21st century. It is the largest and fastest learning network consisting of 92 AccLabs in 116 countries, including a newly established lab here in the Kyrgyz Republic.   

As a part of the learning network, Accelerator Lab – UNDP Kyrgyz Republic will regularly share insights along their exploratory journey around development challenges. Please subscribe to our official website and social media channels to stay tuned for their activities.