Farmers from Fogera learn to use participatory videoEthiopia receives abundant rainfall but often too much comes at once leading to long periods of water scarcity and problems with soil erosion –interventions tend to be driven by decision makers and there is a need to find ways of giving local communities more ownership of the process.

The CGIAR Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF) awarded a grant through its Innovation Fund to the Nile Basin Development Challenge (NBDC) to investigate and document the effectiveness of participatory video (PV) as a tool to bring local issues to the attention of planners and implementers of rainwater management interventions in Ethiopia.

This month Beth Cullen (ILRI), Gareth Benest (InsightShare) and Aberra Adie (ILRI) trained a group of twelve farmers in Fogera woreda in Amhara region of Ethiopia for ten days in the use of video. Farmers were selected from three kebeles and consisted of six men and six women of varying socio-economic backgrounds. None of them had ever used cameras before.

The aim of the exercise was to use participatory video to strengthen their voice in local innovation platforms. The formation of innovation platforms is part of the NBDC project. Rainwater management interventions in Ethiopia have historically been implemented in top-down fashion without due regard to the needs, aspirations, constraints and livelihood realities of local farming communities. Despite improvements to current Natural Resource Management policy there are several challenges to effective implementation, much of which revolves around issues of participation. Despite the rhetoric, community members are not often called upon to voice their opinions or take part in discussions about the policies that affect them. Instead there is a performance of ‘participation’ and as a result local realities of resource use rarely enter the decision-making process.

It is widely acknowledged that for development interventions to integrate successfully with the lived realities of local peoples it is essential that they effectively address local understanding, needs and aspirations. The establishment of local innovation platforms comes from the recognition that improvements to farmer livelihoods and environmental integrity depend on wider institutions, markets and policies, rather than a narrow focus on changing farmer behavior. However, there is still an issue of how to engage with local communities and bring them into this process. Participatory video may be one way of doing this.

In addition, Fogera suffers from ‘research fatigue’, like many places in Ethiopia. Farmers complain about researchers and development organizations asking questions but neither feeding back their results nor bringing any perceptible change. Perhaps surprisingly for an area where farmers are increasingly apathetic and indifferent towards research efforts there was full attendance throughout the PV training. Participants arrived early in the morning and waited for the training to start, maybe because it provided a welcome break from their usual activities.

Participants create storyboards for their filmsThe training was based on the InsightShare approach to Participatory Video. Farmers learned basic video skills through games and exercises. The focus is on experiential learning, repetition and discussion. A key motto is ‘mistakes are great’. A range of PRA exercises were used to help the participants identify their main land and water challenges after which they highlighted specific issues and prioritized the subjects they wanted to document. In the process of learning to use the video cameras, they practiced recording one another as well as planning videos using storyboards. They then created final storyboards for their collaborative filming before heading out to film in their farms and villages. The resulting film is divided into three parts: the first on the issue of unrestricted grazing, the second on water stress, and the third on soil conservation efforts.

During the training, participants were observed by government staff and development agents who often see rural farmers as ‘lacking awareness’, they expressed surprise that the participants were able to handle technical equipment. In this context PV can be used to challenge development agents’ attitudes towards farmers and can in turn help to empower farmers to recognize their own abilities and knowledge. The InsightShare approach is based on the premise that ‘farmers are the experts’ about their livelihoods and landscapes. The results of this approach can be seen in the marked increase in confidence of participants. Thus, the process is as important, if not more so, than the end result.

Once the film was edited it was screened back to the participants for their comments. This gave them an opportunity to make any changes to the film before it was shown to members of the wider community in their three kebeles. The community screening was carried out partly to validate the messages in the film and to seek other points of view. The film received an overwhelmingly positive response from community members, who were also offered the chance to record and include their views.

The next step is for the PV participants to present their film to members of the innovation platform who consist of local government administration, bureau of agriculture, national research institutes, a local NGO and community representatives. In the two meetings held by the platform so far, unrestricted grazing has been identified as a priority issue for action. This decision has been taken without significant input from community members who see the issue from a different perspective. PV has enabled participants to clearly articulate their views and it is hoped that this can provide a starting point for discussion and as such influence any future action taken by the platform, but this process will need to be monitored.

Despite the benefits, PV is not a ‘silver bullet’ and is not necessarily appropriate for all situations and contexts. There is always a danger that the process can be misunderstood so it is essential that the aims are clear to all involved. If the aim is to convey community perspectives then there needs to be an understanding that this may include views that those at higher levels may not want to hear. It is also easy for the process to be hijacked. Video is an attractive medium and cameras have power but this power can be misused or misdirected, for example, to convey political messages or top-down objectives to farming communities thus reinforcing existing paradigms.

The aim of PV is to give voice to the voiceless. PV offers a way of feeding views from farmers to researchers and decision makers, after which the intended audience can formulate a response thereby establishing a two-way communication channel. But this process alone is not enough. Opportunities and spaces need to be created whereby farmers can identify and determine solutions to their own problems as well as seek external assistance and access outsider knowledge. It has been shown that research and development approaches which actively involve farmers have a much greater chance of success. A constant refrain throughout the film is the importance of community decision-making. The film is titled ‘A Rope to Tie a Lion’ which comes from the Amharic proverb: ‘when individual threads unite, they can form a rope to tie a lion’.

Community members watch the films and comment

Video to come soon!