When a Small Organization Works in a New Country

- Jessica Mayberry

For Video Volunteers, starting a project in a new country (Brazil, where we have just started a program focused on video as a way for young people from favelas to earn a living) has been a really interesting but also challenging process.

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When I started VV in 2003, for a couple of years we did do projects in other countries, such as Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda and the US, in addition to India. But at this point, what we were doing was relatively easy, identifying volunteers, designing some basic video training modules or film script ideas, and sending them off. Once we came up with the idea for the Community Video Units, we realized we needed to focus on just one country. The work was too intense for us to be able to manage in several countries, especially given what a hands-on process community media is. In our experience, social change processes based on empowerment , voice, and creativity are hard to replicate, because the training needs to be of such high quality, and the projects need a lot of hands-on management.

 

So we focused on India for three years, telling ourselves, “next year… next year… we’ll be ready to launch outside of India.” Our Board and other mentors seemed to be divided about whether we should expand. Will it detract from the work in India and spread us too thin? Do we need to be in other countries in order to continue to learn and test our models? Are there practical issues like availability of funding or being perceived to be “global” that make it smart to expand? These are some of the things that we debated. But in the end, one thing really convinced us – the Brazilian community arts and culture scene. It is so rich and so fascinating, probably the biggest in the entire world and with amazing media being produced. We had to be there. So now that we finally have expanded outside of India, what have we learned that might be relevant for other organizations of a similar size to VV?

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  • Differences of Culture: the hardest and the best thing about working in another country. One big difference between Brazil and India is the priorities and outlooks of the groups working in citizen/community media/journalism. In India, community media is generally seen as a tool, never as an end in itself. So for VV, though we are motivated personally by the belief that the right to voice and be heard is a human right, we also see our work as a tool in community-led development, strengthening local governance, etc. So in India, media and information are seen as tools in poverty alleviation or human rights – most probably because India’s problems in these areas are so much deeper than in a richer country like Brazil’s.
    In Brazil, by contrast, community media is first and foremost a form of creative expression for youth, with a primary purpose of giving people a voice to combat misrepresentation – and funders, government, etc. seem not to demand more than that. As a result, the videos are very high quality, and the young people in the youth media/journalism programs are free to express themselves on what they wish. But because the environment (probably the funding environment primarily) allows these groups to stay focused only on empowerment and self-expression, issues like mainstream distribution, sustainability and job creation, or coordinated efforts around media reform, seem like they are not happening at the level they could.
    We found some people who seemed to doubt the importance (not just the feasibility) of young people being able to earn a living as a result of these programs, which I think is a big cultural difference between the nonprofit world in the US and India, and in Brazil. Since at least a decade in India and the US, livelihood, sustainability, and revenue creation have become so ingrained in the thinking in the nonprofit world. I think it largely has to do with the economic situation there. The issue they are dealing with in urban Brazil is youth violence and disaffection. Perhaps people have realized that the best way to combat this is not livelihoods and jobs, but rather, empowerment and self-expression. I wish there was actual research on this fascinating question.
  • Organizational Set Up: Do you want to start with your own office in a new country, or partner your way in? In Brazil, the pro bono lawyers at Lex Mundi told us we had two options legally. Either register a Brazilian nonprofit, and staff it locally, and then begin work. Or identify a partner NGO that you hire as consultants. At VV, to say the least, institution-building is not our strong point. So we could not imagine starting in Brazil by first taking a year or two to go through legal and government processes of registering. We knew we needed to first do a pilot project – just start the work -- , and then if it is a success, register later. Also, registering and opening an office would clearly have been prohibitively expensive for us. But there are drawbacks. Working through consultants and partners gives one less control and potentially less ownership. Some people might see you as a funder in their country, and people will question how committed you are to the country for the long term. But on the plus side, things can get going really quickly.
  • Partner Organization Selection: We developed the proposal with one organization in Brazil, and for various reasons, realized we should go our separate ways. It took us almost a year to find another partner and we interviewed several different groups to find one that would be suitable. After speaking to several of the leading media organizations in Brazil, we decided that the most important thing for us was to go with a group we trusted and felt like we knew well, and had a good “gut feeling” about, rather than going for the most experienced organizations in our field. Very vague, I know. Casa Das Caldeiras did not have any video experience when we started this project, but I could tell that, as a relatively new organization themselves, they would make this project a priority, and have as much riding on its success as we would. I could sense integrity, energy, passion and creativity, and these were the most important qualities. So far, it’s been a great partnership. They themselves are focused on the visual arts, and run artists in residency programs, as well as working with lots of Sao Paulo non-profits that run programs in the slums on hip hop, painting, graffiti, etc. So all of this creativity is influencing our project.
  • Expect Some Things to be “Lost in Translation:” Managing things at a distance is hard. In our project, it’s been a challenge to run the entrepreneurship side of the project from afar. CDC has managed the video production side of things fantastically. They’ve selected great Fellows who are producing exactly the kinds of videos we need in a very short period of time. But the video entrepreneurship elements are harder for them, I think because it is so new. VV has been obsessing about these issues of earned income for three years now, and we have a lot of ideas and learnings to transfer to this project in Brazil. But this transfer of knowledge has been harder than we expected. It’s an area where face-to-face contact is critical and so it was so important that Stalin and I could spend the whole month of October training in Brazil.

All in all, going beyond India has been a good step for Video Volunteers. If th
ere are other people reading this blog who run small or medium sized NGOs who would share their own processes of expansion to different countries, I would love to hear your experiences.

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