“To garner public support for their causes, the development community must connect with rest of society using everyday phrases, metaphors and images. That is a far better strategy than expecting everyone to understand their gobbledygook.”
This is the central argument in my latest op-ed essay, just published on the Communication Initiative blog.
“After working with technological ‘geeks’ and development workers for many years, I know they have at least one thing in common: their own peculiar languages that don’t make much sense to the rest of us.
“Talking in code is fine for peer-to-peer conversations. But it’s a nonstarter for engaging policy makers and the public.”
This essay is a tribute to my mentor and former colleague Robert Lamb (1952 – 2012), who was a grandmaster in communicating development to public and policy audiences using simple language and powerful imagery.
Working with Robert for 15 years, I saw how he brought seemingly dreary development issues alive on TV and video – dominant media of his time — through simple and sincere story telling. He mixed inter-governmental processes with stark ground level realities. In three decades he produced or commissioned hundreds of international TV documentaries exploring what sustainable development meant in the real world.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I share my impressions and reflections of the city of Rio de Janeiro that just hosted the Rio+20 conference. But this piece is not about the event, but its venue — where the first world of affluence and third world of deprivation co-exist.
If we put a cash price on the economic services that, say, watersheds or insects or coastal mangroves provide, would we value Nature more? Would we be prepared to change our ways of measuring wealth and economic growth? And if we did, would that slow down the extinctions and collapse of ecosystems?
These are some of the issues that are explored in Nature, Inc., a path-breaking TV documentary series that puts a price-tag on environmental services such as forests, wildlife and coral reefs.
First broadcast in 2008 and 2009 on BBC World News, Nature Inc. broke new ground for environmental programming by seeking out a new breed of investor – those who believe they can make money out of saving the planet.
Watch Nature, Inc. series trailer:
Nature Inc. offers new insights into valuing the benefits of natural systems and biodiversity. It takes its lead from economists who have worked out that ecosystem services are worth more than the total of all the world’s national economies.
The first and second series are now available from TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP). Each series comprises six half-hour episodes, compacting stories filmed in different parts of the world. Broadcast, civil society and educational users across the Asia Pacific may order copies at the cost of duplication and dispatch, and without having to pay a license fee.
“There is new green thinking out there and some of it is grappling with pricing renewable assets. As such we felt it was a legitimate new area to take as an organising theme for the new series,” says Robert Lamb, series producer of Nature, Inc. “Perhaps the global recession has made viewers more aware of the ‘eco’ in economics”.
The series is based on new research and analysis being done on the subject. Among these new studies is the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a major international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions moving forward.
But adding a price tag to Nature is not something that pleases all scientists or activists. Robert says the producers received “an overwhelmingly positive reaction” to the first series, but there was also a small minority who wrote in to say they hated the premise of the whole series.
He adds: “That’s good, we want to foster discussion in Nature Inc. which is why we are encouraging viewers to contribute ideas for the next series.”
Here’s a sample episode from the series, titled Coral Cashpoint. In this, Nature Inc investigates a claim that our coral reefs are worth $30 billion a year. In this fourth episode, we go diving on the Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives and to the bottom of the North Sea to find out how coral reefs supply 500 million of us with food and work. But we are destroying the reefs so quickly, they could vanish entirely in less than a hundred years.
It’s funny how, more than a generation after most of the world adopted the metric system of measurements, relics of the earlier, ‘imperial’ units still linger in our language and popular culture.
Frequent flyers stlll accumulate air-miles, not kilometres. Disaster managers grapple with the challenges of communicating credible early warnings on that the crucial ‘last mile’ (it’s not yet the ‘last kilometre’). And many among us, including those who have grown up in a metric world, can better grasp a square mile than a square kilometre.
One Square Mile is also the name of an interesting new TV series produced by One Planet Pictures of the UK, and first airing this month on BBC World News. In this series, reporters visit a neighbourhood in different parts of the developing world and try and find out what the residents’ hopes and aspirations
Says its producer Robert Lamb: “One Square Mile is an experiment. So much in television is set up. In this series our reporters explore a small patch of a city with the aim of providing the viewer with an authentic slice of life.”
According to Robert, One Square Mile takes the lid off a neighbourhood. Reporters wander around a marked out section of a town and city and talk to the people they meet to find out what their everyday concerns are.
Of this months shows, two are presented by Zeinab Badawi . In one, she goes walkabout in Juba, capital of south Sudan which is on the verge of becoming an independent state. In the other, Badawi encounters murder on the streets in Guatemala City.
The other two are presented by my friend Vasanthi Hariprakash, whose day job is with India’s leading TV news network NDTV. These two are of particular interest to me as she travels to countries in Asia that are closer to me in distance and closer to my heart.
In one show, Vasanthi travels to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. The blurb says: “Despite a recent record of political instability that has seen a monarchy overthrown and an uneasy peace struck with the Maoist insurgents, reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash finds a city population surprisingly upbeat. But a long dawn queue outside the passport office tells a different story – young Nepali men are desperate to get out to find work in the Gulf and Southeast Asia.”
I’m familiar with that city having made multiple visits since 1995, and have shared the pains and anxieties of my Nepali friends as they went through political turmoil and a bloody insurgency. I saluted them when their ‘people power’ got rid of the despotic king in 2006.
Vasanthi did remarkably well in presenting her first-time appearance on a BBC-broadcast show. She came across as informed, eager and empathetic to the people and place she was exploring. Not once did I notice a hint of cynicism or condescension in her voice. This is quite in contrast to regular BBC reporters, many of who are far too judgemental and dismissive than good journalists should ever be. We can only hope vasanthi never aspires to those despicable professional levels…
In her second show, Vasanthi travels to a small village in Laos next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail where the dominant concern is unexploded cluster bombs from the Vietnam war. The synopsis reads: “From the capital Vientiane it takes 10 hours for reporter Vasanthi Hariprakash to reach her square mile – a village next to the old Ho Chi Minh trail. Today it’s a peaceful highway for enterprising Vietnamese traders but during the war it was a target for the B 52 bombers with their deadly cargo of cluster bombs. 40% are live – called UXOs – Unexploded Ordinance – and Hariprakesh finds the villagers’ poverty leaves them no choice but to run the gauntlet of the unexploded munitions as they work in their paddy fields.”
This reminds me of a short film I saw in Cambodia many years ago about a poor, rural community who faced a similar dilemma living and working in a countryside littered with unknown and unexploded landmines. The Cold War conflicts in Southeast Asia may have ended decades ago, but local people still live in the shadow of their deadly legacies…
I can’t wait for more real-life stories in One Square Mile, and I hope Robert Lamb will send out his intrepid and charming reporters to far corners of the real world where real people are taking on life’s many challenges 24/7. These people’s resilience and resourcefulness inspire us all.
And that’s what good television is all about. Moving images, moving us all!
It’s easy to curse the darkness, and many among us regularly do. Only a few actually try to light even a small candle to fight it. Dr Wijaya Godakumbura of Sri Lanka is one of them – he literally lights lamps, thousands of them, against the darkness of ignorance and poverty.
But his lamps are different, and a great deal safer compared to normal lamps and kerosene, which can start fires risking life and property of users. The design is simple yet effective, inspired in part by the Marmite bottle known the world over: it’s small and squat, with two flat sides – equipped with a safe metal screw cap to hold the wick. It’s quite stable and hard to topple.
Surgeon turned inventor and social activist, Dr Godakumbura founded and runs the Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation which distributes safe, virtually unbreakable kerosene lamps to those who can’t afford electricity. For these untiring efforts that have saved hundreds of lives, the good doctor and his organisation have just been selected the overall global winner in the 5th annual World Challenge awards conducted jointly by BBC World News and Newsweek, together with Shell.
The Safe Bottle Lamp Foundation received a $20,000 grant from Shell to invest in the future of the project. The winner and runners-up were felicitated at an awards ceremony in the City of The Hague on 1 December 2009.
Now in its fifth year, World Challenge 2009 is a global competition aimed at finding projects or small businesses from around the world that have shown enterprise and innovation at a grass roots level. World Challenge is brought to you by BBC World News and Newsweek, in association with Shell, and is about championing and rewarding projects and business which really make a difference.
A record breaking 900 plus nominations were received this year and from these, twelve finalists were chosen by a panel of expert judges. BBC World News viewers and Newsweek readers then selected their favourite from these dozen unique and inspiring entries by casting more than 127,800 votes at http://www.theworldchallenge.co.uk.
Watch short film featuring the Safe Bottle Lamp when it emerged a finalist this year:
BBC/Shell World Challenge series producer is my former colleague Robert Lamb, who has blazed many new trails in broadcast television and development communication. He specialises in telling complex environmental stories in engaging terms using moving images, and now runs his own independent film production company One Planet Pictures in the UK.
At the beginning of the World Challenge 2009 process, Robert wrote in the producer’s blog: “World Challenge is now in its fifth year. Over that time we have received thousands of nominations. Sadly, we have only been able to film a small selection. But it’s enough to know that there are millions of points of light out there. Watching the news is easy to forget that the vast majority of people go about their lives peacefully and productively.
“Our aim In World Challenge is briefly to bring stories of modest scale sustainable enterprise to the screens. Every year has thrown up big surprises. The diverse ways that ordinary people go about making a living without taxing the Earth’s resources is uplifting. This year we feature the most diverse crop of stories yet…And the really good news is that they are still going strong and proving that ‘sustainable’ is a term with a lot of meaning.”
Experts should let film-makers produce professional films in simple terms that are more appropriate for public audiences, instead of trying to produce films that have little chance of being broadcast or distributed in other ways. There is a role for technical experts – but that’s not in the crafting and directing of films, but in providing the knowledge, clarifications and guidance to film-makers and journalists who are professionals in communicating complex issues to non-specialist publics.
Self-evident as it may be, these home truths are well worth reiterating every now and then — especially to experts and officials who keep forgetting them (sometimes with disastrous and expensive results!). So I was very glad to read that these points were emphatically made at a ‘film debate’ held in Geneva last week.
Moderated by the well known journalist, writer and producer Edward Girardet, from Media21, Geneva, it involved five panelists drawn from media/communication sector and the disaster/humanitarian sectors. Among the panelists was my colleague Robert Lamb, director of One Planet Pictures, UK, and consultant producer with dev.tv, Switzerland.
The debate’s premise was simple: So far much of the thrust of the film industry, NGOs, UN organizations and media in portraying disasters and climate change has focused on outcome – which is more visually stimulating – rather than showcasing vital prevention and adaptation solutions. This is necessary, but not sufficient. What can be done to improve the interaction between the film/news industry and leading organizations dealing with disaster risk management and climate change adaptation on a daily basis?
This was similar to the approach we had in TVE Asia Pacific’s Communicating Disasters project in Asia (2006-2007). We too explored the common ground for these two sectors, with their distinctive needs, and asked how the two can support each other without stepping on each others’ toes.
The same discussion continued in Geneva. I’ve limited information on what actually transpired during the debate, and am hoping someone will soon write it up. For now, here’s a summary adapted from UN-ISDR daily coverage (the official language is theirs, not mine):
“More than 150 participants attended a thought-provoking film debate. The five panelists discussed how to enhance the interaction between the film/news industry and leading organizations dealing with climate change adaptation (CCA) and disaster management to increase CCA visibility which is very limited today in film productions.
“Eight short films were presented during the session, among them a short trailer of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and a CCA film shot in Burkina Faso produced by Christian Aid. After identifying a number of challenges due to their formats and audiences, film-makers and experts agreed it was important to work more closely to make more films on the solutions offered by CCA.
“Film-makers suggested that experts should let them produce professional films in simple terms that are more appropriate to their audiences and focus on bringing expert knowledge to enrich the content of their current productions instead of producing films that have little chance to be broadcast or distributed.”
All this reminds me of a discussion we had around an earlier blog post where I asked: Anyone can make video film, right? So why do we need professionals?