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VV Correspondent Reports from Ethiopia, Bringing an International Conference Back to Tea Estate Workers in West Bengal

“Nothing About Us, Without Us, is For Us:” A community video flips the lens and shows us how development conferences can be more inclusive of the people they talk about.

The city of Addis Ababa sparkled below us in the moonlight, and it looked vast from where we were perched on the edge of a high hill. On the cellphone’s screen, the same vista jumped left to right, right to left at great speed, as Video Volunteers Community Correspondent Harihar Nagbadansi combined the skyline footage with an interview he’d just shot a few minutes before.

“I’m going to do my anchor piece right here, with the big city behind me. It’s quiet here in this garden,” he told me, holding up his camera in a selfie mode to get into position. “You can go back to the dinner, Jessica.”

So I wandered back to the conference’s outside dining area, where a few people danced to a jazz band of Ethiopian college students while others lined up for Ethiopian wine or the sumptuous buffet featuring the famous Ethiopian injera flatbread. Mostly, though, people sat in small groups, talking animatedly about the things people talk about at international development conferences: Can you help me with this project? How did that well-known initiative of yours turn out in the end? Tell me, what’s the NGO climate like in your country? Talking, of course, in English, the primary language of international networking.

Harihar, speaking only Bengali, did not understand a word of what was being discussed in these group discussions, no matter how inclusive people tried to be (and they tried).  He certainly would have been interested — he’d landed in Ethiopia only the day before, on his first trip out of India — but he had something more important to do: showing his friends back home exactly what he was seeing.

Harihar and I had been invited to conduct a session about VV’s work at Global Perspectives 2019, a conference put on by the International Center for Civil Society, where directors and staff from some of the world’s biggest international NGOs were debating two major themes this year: how could civil society counter international populism, and how could NGOs re-establish their legitimacy in a time of closing civil space. (You can read about what VV was presenting on page 40 of ICSC’s Innovations Report.) This was only the 3rd of 4th time in VV’s nearly 15 year history that an international conference had paid for not just VV staff but also our Correspondents to attend a gathering. Kudos to them!  Most conferences that aim to help the poor, don’t actually include the poor, but the organizers of Global Perspectives wanted to do better.

And Harihar was starting to see exactly how he could leave a mark, even in a room full of people who couldn’t understand him.

“This video’s going to be good!” He said to me, laughing delightedly, after he had wrapped up his piece to camera. “Can I ask you some questions?” He said to the two women I was talking to you (both CEOs of big NGOs), who agreed. “You came to my session today. What do you think of my work as a community journalist? What message do you have for the people back in my community, the people back in the tea estate I come from, in West Bengal, who are making so much less than minimum wage? Do you have suggestions for me? Can you help us in any way?” He asked variations of these questions on camera to multiple people throughout the conference, his device giving him both access and the right to get straight to the important questions without any meandering. The audience for his videos was his community members: the interviews were meant to ’strengthen his legitimacy’ (to borrow from the conference theme) in the eyes of his neighbors by demonstrating that people around the world respected his tactics of community video. Most importantly, he wanted to connect with people who could help his community.

“In my videos from Ethiopia,” he says, “I wanted to deliver one message back to my village: I’m meeting people here in Ethiopia who can help us. I’m sorry you can’t be here too, but here are video clips of some of the people who support our struggle for justice for tea workers.”

Harihar has made more than 200 videos as a VV Correspondent. Most of them document how the tea estate where he has lived his whole life —  and where his mother retired in 2015 from a life of tea plucking with a salary of Rs. 150 per day (less than two dollars) — is run like a feudal fiefdom, outside the rule of law. “Have a problem with healthcare? Schools? Don’t talk to the government, talk to the tea company. They control everything,” he had explained in the session he conducted at the conference.  At the conference, he was on a mission to make useful connections for back home.

“Done!” he said happily to me, having completed his edit. “Lets get back to the hotel and internet so I can share this.” While everyone else ate and drank, Harihar had sat in a corner of the terrace, working on his video. “You edited that video on your phone?! You just did that now?!” Someone said to him incredulously. “It only took 25 minutes,” he said, exaggerating a little. “Can he train my social media manager?” Someone else joked.

The next morning, Harihar was over the moon. “I have 300 views! 150 comments! 200 friend requests! Someone is inviting me on their tv show! They are mostly thanking me and telling me good job for bringing their issues out into the world. This is maybe the first time anyone from my community has left the country, except for construction or domestic labor”, he said, alluding to all the trafficking his district is infamous for. “And this is definitely the first time someone from our community has gone abroad to talk about rights.” 

Throughout the next day, he was on a roll. Interviews, visuals, editing. Interviews, visuals, editing. At 5pm, he did a Facebook live from inside the United Nations Plenary Room, a room that looks just like the General Assembly in New York. 

That evening, the conference organizers asked him if he could share a video at the closing event, which was happening the next day, and he got to work on that. In that video, he says he learned at the conference that there are people in other countries whose jobs are to help poor people, and that he now understands what it might take to run an NGO. It’s a conference video, but one with a twist – it comes from a totally different perspective than we’re used to. 

So why am I sharing this small story of a guy from a tea estate in India who went to a conference and made some videos? A few reasons. One, I cherish the rare moments when we can see ourselves through others’ eyes. When we live in filter bubbles, it’s not enough to just seek out new information, or even new sources of information – we need to see how we look and sound to others. Indeed, seeking out ‘new perspectives’ on ourselves should be part of our journeys to greater self-knowledge. I love the way Harihar flipped the camera lens at this conference, making us the subjects of his vacation video that he was making for folks back home; I love the way community video in general allows those who are usually the subjects of studies or documentaries to be the ones asking the questions. This is how we make learning a two-way street. In an age of information overload, one of the most important future sources of knowledge and insight will be the newly online, folks like Harihar, whom the world has never heard from before. 

And two, I believe the development sector can be at the cutting edge of this kind of learning and listening. Accountability was one of the major themes of this conference. I was continuously moved by how honestly and constructively the various NGO leaders present at this conference spoke about the challenges facing the sector, soul-searching and visioning at the same time. I was there to talk about the work that Video Volunteers has done over the last 14 months to make itself more accountable to our primary constituents, as part of the Resilient Roots project. And Harihar was there, to talk about how he, as a community journalist, works to be more accountable to his community. 

An institution or a person that is accountable is inclusive and seeks out different perspectives. There are so many technological innovations that can be done to make the development sector more accountable from the point of view of listening and engaging the communities we serve -we can video conference in community members to conferences. We can pressure  Google or others to create better translation tools, so English is not a dividing force. We can commit to giving a certain amount of air time to community voices at development conferences. We don’t tolerate ‘manels’ anymore; maybe it’s no longer okay to exclude from panels those who actually live the issues we’re talking about. We can hold conferences in places that it is easier for the local community to participate. We can commission local NGOs to produce community videos on the conference topic. And we can bring in community journalists, people like Harihar, who can live blog and bridge back to their communities. There is so much that can be done!

See more of Harihar’s videos on his VV website profile.

By Jessica Mayberry, Founding Director of Video Volunteers

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