With little fanfare, VCRs and camcorders are having an increasing presence-and profound impact-in developing countries.

The camcorder has taken controi over the creation and distribution of video programming from a centralized authority and placed it in the hands of the people.

In developing countries, this has often meant that governments no longer have an exclusive right to distribute video programming.

When governments can’t control all the messages, independent filmmakers, grassroots political organizations, development agencies, and disenfranchised groups of all kinds become free to use video technology to produce new messages. Sometimes these messages are at odds with the information previously deemed appropriate and permissible.


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As a rule, only a limited degree of innovative programming is produced by the world’s centrally controlled broadcast organizations. Television is a mass medium, and most of its programming has been tailored to the needs and tastes of the mass audience.

Developing countries are frequently only able to support a single national channel with limited air time. Political and social minorities have often been intentionally overlooked, their views and needs unsatisfied by centralized broadcasting systems.

Little wonder that the camcorder-VCR combination was seen as a means of liberating the thoughts and imaginations of heretofore silenced groups.

What began as a way to expand the number of television programs and films available in the Third World has developed into a medium offering alternative choices to mass entertainment.

The entertainment appeal of the VCR led droves of consumers in even the poorest countries of the world to pay very high prices for this new technology. Once in place, however, VCRs could receive any kind of content-political, educational, cultural.

When individuals or groups with something to say realized that people had ready access to VCRs, they began to produce programs for dissemination to target audiences. The nature and use of these programs varywidely, but can roughly be categorized as either education and training, political and social activism, or policy change.

Pizza School

From Jane Fonda’s exercise instructions to management training information, educational videos have spread throughout the world. These most often are specifically designed to meet the needs of specialized groups.

In the United States a training film for Domino’s Pizza franchise owners, for example, addresses the hazards of requiring employees to deliver pizzas within 30 minutes. The video was produced by a woman whose son was killed in a traffic accident as he hurried to get a pizza to a customer within the company-guaranteed 30-minute time limit.

In developing countries the situation is a little different. Nonprofit organizations of all kinds produce videos to train staff provide classroom and offer non-formal education for adults.

In Turkey, as in many developing countries, there is a shortage of institutions of higher learning. To extend the system at minimum cost, the Open Education Faculty of Anadolu University was created. Patterned on the British Open University, it uses television to provide distance education to students who might not otherwise be reached by traditional universities.

The university has recently provided lessons on videocassette, viewed as a more flexible and permanent educational medium. Evaluations of the pilot program for English-language instruction on video indicated that students showed substantive gains in their English proficiency.

Collecting for UNICEF

UNICEF recognizes the value of video in a decentralized organization, according to Steve Woodhouse, chief of the training section in the New York headquarters. Since 83 percent of UNICEF’s staff is located in about 150 field offices around the world, it’s necessarv to provide “self-explanatory” and “quality-controlled” training.

To that end, the organization has equipped all field offices with multisystem videocassette recorders that can play cassettes in PAL, SECAm, or NTSC. Woodhouse believes video is an “excellent way of training,” but should be used in comination with case studies, exercises, or discussion.

Woodhouse says video is particularly effective in UNICEF’s work in developing countries because some of the field offices are located in remote areas where there’s little else to do. Officers are willing to spend time watching a good training video-one that includes entertaining content as well as the instructional message.

In addition, Woodhouse says video provides a refreshing alternative to print in a very paper-oriented organization.

UNICEF field staffs in Ankara, Turkey use video for training professionals, such as doctors and midwives, and also for instructing mothers in disease prevention and treatment. Some training cassettes were produced for UNICEF in Turkey by Anadolu University, which offers good electronic media facilities.

Like Woodhouse, Alan Brody, project officer for UNICEF in Ankara, believes video can provide training message uniformity. The Turkish staff has used camcorders to tape a conference on the use of antibiotics in the treatment of acute respiratory infections; they plan to edit the tape for distribution.

Country offices of UNICEF, like the one in Turkey, can avail themselves of videos on oral rehydraflon therapy, immunization, breast feeding, social mobilization and training, water and sanitation, and childhood disabilities.

Videotapes and 16mm films distributed through UNICEF headquarters produced in a variety of languages. Many are prepared with an international soundtrack for easy dubbing into other languages.

The World Health Organization in Geneva has produced an AIDS education tape translated into Arabic and circulated throughout the Middle East. The Pan-American Health Organization has also
produced AIDS documentaries used to train health workers.

Since the commencement of the intfada in the West Bank and Gaza, women’s groups have used video for political education. Egyptian films containing strong social criticism have been used to spark discussions of women’s right in marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Documentaries about women’s experiences in Cuba, Mexico, and Nicarguea are shown to Palestinian women to compare conditions in various countries.

Culture Club

Cultural survival is a problem for many groups of people, usually ethnic minorities under the control of a dominant majority. The Kayapo Indians of Brazil represent a culture that has adopted the use of video to record its traditions for succeeding generations.

Kayapo were introduced to the camcorder and VCR about five years ago when three Brazilians left the technology with a group of Indians living in the Amazonian rain forest village of Gorotire.

The Indians had seen white men come in from the outside to record Kayapo culture and determined that if it was so interesting and precious to foreigners, they should probably record the culture for their own purposes.

The older Kayapo had become concerned as younger citizens abandoned the hunting and gathering culture of their ancestors for work in the lumber and mining industries. They also worried as they watched their children gaze at television in the evenings rather than listen to elders pass on
culture through storytelling, details of ancestral customs, dream interpretation, and comments on changes in nature and the events of the day.

The electronic record of Kayapo culture is in the making. According to University of Chicago anthropology professor Terence Turner, the Kayapo are studying the best method for documenting their important customs and information. They are asking questions about organization and format, not just plunging ahead without careful consideration.

Though most of the Kayapo are illiterate, they have developed incredible skill with the camcorder. One top British filmmaker who watched a cameraman shooting the same scene he was, commented on the extraordinary ability of the Indian to select identical camera positions.

Recite and Incite

On the West Bank, the Society of the Rehabilitation of the Family has shown videos of traditional Palestinian wedding ceremonies, henna and circumcision ceremonies, and folk dances to students studying at the Society.

The Israeli army recently seized 141 videotapes from Society head Amiha Khalil. Since many of the videos consisted of interviews conducted by foreign journalists and intifada events, Israeli authorities charged they were used for incitement, rather than cultural education purposes. The videos will be used as evidence in Khalil’s trial.

Prerecorded Indian films are used by families in Southall, near London, to maintain a sense of Indian culture in a British environment. In an ethnographic study of Punjabi youth who had little direct exposure to India, it was found that while parents watched the films from a need for nostalgic recollection, they wanted their children to view them for linguistic, religious, and socio-cultural learning.

Of course, individual families in many parts of the world have been recording their own cultural milestones for years. Weddings, engagements, birthdays, and circumcision ceremonies are usually taped by professionals hired for their services.

Dam Video

Perhaps because video combines oral with visual, many activists have determined it to be a more potent medium for conveying messages than print or audiocassettes. And when certain messages are either too narrowly focused for broadcast or likely to be censored by broadcast controllers, it’s the only avenue for distributing visual information.

The Kayapo Indians, who had adopted video for making a cultural record, realized it could also be used for important political purposes.

As residents of the Amazonian rain forest, they believe their homeland to be under siege by the Brazilian government and development interests. Because the Indians thought their views might be misconstrued when interpreted by the government, they chose to videotape confrontations with Brazilians. They wanted an accurate record of what was said and done.

Turner describes the Kayapo’s use of video to reach public opinion as a sophisticated way of controlling news about their situation. Since the press was so receptive to the videotaped records, they took advantage of that fact and began to organize what Turner characterizes as a kind of “guerrilla theatre.”

Early in 1939 the Kayapo taped a meeting of about 700 Indians in Altimira, Brazil, joined by representatives of the Brazilian government and the Electronorte utility. Indians of the region organized the meeting to force the government to reveal plans to build hydroelectric dams in the Xingu valley. The dams would flood about 15 million acres of virgin forest and displace 35,000 Indians.

Because the government divulged its plans prior to the meeting, the gathering became primarily a political and social act to force the Brazilians to stop destruction of the rain forest and the building of the dams.

The national and international press were invited to this meeting; their coverage was added to the video record made by the Kayapo, and films made by Terence Turner and the Ecumenical Centre for Documentation and Information.

Going to Kathmandu

In Nepal, video letters produced by village women were made to develop educational materials for village use, as well as improve communication with development organizations and the central government. The videos also became a vehicle for women to express problems experienced in remote locations.

The women of Ramghat, Nepal sent tapes describing mistreatment by their husbands and requesting information on divorce procedures to the Women’s Legal Services Project in the capital, Kathmandu. Taped solutions to the problems were returned to the women.

After eight months of taping such letters, along with instructional videos on farming methods, health issues, and deforestation, the village women travelled to Kathmandu to discuss the needs presented on the videos. The trip convinced the women they were legitimate spokespersons for their village and that video cameras were unnecessary to express their needs.

The videomaking experience had allowed these women to seek solutions to their problems. In spite of their lack of education and position, they were ultimately able to participate in local political meetings-formerly an exclusively male right.

Nigerian Television Authority program producers in Ibadan, Nigeria have been concerned that broadcast stations can’t meet the needs of multiple ethnic groups in a country with three major tribes and 250 languages. The plan is to obtain government funding to allow people to create video programs that communicate needs to the government.

Although broadcast personnel would supervise production, the people would help detennine content. Still in the planning stages, Ibadan producers have yet to convince the government to fund the plan.

The Advocates

High-level authorities are often either unwilling or unable to make direct contact with the people. Frequently this lack of direct contact leads to a misunderstanding of the actual situation and thus bad policy.

UNICEF staff thinks video can provide the necessary information to change that. Bill Hetzer, chief of Radio/TV/Film Services for UNICEF in New York, agrees that video is an important tool in situations where policy is being made “in a vacuum” and where “civil service is divorced from the on-the-ground situation.”

Hetzer believes the use of video for fundraising campaigns is a form of advocacy. The Pan-American Health Organization screens videos on malaria and drug addiction to show prospective donors the need for funding for health education and training.

Since the beginning of the Palestinian intifada women’s organizations have shown videos of intifada activities recorded locally or by foreign crews. The videos serve to boost morale, and help attract women to attend monthly meetings where they’re instructed in health education.

Women are more motivated to attend lectures on health issues than they would be without the intifada videos. Viewing tapes that show the participation of women in intifada activities in other regions also helps motivate women to become involved themselves.

Future Video

In the poorest countries of the world there is little hope for short-or even long-term improvement in conditions. But if people who’ve been the targets of development programs are more directly involved in the creation of solutions to their problems, we’ll have more successes than failures.

For too long we’ve talked about bottom-up communication and consultation with the recipients of development aid, while control of aid continues to flow from the top down. The men and women described in this article who’ve chosen to use video to communicate their messages are effecting some solutions to their problems, often without international aid.

More extensive use of the camcorder and VCR needs to be made. Video is a medium with more promise than that ascribed to previously developed communication technologies.

Christine Ogan is Associate Professor and Director of the Bureau of Media Research at the School ofjournalism, Indiana University. This article was first published in Media Development, journal of the World Association for Christian Communication. Reprinted with permission.

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