Taking it personally: Anita Roddick’s Arabian Nights

“I am overwhelmed by the potential of the web to link like-minded people and move them to mass-action,” the late Anita Roddick once wrote. “We are excited to experiment in other media too — perhaps subversive billboards, or a television program, or other print projects. As someone once said, we are only limited by our imaginations.”

In my personal tribute to Anita, written shortly after her untimely death on 10 September 2007, I touched on her extraordinary skills as an activist-communicator. It was in connection with a global television series that I last met Anita in person.

In the summer of 2003, I was invited to join a small group of people at Anita’s country home, Highfield House, in Arundel, Somerset, England. It was a one-day brainstorming on the future of Hands On, a global TV series that she’d been hosting for three years.

Hands On stood out as a beacon of hope amidst so much doom and gloom on television -– it featured environmentally-friendly technologies, business ideas and processes that have been tried out by someone, somewhere on the planet.

It covered a broad range of topics, from renewable energies, waste management and information technology to food processing and transport. The aim was to showcase good news and best practices so they could inspire others — entrepreneurs, communities or even governments — to try these out.

The series was first broadcast on BBC World and was redistributed to dozens of TV channels worldwide through my own organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, and others. It was backed by the reputed development agency Intermediate Technology (now called Practical Action).

Watch a typical Anita introduction of Hands On and a sample story in capsule form:

Anita brought her usual passion and dynamism to our discussion, energising the development and communications professionals enjoying her hospitality. Covering good news was already going against the media’s grain, but it was harder to keep at it year after year, especially when the media landscape was changing rapidly. It was a challenge to stay engaged and relevant to viewers across Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America and Europe.

During the meeting, Anita asked me to sum up the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) which was coming up in a few months. Putting aside all the ‘developmentspeak’ of UN agencies, I described it as an attempt to put new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to work for the poor and disadvantaged of our world. Or get the geek tools to work for the meek. (I still think my phrase ‘Geek2Meek’ sounds better than the official ICT4D, where D stands for development.)

We agreed that civil society had to seize the opportunities offered by these new media tools. (A few months later, Anita presented two Hands On editions called ‘Communicating for Change’ on BBC World that profiled some initiatives doing just this.)

Always fond of analogies, I likened Hands On to Arabian Nights, which, according to legend, a young woman had spun from her rich imagination for 1,001 nights to save her life from an evil king. In Hands On, I suggested, we are telling stories to save not one life, but all life on Earth.

Read my July 2007 post: Telling stories to save ourselves…and the planet

Anita quite liked my analogy. She was always a good story teller, and had so many good stories to tell (A favourite opening line from her biography, Body and Soul: “There I was, with my panty down to my knees.” You’ll never guess why until you read that story…)

She challenged everyone at that meeting to make Hands On more interesting to younger viewers in different cultures. We recognised that offering one media product to a global audience was a tough sell: most people prefer a home-made, local story.

But then, she’d built the entire Body Shop chain with a largely common product offering, even if raw materials were sourced from different parts of the globe. She never imposed the Body Shop experience on our meeting, but it was sometimes instructive to look at how a globally available product could still be localised.

hands-on-in-asia.jpg hands-on-in-asia.jpg

This is just what we did in the months and years following the Arundel brainstorming. We rolled out the ‘Localising Hands On in Asia’ project, which saw several dozen Hands On stories being versioned into local languages and distributed through broadcast and narrowcast means in Cambodia, India, Laos and Nepal. The two-year project, generously supported by Toyota, was hugely successful in delivering the Hands On stories to millions of people who would never have been exposed to it in original English.

We were thrilled when our localising work inspired similar local TV shows in three countries (Cambodia, Nepal and Laos). Yet it was the narrowcast outreach that was more rewarding.

Read about one narrowcast experience in my April 2007 blog post: Anita Roddick, Angkor Wat and the development pill

Coming soon: Who killed Hands On, one of the most successful multimedia initiatives in recent years to communicate development?

One Response to “Taking it personally: Anita Roddick’s Arabian Nights”

  1. groundviews » Death of a Green Activist: Tribute to Piyal Parakrama (1960 – 2010) Says:

    […] heeded Anita Roddick’s advice to fellow activists worldwide: take it personally. Perhaps he took it too personally. Sitting next […]

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