Anil Gupta’s Advice: Unleash Sri Lanka’s Grassroots Innovators!

This is the full text of an article I have written in The Nation Sunday newspaper today, 18 Dec 2011, with more images, embedded weblinks and in a better searchable format. It is based on the inaugural Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture delivered by Prof Anil K Gupta on 13 Dec 2011 and my conversations with him in Colombo.

Prof Anil Gupta sits in the Colombo study of late Dr Ray Wijewardene - photo by Anisha Gooneratne

What does an inventor look like?

A nerdy kid in glasses and a white coat, tinkering perilously in a lab? Or a tightly-focused technician toiling away in a greasy workshop?

Perhaps. But most innovators are ordinary people moving among us. For the most part, they are unnoticed and unsung as they try to crack problems that have engaged their attention — or frustrated them for too long.

At one level, many of us improvise everyday for personal gain — to save money, lighten our workload or boost yields. Only a few take it to a higher level. They are unhappy with the status quo. They probe how things work and speculate how it can improve. They tackle problems that daunt most.

Spotting them isn’t easy. Such innovators may come from any social, educational or cultural background but they all march to the beat of a different drum. While education and training help, some of the most successful inventors in history were entirely self-taught.

The late Ray Wijewardene was one quintessential ‘tinkerer’ who led a life-long quest to solve practical problems and improve the quality of life – for himself, those around him, and society at large. He left his mark in agriculture, engineering design, renewable energy, transport and aviation. Just as importantly, he nurtured other innovators to go after nagging problems. A firm believer in trial and error, he encouraged constant experimentation.

Ray’s spirit of enquiry and enterprise was rekindled this week when one of the world’s leading innovation-spotters delivered the inaugural Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture in Colombo.

Dr Anil Kumar Gupta, a Professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad, India, and Founder of the Honey Bee Network, spoke on “Grassroots Innovation for Inclusive Development: From Rhetoric to Reality” at the Institution of Engineers on 13 December 2011.

With inspiring examples and illustrations, Gupta emphasized that grassroots innovations can provide a new ray of hope – if we let them grow.

Speaking of his own country’s experience, he said: “Outside of India’s major cities, unsung heroes of the country are solving, or trying to solve, local problems in spite of the structures that have bypassed them so far. Creativity, compassion and collaboration are the key characteristics of these voices from grassroots. Let’s listen to them and resonate with them!”

And it isn’t just an Indian phenomenon. At the outset, Gupta listed a dozen recent innovations made by Lankans. Some, like the safe kerosene bottle lamp, are widely known but most remain obscure. Yet, all have been authenticated, and many granted patents.

Home-grown inventions

Few among the packed Colombo audience of over 200 seemed to recognise these home-grown innovations — just the point the professor was making.

“You get innovators all over Sri Lanka, but most are not known or recognised even in their own communities,” he said.

To make matters more challenging, most innovators tend to be loners: they are day-dreamers who don’t follow the pack.

“They don’t come to meetings or speak up much. We have to reach out to them, make them feel comfortable and valued,” Gupta added.

His suggestion: Sri Lanka should launch a national effort to discover its own innovators — both technological and social. The media can play a big role in spotting and promoting innovators, as can schools, universities and state agencies with relevant mandates.

But Gupta also had a strong word of caution: “Whatever we do, we must never try to convert these precious ‘odd-balls’ into conformists.”

Ray would surely have applauded. He was an accomplished non-conformist, or maverick, who didn’t fit into the stereotyped academic or engineering circles. Now the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust (RWCT), set up to promote his legacy, wants to nurture innovation in Sri Lanka.

The Trust made an auspicious start by inviting Anil Gupta to deliver the first lecture in Ray’s memory. Gupta and Wijewardene were kindred spirits who stayed in touch over the years across the Palk Strait.

Gupta himself defies the standard notion of an academic. He is an unusual professor who walks his talk — and walks through the villages and slums of India in search of innovation. His mission for the past two decades has been to ensure that grassroots innovators receive due recognition, respect and reward for their bright ideas. He also seeks to embed an innovative ethic in educational policy and institutions.

He founded the Honey Bee Network in 1986-87 “to promote a fair and responsible knowledge ecosystem”, where innovators can benefit by sharing their ideas. In the 1990s, he set up the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) both of which support the Honey Bee Network to scale up and convert grassroots innovations into viable products.

The man doesn’t sit in his campus; he goes innovator-scouting all over India. “In our walks, we move from village to village spotting grassroots innovations and honouring them. We have come across very simple modifications make life easier for people, and also help save natural resources,” Gupta said.

A simple example: at a rural location, he found someone had fitted six tapes on to the outlet of a single water pump. It allowed that many to draw water at the same time, and also reduced pumped up water going waste.

The bicycle is another invention that has been adapted for multiple purposes across India. Genius improvisers are using it for moving on land (and water), generating electricity, helping with the cooking, and even in washing clothes.

The popular Hindi film 3 Idiots featured a pedal-powered washing machine, which was inspired by the invention of a 20-year-old woman from Kerala, Remya Jose. It has since been showcased on Discovery Channel as part of the ‘Indian Innovators’ series of short films.

Part of audience at Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture in Colombo, 13 Dec 2011 - photo by Anisha Gooneratne

Benefit sharing

One defining characteristic of such grassroots innovation is that those tinkering are also immediate benefits of any improvements. As Gupta puts it: “From agricultural innovations to the gas-powered iron or pressure-cooker-driven coffee maker, we find that solutions developed by producers who are also users reflect the concerns of both the production and consumption environments.”

Not all inventions need to be earth-shattering. In fact, many aren’t – and that is perfectly fine, says Gupta.

“Even basic improvements in a water pump, for example, can make life easier for millions of people. When we look for design improvements, we should consider not only the benefits to humans, but even to domesticated animals.”

How can society ensure that grassroots innovators not just receive accolades but also get paid for their creative ideas?

Much of innovation related knowledge is ‘open source’ – meaning it has been developed by a number of people collaboratively and non-secretively. But that doesn’t mean their knowledge rights should be trampled with.

Taking out patents is one way to ensure such rights. The Honey Bee network has successfully obtained over 550 patents for grassroots innovations – more than some well-funded laboratories in India! This was made possible by mobilising pro bono lawyers and other volunteers.

The spirit of volunteerism common in Asian cultures can do much to nurture innovation and safeguard intellectual property rights at the same time, Gupta said.

His hope: “The Ray Wijewardene Trust should be able to find public-spirited lawyers in Sri Lanka to emulate the Indian experience.”

And what about glaring gaps that often exist between inventive minds and the ruthless market?

Don’t try to turn every innovator into businessman, Gupta said. “Most innovators are not good entrepreneurs because they are incorrigible improvisers. In many cases, we try to persuade and counsel innovators to work on their products. There are some who do very well, while others take time.”

Instead of trying to turn every inventor into an entrepreneur, we have to create institutions, schemes and networks that bring these two types together – the one who tinker and those who market.

We have to find ways to link innovation with investment and enterprise. Together, these three elements form what Gupta calls the ‘golden triangle’ for grassroots creativity.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is a trustee of the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust, and has been profiling Lankan innovators for 25 years.

Dance for the Climate: dance your anger and joys to a U2 tune!

As the UN climate conference culminates today in Copenhagen, there seem to be lots of angry people in the Danish capital. Many civil society and environmental activists, and some journalists, have been frustrated by the inter-governmental bickering process and the occasionally tough crowd control measures by the Danish police.

As author and activist Naomi Klein wrote at the end of the first week: “By the end, around 1,100 people had been arrested. That’s just nuts. Saturday’s march of roughly 100,000 people came at a crucial juncture in the climate negotiations, a time when all signs point either to break down or a dangerously weak deal. The march was festive and peaceful but also tough. ‘The Climate Doesn’t Negotiate’ was the message, and Western negotiators need to head it.”

I’m not in Copenhagen for uptodate news, but the 5,000+ journalists and over 10,000 activists are keeping us well informed on what’s happening (or not happening). Perhaps part of their anger can be dissipated by heeding a creative call to Dance for the Climate.

It’s an alternative way of demonstration, made into an inspiring and hopeful video clip by award winning Belgian film director Nic Balthazar. It shows 12 000 people on a Belgium beach in a truly spectacular simultaneous choreography dancing to the U2 hit single ‘Magnificent’. Bono and his band graciously gave the rights to their music. The message of the clip to politicians in Copenhagen is to ‘start moving, together, before it’s too late. The time is now to change climate change’.

In a recent email, Seppe Verbist, handling international distribution of “Dance for the Climate” clip, wrote: “We believe that the chances of success of the UN Conference are influenced by the clear signals from ordinary people to their politicians. The ‘Dance for the Climate-clip’ wants to contribute to this, and we sincerely hope we can count on your support!”

According to her, the clip has been released three weeks ago and they are now trying to spread it worldwide. In Europe the distribution goes pretty well as the European Broadcasters Network (EBU) offered the clip to all her members. They are picking up the offer and integrating the clip into their Copenhagen content. In Canada weather forecasters from different broadcast networks are organizing an imitation of Dance For The Climate, and the clip will be shown 24/7 at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai in the Meteo World Pavilion. They’re expecting 100 000 visitors every day for six months. The Al Gore Climate Project also supported the clip and shared it with their network. It’s been on TV in Brazil and Mexico as well.

Dancing can be a powerful way to express not just joy, but a range of emotions. One of my favourite calls to action came from Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian poet, author, environmentalist and minority rights activist (for his Ogoni people) who was executed by Nigeria’s military on 10 November 1995. While in jail facing an uncertain future, he wrote these momentous words:
“Dance your anger and your joys,
Dance the military guns to silence,
Dance oppression and injustice to death,
Dance my people,
For we have seen tomorrow
And there is an Ogoni star in the sky.”

And today, we must also dance for saving our climate.

How to become a global publisher or broadcaster in just 100 minutes!

Evolution or revolution?

I was born three years before the Internet (which turned 40 a few weeks ago), and raised entirely on newspapers and radio in a country where broadcast television didn’t arrive until I was 13.

From the time I could read and write, I always wanted to be a media publisher. In that pre-history of the Personal Computer and Internet, my choices were pretty limited: I published a hand-written household newspaper and was its editor, reporter, printer and distributor all rolled into one. But I was obsessive in my work even then, and the newspaper lasted a couple of years in which over two dozen issues were released (all of them now mercifully lost).

My school teacher parents were my first patrons, supplying me with plenty of paper, pencils and ink. But there must have times when they rather wished that I didn’t indulge in my own brand of independent journalism. I loved to criticise and lampoon the ‘management’ in my editorials — even as a kid, I was already critical of the establishment!

Fortunately for me, the ‘management’ left me alone and to my own devices, but most independent editors in history haven’t been so lucky. As the American journalist A.J. Leibling (1904 -1963) once said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” In his time, this was perfectly true.

There was a time, until recently, when press barons and media moguls led, and the rest of society followed. In our topsy-turvy times, however, the reverse is increasingly true.

In theory, at least, anyone can be a global broadcaster and publisher in less than two hours using free tools that can be downloaded and activated in minutes.

david brewer photo
David Brewer (photo from
My British media activist friend David Brewer has just published an online guide on how to become a publisher or broadcaster in 100 minutes. (Okay, the non-geeks among us might need a bit longer than that, but still, you can be in business in just a few hours.)

David Brewer’s journalistic and managerial experience spans newspapers, radio, television, and online, and he now runs Media Ideas International Ltd, a media strategy consultancy with clients in Europe, the Balkans, the CIS, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Central America.

David has worked with what I like to call the A-B-C of global broadcasting. He was the launch managing editor of BBC News Online in 1997, and moved to CNN, as managing editor, to set up Europe, Middle East and Africa and He was an editorial consultant for the launch of Al Jazeera English in 2006 and continues to work with Al Jazeera English as a new media consultant.

In his spare time, he runs Media Helping Media , a network and online resource to support media in areas where freedom of expression is under threat.

Somali pirates: Part of the story mainstream media hasn’t told us!

Do they have a story to tell? Who is listening?
Do they have a story to tell? Who is listening?
Piracy has a chequered history, and even the Wikipedia offers a carefully qualified definition. One person’s pirate can be another person’s defender. There’s an argument that the European colonial powers rode on the backs of their pirates or buccaneers. And I’m writing this in English language possibly because the English were more successful in their overseas piracy than other nations!

Piracy is all over the news again, due to increased activity off Somalia. But in the past few weeks, we’ve started hearing another side of the Somali piracy story — one that the mainstream media didn’t tell us.

Johann Hari, a columnist for the London Independent, posted an op ed in Huffington Post on 13 April 2009 that took a different look at Somali pirates. His main argument: “In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.”

In recent days, two interesting short videos have been posted by two activist groups to support the same point of view. I haven’t investigated this story myself, but am intrigued by their take on a widely reported topic…especially because it’s an angle that we don’t read or see in the mainstream media!

The Media Is Lying to You About Pirates

The IFC Media Project’s “News Junkie” deconstructs the mainstream media’s half-baked coverage of Somali Pirates.

Are They Really “Pirates”?

This film from Awareness Unfolds highlights the fact that the media is lying about the so called “pirates” of Somolia. According to the blurb: “They (media) choose not to tell you about the toxic waste dumping going on by American, European, and Asian countries that have lead to the death of many Somolian citizens.”

As Johann Hari says at the end of his article: “The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know “what he meant by keeping possession of the sea.” The pirate smiled, and responded: “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.” Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today – but who is the robber?”

Johann Hari has reported from Iraq, Israel/Palestine, the Congo, the Central African Republic, Venezuela, Peru and the US, and his journalism has appeared in publications all over the world. In 2007 Amnesty International named him Newspaper Journalist of the Year. In 2008 he became the youngest person ever to win Britain’s leading award for political writing, the Orwell Prize.

Teenage Affluenza: A viral video to stir our minds

I’m a bit anxious about impending teenhood. No, not my own, thank you, but my kid’s.

As a single parent raising a 12-year-old who will soon turn 13, I keep reading and hearing all kinds of advice these days on how best to cope with a teenager in the house — that phase in growing up that everyone predicts will involve some turbulence.

On top of all else that comes with hormones-on-legs, there’s now the worry of Teenage Affluenza. It’s a condition that affects millions of teenagers around the world. Most of them live in the developed countries, but in this topsy-turvey, globalised world, there’s no stopping the rapid spread of such conditions all over the majority world.

Look closely, and you can see the symptoms of TA
Look carefully, and you can see the symptoms of TA - image courtesy WorldVision Australia

I belatedly came across this campaign video called Teenage Affluenza, made by the charity WorldVision Australia in mid 2007. It was first made for a promotion kit for the 40 Hour Famine, to be used in Australian schools. World Vision media staff worked with Rohan Zerna Films, Melbourne, who had worked on previous spots for World Vision. The team decided to take the route of irony, providing a spoof feel. The budget wasn’t high. A family friend of the producer starred as the Melbourne teenager. The voice-over was donated by a regular with World Vision promotions. Overseas footage, already held by World Vision Australia, was spliced into the story.

Read news story in The Age newspaper, Australia, on 2 July 2007

Erin is a fifteen year old girl living deep in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. She is at risk from teenage affluenza, like five million children and teenagers in her country. She still sleeps in the wooden colonial bed her parents bought her when she was ten. Although meals, travel and education are readily available to girls like Erin, many are forced to live on less than $40 pocket money each week. Erin’s iPod only holds 1 GB.

And so the satirical commentary continues. Juxtaposed with Erin’s ‘tragic life’ is the reality faced by children and teenagers in Vietnam, Sudan and other countries affected by famine and the long term impact of civil war. The video ends with the message “Do something else. Do something real. Do something.”

Teenage Affluenza is Spreading Fast: From WorldVision Australia

The video has attracted thousands of responses on YouTube’s online-comments section, including some honest self-analysis from teenagers, while others started a discussion about who is to blame – corrupt governments or first-world greed.

Meanwhile, WorldVision US has released another version of the video, slightly shorter and featuring American teeangers. If anything, the condition is more prevalent there.

Teenage Affluenza: from WorldVision United States

The message to parents is clear: we’re the ones who can prevent our teenagers from contracting Affluenza. All it takes is thoughtful and sustained action. When teens say gimme-gimme-gimme, we have to known when it’s really needed and when it’s wanted. Easier said than done. I know, because teenages seem to arrive in pre-teens these days.

We the parents would certainly welcome reinforcements from any sensible source. WorldVision Australia runs an interesting website called Stir, which tries to engage youth on issues of development and global justice. As a direct intervention charity, WorldVision doesn’t leave it to governments, but urges people to get involved — and do something.

Moji Riba: Capturing oral history in moving images

Moji Riba has been working since 1997 to document Arunachal Pradesh's rich cultural heritage. Image courtesy Rolex Awards
Moji Riba has been working since 1997 to document Arunachal Pradesh's rich cultural heritage. Image courtesy Rolex Awards

“I like to think of our heritage as an elastic band. I want to stretch this as much into the future generations as we can – till it reaches its edge and snaps. Each day I wake up and hope that this never happens. But that is sadly a finality we have to stare at – unless of course, there is a revolution of some kind!”

That’s how Moji Riba, Indian film-maker and cultural anthropologist, sums up the raison d’etre for his work.

He has reasons to worry. He lives and works in India’s north-eastern Arunachal Pradesh, which an isolated remote and sparsely populated part of the country that is home to 26 major tribal communities,. Each one has its own distinctive dialect, lifestyle, faith, traditional practices and social mores. They live side by side with about 30 smaller communities.

Today, a combination of economic development, improved communications, the exodus of the young and the gradual renunciation of animist beliefs for mainstream religions threatens Arunachal’s colourful traditions. “It is not my place to denounce this change or to counter it,” says Moji. “But, as the older generation holds the last link to the storehouse of indigenous knowledge systems, we are at risk of losing out on an entire value system, and very soon.”

Can anyone capture culture – a dynamic, hugely variable phenomenon – and preserve it in a museum or lab? Not quite. Preserving the communities as a living reservoir of culture is the best method. In addition, modern communication technologies can be used to record the myriad practices and memories – the indigenous knowledge and oral history of a people.

This is just what Moji Riba has been doing for over a decade. He founded and heads the Centre for Cultural Research and Documentation (CCRD) in Naharlagun, Arunachal Pradesh. The non-profit centre, established in 1997, focuses on audio-visual documentation of the folklore, ritual practices and oral histories of the diverse tribes that inhabit the north-eastern states of India and how the indigenous people are adapting to the processes of rapid change.

Moji, who holds a masters degree in mass communication from the prestigious Mass Communication Research Center (MCRC), Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, could easily have joined the exodus of talent from his state to the metropolitan centres in India. But he chosen to return to his roots with his enhanced skills and expanded worldview.

Over the past decade, he and the centre have made 35 documentaries for television stations and for government and non-governmental agencies. But the centre is more than just an archive or library: it is also a platform offering the tribal people an opportunity to voice their concerns and share experiences.

In 2004, Moji was instrumental in creating the diploma in mass communications at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University, to augment understanding of cultural values and local customs. He currently divides his time as head of the university’s communications department and running CCRD.

“CCRD has been using documentary films as a tool to document and understand the transitional tribal society and to share that experience through the medium of television,” says Moji. “In these 10 years, we have primarily produced television documentaries on linkages between issues of culture, environment and development and how one cannot be seen in isolation from the other.”

CCRD films have been showcased on Doordarshan, India’s national broadcaster, and various other national and international forums.

Riba teaches Hage Komo the basic camera skills that will allow the young Apatani to film an interview with his father and an animist priest, thus recording his tribe's oral history (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)
Riba teaches Hage Komo the basic camera skills that will allow the young Apatani to film an interview with his father and an animist priest, thus recording his tribe's oral history (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

Years of hard work and quiet persistence are beginning to pay off. Moji has just been selected as an Associate Laureate of Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a prestigious global honour. He is being recognised for ‘helping to preserve and document the rich cultural heritage of India’s Arunachal Pradesh tribes’.

He is among the 10 winners of the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which for more than 30 years have supported pioneering work in science and medicine, technology and innovation, exploration and discovery, the environment and cultural heritage.

Read the full profile on Moji and his work on Rolex Awards website

I have known Moji for half a decade, in which time my admiration for him has continued to grow. We first met during a South Asian TV training workshop TVE Asia Pacific organised in Kathmandu in October 2003. Since then, Moji worked with us as a freelance film director and producer. In 2005, he directed Deep Divide, a half-hour, three-country documentary on the state of environmental justice in South Asia. In 2006, he filmed stories for TVEAP series Digita4Change (in Bhutan) and The Greenbelt Reports (in three locations in India).

Moji’s films have drawn the attention of film festivals and reviewers. My friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India, wrote in 2006 about one film titled When the Mist is Lifted: “As an insider, he (Moji) is able to draw out the contradiction between old and new lifestyles and practices. In remarks after the screening, he spoke about the difficulties of making films in the northeast, and understandably expressed his reluctance to make another film on Arunachal, which has been his staple over the years.”

rolex-awards-logoWith support from the Rolex Award, Moji and CCRD plan to implement in 2009 the Mountain Eye Project, an unconventional and ambitious initiative that aims to create a cinematic time capsule documenting a year in the life of 15 different ethnic groups. They will select and train young people from each community to do the filming. This gives him access to enough film-makers as well as access to people with an intimate understanding of village life.

According to Moji, the Mountain eye Project is the result of the learnings that have emerged from about a decade’s work on documentation of the folklore and cultural heritage of the tribal groups in northeast India. It seeks to involve local communities in extensively documenting the disappearing cultural practices and traditional knowledge and to build an audio-visual archive of this data.

It also proposes to activate a vast network of outreach activities through museums in order to inculcate in children and youth, an appreciation of traditional heritage and creating respect for cultural diversity.

Watch this space.

Hage Komo gets video instructions from Moji Riba, who is enlisting local young people to capture the oral histories, languages and rituals of their tribes for his project. Komo films his father gathering bamboo in a grove outside Hari Village. (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)
Hage Komo gets video instructions from Moji Riba, who is enlisting local young people to capture the oral histories, languages and rituals of their tribes for his project. Komo films his father gathering bamboo in a grove outside Hari Village. (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

Engaging new media: prepare to lose control!

The development community never tires of talking about the value of participatory, two-way communication. Every workshop, report and discussion has a dose of this mantra sprinkled all over.

Yet when it comes to actually practising communication, most development agencies I know are so concerned with complete control – they want to edit endlessly, fine-tune their messages to the last letter and comma, and regulate how and where the message is disseminated.

There’s no harm in being organised and focused. But when communication officers are pushed into becoming publicity agents (or worse, spin doctors!) for their agencies, controlling the message becomes obsessive.

I’ve had more than my fair share of this. One example was when working on a documentary for a leading UN agency in Asia that my organisation, TVE Asia Pacific, was commissioned to produce. Now, films cannot be made by committees, but UN agencies never stop trying. At one point, over-zealous agency officials were tinkering with the post-shooting script so much that they edited even the interview clips included in the draft.

That only stopped when I pointed out that hey, those are transcribed verbatim from interviews we’d already filmed!

So imagine how hard it would be for such organisations to let go of the Complete Control over communications that they’ve aspired to perfect for so long.

And yet, as I told a small meeting convened by UNEP in Bangkok last week to plan their next ozone communication strategy for Asia Pacific, that’s not a choice, but an imperative with today’s new media.

In the four years since we worked on the last ozone communication strategy and action plan for the Asia Pacific, we have seen the emergence of web 2.0 – which is really a catch-all term that covers many second generation, interactive platforms and opportunities that have emerged using the global Internet.

Among these are blogs, wikis, social networking sites (e.g. MySpace, Facebook), social bookmarking (e.g., video exchange platforms (e.g. YouTube), online games and mobile applications.

These and other new media tools enable development communicators to reach out to, and engage, many people – especially the youth who make up more than half of all Asians.


But that’s part of the challenge, I said, referring to what I call the ‘Other Digital Divide’ – one that separates (most members of) the development community from ‘Digital Natives’, young people who have grown up taking these digital media and tools completely for granted.

I referred to my remarks at the IUCN Asia Conservation Forum in Kathmandu in September 2007, where I stressed the urgent need for the conservation and development communities to cross this divide if they want to reach out to the dominant demographic group in our vast region, home to half of humanity.

Engaging new media is not just setting up a Facebook account, taking a YouTube channel or opening a blog that’s infrequently updated. All that’s useful, for sure, but they represent only the tentative first steps to the wide and varied new media world.

As with the more established print and broadcast media, development organisations need to have a strategy and a plan based on some research, analysis and reflection.

And willing to let go of that control – so cherished by so many development professionals – is an essential part of that adjustment to the new media reality.

Failure to adjust can result in future shocks – and in the very near future! Perhaps I should also have drawn their attention to what I wrote in October 2007: New media tsunami hits global humanitarian sector; rescue operations now on

We didn’t spend too much time talking about new media at the Bangkok meeting, but I did caution that there is a lot of digital hype out there. I’m no expert on this (is anyone, really?) but my team at TVEAP and I keep trying new ways of doing things with the new media. So here are a few quick insights I offered the UNEP meeting:

• New media lot more interactive, which means they demand a lot of time and effort to engage the audience – which in turn generates huge capacity requirements for any development organisation venturing into such media.

• You can’t always control your messages on new media! This unnerves many development agencies and professionals who are so used to exercising such control – in the new media world, they just have to learn to let go!

• A core value is user-generated content (USG). You need to find creative ways to allow your audiences to generate part of the content. Control lost again!

• Citizen journalists have now established themselves online as text and/or video bloggers. Governments and corporations have acknowledged their presence — serious bloggers have recently been granted media accreditation to the UN. What does this mean for future ozone media training and journalists engagement?

• There are many companies and agencies claiming to have cracked the new media challenge – and don’t believe them! Everyone is learning, some admittedly faster than others, but there’s no substitute to actually doing it.

• And there’s no road map to the new media world, which is being created every day and night by an army of geeks and enthusiasts. There are only a few rough guides and travellers’ tales from some like ourselves who have ventured into this realm.

Note: I am grateful to my colleagues at TVE Asia Pacific who have developed and/or tested out some ideas in this blog post: Manori Wijesekera, Indika Wanniarachchi and Nadeeja Mandawala. I stand on their shoulders, hopefully lightly!

Protect journalists who fight for social and environmental justice!

In June 2007, I wrote about the late Joey R B Lozano, a courageous Filipino journalist and activist who fought for human rights and environmental justice at tremendous risk to his life.

For three decades, Joey survived dangerous missions to defend human rights using his video camera in the Philippines, a country known for one of the highest numbers of journalists killed in the line of duty. Joey went into hiding numerous times, and he dodged two assassination attempts.

Last week, a leading Filipino academic and social activist called for greater protection for local level journalists who cover social and environmental justice issues risking their life and limbs.

“Things are pretty savage at the grassroots level in some of our countries. Journalists who investigate and uncover the truth take enormous personal risks – the vested interests hire killers to eliminate such journalists,” said Professor Walden Bello, executive director of the Focus on the Global South (photo, below).

He was speaking at the Greenaccord Media Forum on 10 November 2007 in Frascati, Rome, where several dozen journalists covering environmental issues had gathered for a four-day meeting.

He delivered an insightful survey of social movements across Asia on environmental and public health issues
, where he questioned the role of elites in the global South in standing up for what is right and fair for all people.

During question time, I asked him how he saw the media playing a role in social movements that he’d just described. It varied from country to country, he said, and gave several examples.


In China, most environmental exposes in recent years have been made by ‘very brave journalists’. Their investigations have compelled the local and central authorities to address the massive incidents of pollution and environmental degradation resulting from China’s economic march forward.

In South Asia, the record is uneven. Indian publications like The Hindu newspaper and Frontline magazine are at the forefront in reporting and analysing ‘almost exhaustively’ on environmental struggles in the world’s largest democracy.

In contrast, Singapore and Malaysia have no critical mass media to turn the spotlight on excesses or lapses, he said. In these countries, journalists as well as activists have turned to the web to express themselves — but even they are under pressure from their governments.

In Thailand, the two English language newspapers The Nation and Bangkok Post have both have a long tradition of covering environmental issues and supporting mass movements. A number of Thai language newspapers also have sustained coverage.

In his native Philippines, Prof Bello singled out the Philippine Daily Enquirer for persisting with environmental coverage and exposing environment related scandals. But that comes with its own risks.

“At the local levels, journalists who take up these issues face many threats, including the very real risk of extra-judicial killings. The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world today for independent journalists and human rights activists,” he added.

Journalists living in the provinces and reporting from the grassroots are more vulnerable than those based in the cities. This is precisely why local journalists need greater support and protection to continue their good work.

The local elites and officials would much rather silence such journalists. International solidarity for such journalists could make a big difference, Prof Bello said.

He had a suggestion for his hosts, Greenaccord, which annually organises what is now the world’s largest annual gathering of journalists and activists concerned about the environment: Invite and involve more local level journalists in the future forums.

That will give them a voice, and strengthen their resolve to continue the very important work they do.

Read April 2007 blog post: Can journalists save the planet?

Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account

A million video cameras to change the world!

Something remarkable is happening with online public video sharing platforms: progressive non-profit groups worldwide are seizing their power to do good.

YouTube started off more like the people’s version of funniest home videos. But it’s no longer confined to that category. Activist and social groups are increasingly uploading their videos. As broadband Internet rolls out around the world, more people are actually able to watch these videos online.

In response, YouTube, owned by search giant Google, is creating a special section for nonprofits to air their videos and link them to its Google Checkout online payment system to receive funds directly.

“Nonprofits understand that online video isn’t just a way to broadcast public service announcements on a shrunken TV set,” Reuters quoted Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube, as saying. “It’s a way to get people to do more than just absorb your message but to engage with their user generated content as well.”

Pure Digital, maker of the Flip video camera, has said it plans to give away a million video cameras to non-profit organizations around the world to capture images and moments in places traditional media outlets might not be able to reach.

“Video has power and media has power but the challenge is that the media is limited to telling stories that are controlled by a very small number of people,” Jonathan Kaplan, chief executive of Pure Digital, told Reuters. “This program along with YouTube and other sites will expand the media universe for learning what’s really going on in the world,” he said.

Visit FlipVideo website on support for non-profit groups

Reuters quotes the recent example of the impact of clips of the Myanmar army’s confrontations with local protesters which were posted on YouTube and other Web sites. Some of the clips made their way to mainstream news media, which were blocked out of entering or covering events in Burma.

See an example of a YouTube video on what’s happening in Burma:

Our friends at Witness, an activist group founded by the musician Peter Gabriel in 1992, has long specialised in raising awareness of such previously unseen events through video. Sam Gregory, programme director at Witness, says online distribution has made it easier to put videos in front of the right people such as decision makers and others with a personal connection to the cause.

“It’s not necessarily about the size of the audience it’s about placing targeted video and turning ‘watching’ into action,” said Gregory.

Read the Reuters story on 19 Oct 2007: Nonprofits turn to YouTube to raise awareness, funds

My blog post on 1 Oct 2007: Shoot on sight: Rights Alert on Burma

My blog post on 30 Sep 2007: Kenji Nagai: Filming to the last moment

TVE Asia Pacific News story March 2007: TVEAP films now on YouTube

What’s happening with online video has a parallel in how activist groups seized the potential of the hand-held video camera. The handicam was invented in 1985 by Sony. Intended originally for entertainment and domestic documentation purposes only (ranging from family vacations and weddings), it did not take long to find new uses for this revolutionary technology.

The Handicam Revolution in media began when a video camera captured police beating Rodney King on a Los Angeles highway. The shocking amateur footage was broadcast on TV around the world. The acquittal of the police officers after their first trial sparked outrage, and riots erupted in a 20 block section of Los Angeles, leaving 54 people dead and over 2,000 injured.

Ever since Rodney King, broadcasters have been using amateur video to provide images of events that their own camera people have not captured. And human rights activists have started relying on the power of video images to capture the attention of the broadcasters to expose acts of human rights abuse and violation.

Web 2.0 – The Machine is Us/ing Us!

Technology that drives the web is changing fast. Dozens of free or very low-cost interactive Web tools have emerged in recent years that enhance the ways we create and publish information and the ways we collaborate and share resources – text, images, audio and video.

This evolution of the Web is commonly known as Web 2.0. This term was first coined by the American media company O’Rieliy Media in 2003.

This blog you are reading is part of that web 2.0 evolution. So is YouTube!

Read more about web 2.0 on Wikipedia.

Here’s a cool video that I just came across on YouTube, which uses web 2.0 to show us a few things the new tools enable us to do:

My colleague Manori Wijesekera recently made a great presentation on how the development community can take advantage of web 2.0 tools in creating information products and in communicating their work to different audiences. She was speaking at TVE Asia Pacific’s regional workshop in Khao Lak, Thailand (2 – 6 July 2007), under the Saving the Planet project.

I’ll be summing up her key points in the next few days.