Who makes the best ‘Alphabet Soup’ of all?

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Take a close look. This is the original Alphabet Soup.

It’s is a kind of soup containing noodles shaped like the letters of the Latin alphabet. According to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, it comes as a prepared, canned vegetable soup with letter-shaped noodles. Read full Wikipedia entry

Metaphorically, alphabet soup means “an abundance of abbreviations or acronyms”. In this sense, the term goes back at least as far as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies of the New Deal (1933-38). In the United States, the Federal Government is described as an ‘alphabet soup’ on account of the multitude of agencies that it has spawned, including the NSA, CIA, FBI, USSS, BATF, DEA and INS.

But Uncle Sam’s expertise in making alphabet soups has been challenged by another entity – the United Nations. (Interestingly, Roosevelt was an architect of the UN, and coined the term with Winston Churchill). The UN’s propensity for enriching the alphabet soup has few parallels.

In the early 1990s, when I was earning a living as a UN consultant in Asia, I had to wade through the sea of acronyms and abbreviations as part of my daily bread. Funnily enough, some high-level peddlers of arconyms no longer even remembered what they stood for!

The UN has enriched the alphabet soup even more in the years since. MDG is a current favourite – it stands for Millennium Development Goals, a blue print for achieving basic socio-economic development by 2015.

It’s not just the UN, but the entire development community that is in love with coining abbreviations and then liberally bandying them about. Some are manageable. Others are unpronounceable tongue-twisters. PLWHA comes to mind – that stands for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS.

And then there are too many meanings or expansions for the same abbreviation, causing confusion to those who don’t know the context. ICT is a good example. We in media and development circles use it to mean Information and Communications Technologies. But the Wikipedia shows at least another two dozen meanings for the same three letter combination!

Journalism taught me to explain every technical term and abbreviation when introducing it. I still do, but on the whole I avoid abbreviations if we can help it.

But I have to watch out. A colleague reminded me recently that I’ve been happily coining inhouse acronyms myself. Examples:
GBR – The Greenbelt Reports (Asian TV series)
STP – Saving the Planet (Asian regional project and upcoming TV series)
D4C – Digits4Change (Asian TV series)

Does this make me a minor chef in expanding the Alphabet Soup?

Maybe it does! If I can’t beat ’em, I’ll join ’em….

‘Toxic Trail’ continues its trail across Asia

mongkon-tianponkrang.jpg mongkon-tianponkrang-of-tef.jpg
Meet Mongkon (Mong) Tianponkrang.

He is a Programme Coordinator with the Thai Education Foundation (TEF), a non-profit organisation working to improve education in Thailand at all levels, especially using non-formal methods.

I met Mong earlier this month during our regional workshop on communication capacity building under TVE Asia Pacific‘s Saving the Planet project.

TEF’s School and Community Farmland Biodiversity Conservation project is one of six stories that was chosen from among dozens of public nominations to be featured in the Asian regional TV series we are working on, titled Saving the Planet.

Saving the Planet will feature remarkable initiatives from South and Southeast Asia by educational, civil society and community groups engaged in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

Mong was a live wire during our 5-day workshop in Khao Lak, Thailand. We encouraged everyone to share experiences in communicating with their respective audiences, using whatever communication methods and means (media or non-media).

At one point, Mong started describing how he and his team have been using a video film called Toxic Trail that takes a critical look at the use of pesticides in crop cultivation in Thailand and neighbouring countries.

He described how they’d found the film’s Thai version very useful in their work with farmers, housewives and other community members.

This was a fine coincidence: he didn’t know until then that we at TVE Asia Pacific had been involved in versioning Toxic Trails, originally produced in English, into half a dozen Asian languages including Thai. That was back in 2002.

Toxic Trail is a two part documentary that was produced in early 2001, directed by a long-time friend and colleague Janet Boston (who today heads the Thomson Foundation, which has a 40-year track record in training journalists in the developing world). It was first broadcast on BBC World in April 2001.

Image courtesy Community IPM website

It followed Russell Dilts, an expert working with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as he investigated the pesticide industry in South East Asia. The trail begins in Thailand, moving to Cambodia and ending in Indonesia. The main focus, however, is on Cambodia, where Dilts uncovers major problems in the misuse of pesticides.

Dilts makes stark and horrifying findings: the mass use of pesticides is progressively destroying delicate local ecosystems, as well as causing many health problems to farmers and their families involved. Eventually, everybody is affected by consuming agricultural produce with high levels of pesticide residues.

Read TVEAP website feature on Toxic Trail (Aug 2002).

Read key issues raised by Toxic Trail films

Image courtesy Toxic Trail website

Interesting things happened following the release of Toxic Trail in 2001. First, the FAO came under intense pressure from pesticide companies for having supported an investigative film that probed the reality of product stewardship that these companies claimed existed.

Stated simply, Product Stewardship is when companies take the responsibility for their products. It includes the monitoring of the distribution of products with regard to choice of outlet and method of sale. Toxic Trail questioned how this concept was being practised in developing countries such as Thailand and Cambodia.

Clearly, the companies didn’t like what was disclosed with tangible, visual evidence. In the weeks that followed the film’s release, and its high profile broadcast on BBC World, at least three heads rolled at FAO’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programme for Asia.

But by then the genie was out of the bottle. The BBC broadcast may have been watched by a handful of officials, diplomats and businessmen who walk the corridors of power. But a much larger Asian audience was reached by our versioning the films into Bahasa Indonesia, Hindi, Khmer, Mandarin, Sinhala and Thai — which, between them, are spoken by close to two billion people. These versions have been broadcast and narrowcast through numerous outlets ever since.

And as Mong reminded us earlier this month, the films are still in good use, several years after their production and versioning.

One clear lesson: it’s not just enough to produce a good TV film. How much it is seen and used depends on the amount of promotion, local adaptation and subsidised or free distribution that goes with it.

In the case of Toxic Trail, there was a network of promoters for IPM and sustainable agriculture who picked it up and ran with it — and continue to spread the word.

Meanwhile, we should be releasing more such ‘genies’ out of their bottles…

Visit Community IPM website

Look up more online resources on integrated pest management

Photos of Mongkon Tianponkrang by Indika Wanniarachchi of TVEAP
Other images courtesy Toxic Trail website

Pay-back time for film-makers: Go back to your locations!

“These days it’s simply not good enough to use the old response… “If people know about it they’ll care for it and do something”. Wrong. They’ll just go on being conned that it’s all perfect out there, with endless jungles, immaculate Masai Maras, and untouched oceans. What planet are they on about?”

These words come from Richard Brock, one of the world’s leading and most senior natural history film makers.

If you haven’t heard his name, chances are that you know at least some of his many creations: he worked in the BBC Natural History Unit producing, among others, the highly successful Life on Earth and Living Planet series presented by David Attenborough.

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative Image courtesy Brock Initiative

The BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) is a department of the BBC dedicated to making TV and radio programmes with a natural history or wildlife theme, especially nature documentaries. It celebrates 50 years in 2007.

Richard Brock worked with them for 35 of those 50 years. He left them a few years ago, according to his own website, ”concerned by the lack of willingness to address the real current state of the environment”.

He then started his own independent production company, Living Planet Productions, which has made over 100 films on a wide range of environmental topics, shown all over the world. As his archive of films and footage mounted up, Richard felt that there was something more, better, that could be done with this resource.

“We’ve been celebrating nature by bringing its wonders to the TV screen all over the world. Now that world is changing, faster and faster, and nature needs help. Films can do that, at a local level, be it with decision-makers in the government or in the village,” he says.

He adds: “When you consider the miles of footage and thousands of programs sitting in vaults out there unused, it seems tragic that the very wonders they celebrate are dwindling, often because no one tells the locals and tries to help. That is why I believe its Payback Time for the wildlife television.”

Thus the Brock Initiative was born. To quote from their website:
“He decided to set up the Brock Initiative, to use his archive of footage, and to ask others to do the same, to create new programs, not made for a general TV audience, but made for those who are really connected to the situation in hand: local communities, decision makers, even that one fisherman who uses dynamite fishing over that one coral reef. Its about reaching those who have a direct impact; reaching those who can make the difference.”

As he emphatically says: “Showing the truth on some minority channel is not the answer. Showing it where it counts, is.”

Image courtesy The Brock Initiative

I hope those development donors and corporate sponsors, who try to outdo each other in supporting programming going out on BBC World (an elite minority channel in most markets) hear people like Richard Brock — long-time BBC insiders who know what they are talking about.

Those who make documentaries on wildlife, natural history or environment (and wild-life of humans) are trapped in their industry’s many contradictions. They go on location filming to the far corners of the planet, capturing ecosystems, species and natural phenomena. Yet for a long time, many have avoided talking about or featuring the one species that has the biggest impact on Nature: Homo sapiens (that’s us!).

Whole series of wildlife documentaries have been made, by leading broadcasters and production houses of the east and west, without once showing a human being or human activity in them. Almost as if humans would ‘contaminate’ pristine Nature!

In recent years, more film-makers have broken ranks and started acknowledging the human footprint on the planet and its environment. But a good many documentaries are still made with ‘pure’ wildlife content, with not a thought spared on the wild-life of our species.

Richard Brock is one who has refused to follow the flock. And he has also punctured the highly inflated claims — promoted by BBC Worlds of this planet — that broadcast television can fix the world’s problems.

As we have found out here in Asia, it’s a judicious combination of broadcast and narrowcast that can work – and we still need the participation of teachers, activists and trainers to get people to think and act differently.

At their best, broadcasts can only flag an issue or concern to a large number of people. For attitudes and behaviour to change, that needs to be followed up by narrowcast engagement at small group levels.

Taking films to the grassroots need not be expensive, says Brock. In fact it can be done inexpensively.

These are not programmes for broadcast to western audiences demanding BIG productions – you are often showing films to people who have never even seen TV. The effort comes in showing the right thing, to the right people, in the right way, and not about expensive effects, top quality cameras or cutting edge effects.”

Using donated archive footage cuts costs dramatically. New footage, important for putting a film in a local context, can be taken on small miniDV cameras and editing can be done on any home computer. In this way, it becomes feasible to put together a film even for a very small, but crucial audience.

The Brock Initiative, started and funded by donations from its founder, has projects in Kenya, Madagascar, Tanzania, the UK and Indonesia.

Read more about the Indonesia project

They also offer wildlife and nature footage free to those who want to use moving images to make a difference.

Read Richard Brock’s formula for making films that make a difference!

As our species’ wild-life pushes our living planet closer to peril, we need many more Richard Brocks to try and reverse disturbing trends at the edges of survival — almost all of them in the global South.

It’s pay-back time, film-makers!

Related blog posts:
End this callous waste – open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance

Lawyers who locked up the butterfly tree

Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the Development Pill

Contact The Brock Initiative

The Three Amigos: Funny Condoms with a serious mission

For some reason, my blog post with the highest number of daily hits for the past few days has been what I wrote in mid April: ‘Beware of Vatican Condoms – and global warming’.

I’m not sure if the interest is really in condoms, the Vatican or global warming, but since we must be demand-driven, here’s a new condom story! It concerns the three funniest condoms I’ve met.

Image courtesy Three Amigos website

They are called The Three Amigos – they are three differently shaped and coloured condoms, each with distinctive personality. They go places — certainly more than your average condom — to airports, forests, football games, recording studios, even television talk shows!

They are funny, amiable and out to have a good time. Occasionally they are also fallible and gullible — just like many humans are.

And like many of us, they grapple with hard choices in life – for example, between caution and temptation, or between right and wrong.

So far there are 20 adventures of The Three Amigos — each no longer than a minute: in those precious few seconds, a compact story is told with stunning effect. Talk about packing a punch.

Wherever they go, and whatever they do, the three friends have one mission: to remind us of many ways in which we can help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The Three Amigos is a series of twenty Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in the form of short comedic sketches, featuring three animated, talking condoms. Some 80 volunteers in Canada, India and South Africa have created this ground-breaking behaviour modification programme to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

It is a multi-award winning series that has been endorsed by Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who believes these PSAs are a powerful communicating tool to encourage people to change their behaviour.
Read Desmond Tutu letter here
See testimonials from all over.

The Three Amigos The Three Amigos The Three Amigos The Three Amigos

The Three Amigos is a north-south joint production. Its producers are Brent Quinn of South Africa and Firdaus Kharas of Canada. They are jointly responsible for the project and its contents.

Firdaus Kharas, who was also the Director of the series, is Ottawa-based and specializes in the creation of television programmes, feature films and animation. Most of the productions are international in creation and on international themes such as children’s rights.

We met Firdaus in person when TVE Asia Pacific organised the International AIDS Film Festival 2004 in Bangkok, as part of the XV International AIDS Conference held in the Thai capital.

We screened The Three Amigos every day, always to a packed house. Amidst the often depressing, long-format documentaries dealing with the death and misery unleashed by HIV (very much part of the HIV story), the animated cartoons livened up the audience — and showed that discussing HIV on television can be funny yet serious at the same time.

Producer Firdaus Kharas at TVEAP's AIDS Film Festival 2004 Producers Brent Quinn (L) and Firdaus Kharas

Earlier this month, July 2007, I showed a dozen of The Three Amigos PSAs as part of my presentation on ‘Who is afraid of Moving Images?’ at the regional communication capacity building workshop under our Saving the Planet project, held in Khao Lak, Thailand.

Our participants, all engaged in non-formal education through civil society organisations from South and Southeast Asia, had interesting things to say about The Three Amigos. In conservative Philippines that extends the Vatican’s dictates, for example, our friends can’t go very far — and it was uncertain if they could go on the air at all.

In conservative yet secular India, some of it could get on broadcast television – but not the more explicit ones. Clearly, making fun of sex, sexuality and sexual habits is a very delicate task, and such humour does not always travel across cultures.

In Thailand itself, The Three Amigos will have no problems of media and public acceptance. After all, condom use has been popularised by the well known Senator Mechai Viravaidya, better known as Mr Condom.

Read what Senator (Mr Condom) Viravaidya and actor Richard Gere said at our AIDS Film Festival 2004 in Bangkok.

As Asia grapples with an increasing incidence of HIV, countries will have to make some hard choices on confronting the epidemic. One choice is how to make the best use of tried and tested, existing public educational materials like The Three Amigos, all too willing to traverse Asia spreading their message: use condoms to stop AIDS.

Watch The Three Amigos online at their website

How to order tapes of The Three Amigos

PS: The website is careful to stress this:
“These PSA’s should be used as one component only in a comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention programme. The PSA’s will not be appropriate in all settings and in all cultures and careful evalualtion of the appropriateness of each PSA should be made.”

The lawyers who locked up the Butterfly Tree

This photo was taken in August 2005 in Toyama, Japan, which is some 200km east of Tokyo. The occasion was during the Japan Wildlife Film Festival, held in Toyama every other summer since 1993.

I am seen with Brenda and Neil Curry, my film-maker friends from South Africa. That was a memorable night for Neil, whose remarkable film, The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree, won the festival’s highest award.

The 50-min film captures the delicate relationship between the elephant, the Emperor Moth and the Mopane Tree (scientific name: Colophospermum mopane). It was produced by Oxford Scientific Films for BBC Natural World, bringing together the creative talents of Neil Curry, Alastair and Mark MacEwen, and Sean Morris.

Here’s the full official synopsis of the film:
Mopane woodland has been symbolic of African bush for centuries but its ecology is often misunderstood. Its importance to the fragile ecosystem is paramount. In this programme we show the delicate relationship between the elephant, the emperor moth and the incredible mopane tree. We also show the vital impact this ecosystem has on a local family who depend upon the delicious harvest of mopane worms to supplement their diet, and the precious resources the mopane tree provides in order to survive in the mopane woodland of Botswana.

Foreign delegates, staff and volunteers of JWF2005 Neil Curry accepting the Best of JWF2005 award on behalf of his team

I was in Toyama as a guest speaker, talking about TVE Asia Pacific‘s Children of Tsunami media project, which was then in progress.

Brenda and Neil, originally from the UK, now live in wine country off Cape Town. Neil is the quintessential natural history film-maker: meticulous in his approach to a story, passionate in what he covers, and with tons of patience.

Most natural history film-makers go for animal subjects. It’s much harder to do an interesting film about a plant or tree that stays in one place and does not have an annual breeding cycle like animals.

That’s just one of many reasons why The Elephant, the Emperor and the Butterfly Tree is outstanding. It tells a complex story of an ecosystem that is inter-dependent and in balance.

The film, made in 2004, also won the top award at WildScreen (Bristol, UK), considered to be the oscar awards in wildlife and natural history film-making.

A stand of Mopane laden with seed pods - image courtesy Africa Hunter Image courtesy Tourism Botswana

Now here’s the rest of the story, which is not as upbeat. Neil spent many months in Botswana filming this story, and wanted to take the finished film back to the communities where it was shot. The wildlife parks and schools in the area, he knew, could make good use of the film to educate the local kids, adults and visitors.

What would be simpler than that? Get a VHS or DVD copy and pass it on to them, right?

Wrong. When I met Neil in the summer of 2005, it was more than 18 months since the film was made. For much of that time, he had been trying to obtain permission from the BBC to share a non-broadcast copy of his film with the people in Botswana. His request was passed from person to person, and from division to division, with no clear decision made, and no permission granted.

The BBC had invested funds in making the film, and had a legal right to decide how and where it was to be used. Focused on ‘revenue optimisation’ and ‘returns on investment’, its bean-counters could not care less whether the film-maker wished to share his creation with the local people whose reality he had captured.

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, it is alarmingly wide-spread: every year, excellent environmental documentaries and development films are produced, most of them using public funds (who pays the BBC license fee? The British public!). Yet these films are locked up in complex copyrights that prevent them from being used by anyone outside broadcast circles.

As I said in my recent speech to Asia Media Summit 2007:
Even where the film-makers or producers themselves are keen for their creations to be used beyond broadcasts, the copyright policies stand in the way. In large broadcast organisations, it is lawyers and accountants –- not journalists or producers -– who now seem to decide on what kind of content is produced, and how it is distributed under what restrictions.

I don’t know if Neil Curry ever cleared the rights to screen the film to small groups of people in Botswana or elsewhere in Africa. But I think of this every time BBC World cries its heart out for the poor and suffering in Africa.

This is one global broadcaster that does not put its money where its mouth is.

In fact, the BBC’s accountants must be laughing all the way to their bank.

Read my related posts: End this callous waste: Open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance!

Public funds, private rights: Big mismatch in development film-making

27 July 2007 – Neil Curry responds to my views on optimum duration of natural history documentaries

End this callous waste…open up broadcast archives for combating poverty and ignorance!

Image courtesy Boeing

This is the new Boeing 787 aircraft that was unveiled a few days ago — described as more fuel-efficient, and therefore more climate friendly. Not to mention being a more comfortable plane to fly on.

Now just imagine if one of these new aircraft were to be used for a single return flight — let’s say Singapore to London and back — and then relegating it to a hanger for the rest of its lifetime!

What a callous waste that would be. Now who would do that, and will that be tolerated?

Yet something like this happens in the moving images industry quite frequently….and not too many seem to be bothered.

Every year, many new TV films and documentaries are produced with considerable investment of time, effort and money. After one or few broadcasts, they are confined to broadcast archives. Trapped in copyright restrictions, they languish there even though they can be a vital resource for teachers, students, civil society groups and trainers worldwide.

To me, this is as much a criminal waste as throwing away a Jumbo jet after a single journey.

In fact, I’ve been writing and talking about it whenever I can. Here’s an extract from my speech to Asia Media Summit 2007 held in late May 2007 in Kuala Lumpur:

Every year, excellent TV programmes are made on different development topics. Public and private funds are spent in making these programmes, which draw in the creativity and hard work of committed professionals.

Many channels broadcast these programmes. They are typically aired a few times and then end up in the archives. Few may be exploited for their multimedia potential.

Yet many of these programmes have a longer shelf-life – and outside the broadcast sphere. They can be extremely useful in education, awareness raising, advocacy and training.

Alas, copyrights restrictions are often too tight for that to happen. Even where the film-makers or producers themselves are keen for their creations to be used beyond broadcasts, the copyright policies stand in the way. In large broadcast organisations, it is lawyers and accountants –- not journalists or producers -– who now seem to decide on what kind of content is produced, and how it is distributed under what restrictions.

Read the full text of my speech here

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This is why we at TVE Asia Pacific have been calling for poverty and development to be recognised as a copyrights-free zone. So that the crushing (and completely meaningless) grip of copyrights can be loosened up.

I first made this proposal in mid 2006, in an op ed essay published online at MediaChannel.org. I then reiterated it at the UN Headquarters in New York in September 2006, when addressing the 59th annual UN NGO Conference.

The idea has been well received in education and civil society circles. But predictably enough, the broadcast community itself has been less enthusiastic.

We just have to keep on at it.

Mine is shorter than yours…yipeee!

In the topsy turvy media world, ‘conventional wisdom’ about film-making is being rapidly undone by the march of what is now known as ‘Digital Natives‘ — those currently under 30 years, who have grown up taking Internet, mobile phones and video games completely for granted.

These Digital Natives are not inclined to watch long duration documentaries. Five minutes is about right. With effort, we can get them to sit through an offering of 10 to 15 minutes. Half an hour is ‘really long’. One hour or 90 minute films — just forget it.

The sooner we face up to this reality, the better. We may not like it, but it’s not the end of the world.

In fact, it challenges us in the media to strive for greater economy of words and time.

As anyone who has worked in television news will confirm, it is indeed possible to tell a story in 100 seconds, if we package it well and carefully. Purists might call it dumbing down of television. Pragmatists would see it as customising to suit new audience realities. I go along with the latter view.

TVE Asia Pacific is not a broadcaster on its own. We produce and distribute content to over three dozen TV channels and networks spread across the Asia Pacific, now home to the world’s largest television audience. It’s through these ‘Emperors of Eyeballs’ (as I like to call them!) that we reach out.

Our broadcast partners have a good idea what their audiences want. Channel after channel tells us that the preference is for shorter, more compact programming. It would be naive to ignore this feedback and market intelligence.

The truth is: we can communicate ‘serious’ content — as long as the packaging and duration are to suit the audience realities.
That’s why TVE Asia Pacific’s recent productions have mostly followed the 5 minute format: we begin, tell and end a self-contained story in just 300 seconds.

Our recent series are examples: The Greenbelt Reports, Digits4Change and Living Labs.

The Greenbelt Reports by TVE Asia Pacific

And that’s a lot of time on screen. We have covered complex issues in exactly five minutes: for example, combating soil salinity with low cost methods; building ‘bio-shields’ of mangroves against the sea’s ravages; and using webcams and satellite links for tele-health.

These and other films continue to be broadcast and used in a range of education, advocacy and awareness efforts across the Asia Pacific and beyond.

No one has really complained about them being too short — except for some film-makers. Some have dismissed our efforts as ‘tabloid television’ and ‘not really documentaries’.

We remain unaffected. We do produce half hour documentaries from time to time, for specific purposes and defined audiences. But to ignore the mass audience trends would be to box ourselves into a tiny part of the audio-visual landscape.

We now know it is much harder to produce shorter films than longer ones. The challenge is to distill and compress without oversimplification or distortion.

So the sooner film-makers get over their obsession with length, the better. It’s not the duration of a film that matters most; it’s how a story is told. Some of the best stories are also the shortest.

To cite my favourite example from the print world, Ernest Hemingway once bet his friends 10 dollars that he could write a self-contained, full story in less then 10 words. He produced what is still considered the world’s shortest short story:
“For sale.
Baby shoes.
Never worn.”

It’s hard to beat that one for its amazing economy of words and sheer power of story telling.

How short is short today? Read leading wildlife film-maker Neil Curry’s views in my post on 27 July 2007

Read my post: Moving images move heart first, mind next

Read my post: Can you make a one-minute film for a better planet?

Playing Shahrazad; Telling Stories to Save Ourselves…and the Planet

I’ve been silent on this blog for over 20 days. I like to think that was for a good cause.

Well, I was frightfully busy organising and running a small Asian regional workshop in Khao Lak, Thailand – it was part of TVE Asia Pacific’s Saving the Planet project.

Saving the Planet is telling real life stories to save our planet in peril. It was inspired by the Arabian Nights.

Remember how the clever and beautiful Shahrazad saved herself and other women in her kingdom from the murderous King Shahriyar? Once betrayed by a wife, the wicked ruler had embarked on a killing spree where he would wed a virgin bride everyday, and have her beheaded the day after the wedding. All girls and women in his kingdom were threatened.

That is, until, beautiful and clever Sharrazard volunteered to be the next bride. Facing an assured death, she starts telling the king engaging stories that holds him spell-bound. Her story, or stories, since many tales are interwoven and imbedded into the first, lasts for 1001 consecutive nights.

This story-telling captivated the king’s attention and held his patience with its fantastic and mysterious tales, its vivid descriptions and breath-taking heroism. Shahrazad’s story-telling is in itself a heroic and life-saving device, which finally forced the king to spare the wise and courageous girl’s life. Apparently he gave up his killing ways after that experience (if only some of our modern day rulers were so easily reformed!).

Image courtesy Rose TheatreImage courtesy Middleeast UK.comImage courtesy Middleeastuk.com

Read more about Arabian Nights

Story telling is more an art than a science. Shahrazad used it to save her life, and lives of all other women in her kingdom. Mythical as it may be, we can draw a few lessons from the Arabian Nights on what kind of stories to tell — with visible effects.

Good journalism is all about telling stories — real life stories about what happens to real world men, women and children. Mixing journalistic skills with development stories as we do, Saving the Planet is an attempt to tell a few good stories from the Asia Pacific — about individuals and organisations who are engaged in education for sustainable development, or ESD.

As we introduce the project on its dedicated website:
Confronted with a range of environment and development problems, the world is looking for bright ideas to sustain life on the planet. Education at all levels can shape the world of tomorrow, equipping individuals and societies with the skills, perspectives, knowledge and values to live and work in a sustainable manner. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the earth’s natural resources.

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Saving the Planet started with an open competition – we asked people to nominate projects or activities in developing countries of Asia that are communicating or educating their communities on any aspect of sustainable development. Not just ‘green’ issues (e.g. recycling, conservation) or scarey issues like climate change and ozone depletion, but also ‘brown’ issues (e.g. sanitation, cleaner production) and what I call ‘black and white issues’ – human rights and social justice.

We received dozens of nominations, which we turned over to a regional selection panel. Their final selection was announced in mid May 2007 – see my blog post on the winners.

Read more about the winning stories on Saving the Planet website

The idea is for us to go out and film each of these winning projects for an Asian regional TV series. But ahead of that, we brought to Khao Lak, Thailand, two representatives of each project/organisation for a week-long workshop, 2 to 6 July 2007.

That workshop sought to strengthen the communication skills and capacity of the six organisations. Not just in moving images, which we dabble in, but in new media and older media as well. In short, how to use media and other communication tools to reach out to different audiences and, hopefully, influence them in positive ways that help them — and the planet.

This is why Saving the Planet is also story telling for survival – and here we are talking about the survival of not just one individual, but of all life on the planet. And instead of one evil king, our story tellers are confronted with a multitude of threats to our survival, many of them of our own making.

The analogy with the Arabian Nights is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The success of the Arabian Nights stories over many other forgotten folk tales may be due to their blend of popular themes: heroic and romantic adventures are littered with mystery, old wisdom and exciting struggles between good and evil. Almost all tales have three main elements or notions. Firstly, if there is a problem, there is a solution. Secondly, endurance can enable a crisis to reach a resolution. And finally, fantastic elements help the protagonists to maintain their endurance.

So one thing we kept probing and discussing was how to package serious (and often perceived as ‘boring’) development messages in ways that engage and entertain groups or communities we are trying to reach.

I’ll write more about the workshop when I have a chance. The official report of the workshop will go up on TVEAP and Saving the Planet websites within a few weeks.

For now, here’s the photo of our participants, together with the resource team and my colleagues from TVE Asia Pacific.


Saving the Planet is implemented by TVE Asia Pacific in collaboration with the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU),Tokyo, Japan, within the framework of ACCU-UNESCO Asia-Pacific Programme under the UNESCO/Japan Funds-in-Trust for the Promotion of Education for Sustainable Development.