Posted July 1999
Special: The first mile of connectivity
Using state media to promote sustainable, democratic development: a case study from Central Asia
by Neil Ford
Between March and September, 1996, I designed and implemented the media component of a project to promote democratic development in the Kyrgyz Republic. The objective of the project was to develop a participatory methodology in which radio documentaries could be used to communicate the concerns of local people to decision-makers in the Kyrgyz government. We helped a team of Kyrgyz broadcasters produce "grassroots" programmes that were completely different from the Soviet-style productions of other Kyrgyz media, which are dominated by experts and political leaders. After these programmes were broadcast by Kyrgyz Teleradio Corporation (KTC), we played them to focus groups of relevant local and federal officials. The documentaries supported democratic development by providing a forum for ordinary citizens to express their opinions on local issues. Government officials, by listening and responding to the concerns expressed in the documentaries, also became familiar with a fundamental democratic principle: the concept that state-employed officials should respond to the needs of their constituents, accounting for local viewpoints when they define development agendas and set government priorities.
The result of the project indicated that participatory radio programming can act as a catalyst for more efficient community development. Our programmes tended to activate the audience; after listening, many of them wanted to become involved in the issue under discussion and contribute their time or skills. This activism, if it were channelled into the creation of community organizations and NGOs, could be used to help solve local concerns. People would no longer wait for the government to solve their problems, but take action themselves. We saw the beginnings of this "new activism" in the audience's response to the documentaries.
In order to implement the project, we needed to:
We worked with a team of young women broadcasters and producers from KTC's main studios in Bishkek, the capital city. The studio was newly-equipped with production equipment supplied through UNESCO's International Programme for the Development of Communication. Members of the Department of Politology from Kyrgyz State National University (KSNU) helped us facilitate participatory workshops with local people and identify relevant government officials for the focus group sessions. Throughout, we liased with the KTC's vice president (Radio), Baima Sutenova. Ms Sutenova created the "political space" for us to operate in a state media agency that still conformed to Soviet-style norms and procedures.
The team held its first participatory workshops and produced its first documentaries in Karabalta, a town 60 kilometres west of Bishkek. We chose this town because it is a community in transition. Formerly, Karabalta was almost entirely Russian. Now, about half its residents are ethnic Kyrgyz. In the last few years, a group of refugees from Tajikistan has settled near the town, again changing the make-up of the community. Compared with other towns, Karabalta is relatively rich: there are four large factories, each employing hundreds of workers. But unemployment, especially youth unemployment, has become a community concern.
We then repeated our participatory radio experiment in Naryn Oblast, a poorer rural area in Southeast Kyrgyzstan. There, the community workshop took place in a village rather than a town, amongst a community that was 100 percent Kyrgyz. In Naryn, the consultants stepped back and let the journalists and academics facilitate the workshop and produce the documentaries, helping to ensure that the project's achievements were sustainable.
Methodologies and techniques
To structure the community meetings in Karabalta and Naryn, we developed a workshop methodology from the "ZOPP" approach used by GTZ, the German development agency. ZOPP is an acronym for Ziel Orientierte Projekt Planung, or "Objectives Oriented Project Planning". German development specialists use it to design projects with the assistance of local people and other stakeholders. We modified this methodology so that it could be used to plan radio documentaries. ZOPP encourages participation by everyone at a workshop, allowing a community to identify and analyse its own problems. Participants write their ideas on cards, which they arrange into "problem trees" showing the causes and effects of local concerns. This visualization makes it difficult for verbal or powerful people to dominate a meeting. A quiet Muslim woman, for example, can write her idea on a card and pass it to the facilitator, who will give it the same weight as the idea of a male community leader. The KTC team used problem trees developed by local people to plan and produce their documentaries, ensuring that their work accurately reflected community viewpoints.
We invited approximately 30 people to each workshop, and hired community coordinators to help organize each event. The coordinator's task was to ensure that all major groups in the community were represented, including students, pensioners, workers, the unemployed and refugees. An accurate cross-section, including a rough gender balance, helped ensure that the results of the workshop represented the community's opinions.
To produce the radio documentaries, we trained the KTC team in western production techniques and journalism ethics, including:
Use of opinion: Since the purpose of each documentary was to reflect the community's view, we asked the journalists to keep their own opinions out of the final product. This was a new concept for them: in Soviet-style journalism, it is normal to include the viewpoint of the reporter in the article or programme. The lack of personal opinion in our documentaries became a point of contention with KTC management.
Use of location sound: In order for each documentary to come "from the community", the journalists made extensive use of location sound in their work. This production technique helped the audience visualize the places where ordinary people work and live, adding emotional impact to the programmes.
Interview techniques for local people: Interviewing ordinary citizens is a much different process from interviewing officials or spokespersons. The journalists learned to reach the "personal voice" of each interviewee, recording his or her opinions in an emotional manner. By emphasising interviews and keeping scripts to a minimum, the documentaries unfolded through the voices of local people themselves.
Audience participation: The finished documentaries were emotional and dramatic: they were intended to stimulate and activate listeners. In order to gauge audience reaction, listeners were invited to telephone the studio with their comments after each broadcast. The journalists recorded these comments and incorporated them into the next documentary. This technique broadened the participatory nature of the project.
After it was broadcast, each of the Karabalta documentaries was presented to a focus group of government officials, to stimulate discussion of the topic at an official level, and introduce the idea that radio can be used as a "bottom-up" communicator, passing ideas from the grass-roots to decision-makers. Members of KSNU's Faculty of Politology travelled to Karabalta with the journalists to interview and invite appropriate officials to the focus group sessions. Other politologists surveyed public servants in Bishkek so that relevant federal-level decision-makers could be included.
Results and achievements
The community workshop in Karabalta was more successful than anticipated. During this meeting, participants identified more than 100 community problems on cards and passed them to facilitators for consideration and discussion. Categorising these cards and then describing the characteristics and interests of the group associated with each problem occupied the entire morning. The session ended with a vote, which allowed participants to identify the local groups that faced the most serious problems. These were:
In the afternoon, participants split into groups and constructed problem trees to analyse the concerns of each group. Again, there was active participation and discussion by everyone who attended. The trees showed the causes and effects of the problems under discussion and could be used to plan documentaries that accurately reflected the community's point of view.
The day ended with a group discussion of the documentaries that should be made and the ways in which the community could help produce them. The KTC team collected names and telephone numbers of volunteers who subsequently assisted during field recordings by introducing journalists to local people in a friendly, informal manner. As the workshop concluded, there was spontaneous feedback: "You've really taught us how we can understand our own problems," commented one pensioner.
The radio team then took the problem trees off the wall, and reconstructed them in their KTC studio. Using the trees as reference points, they decided on the kind of people they wanted to interview, the story they wanted each character to tell, and the emotional tone they wanted to achieve in each interview. This planning session allowed them to direct community volunteers precisely.
In the documentary on pensioners, for example, the team decided to portray a day in the life of an elderly retired person, charting all his or her problems, including lack of adequate food and clothing, poor-quality health care, and loneliness. Because they knew exactly what they wanted, it was easy for the community volunteers to help them find a central character who could effectively tell this story. The documentary focused on the life of a retired teacher whose pension had been made worthless by inflation. This man was in tears as he told his story: he was so poor he often ate animal fodder to survive. Other local people, including neighbours, nurses and Red Crescent volunteers, added their viewpoints. Their voices, full of the emotion of the situation, complete with regional accents, became finished pieces of journalism, contributing to a powerful, personal documentary.
With the help of the townspeople, the team completed documentaries reflecting the problems, viewpoints and opinions of each of the four groups of people identified at the community workshop. The programmes were very different from standard documentaries on KTC Radio. Everyone who spoke on the air was personally involved in the problem under discussion; the voices of dispassionate experts did not dominate, nor did bureaucrats dictate solutions from an official point of view. Instead, local people – living under great stress because of unemployment, homelessness or other problems – spoke from the heart about their situation and what could be done about it.
The radio team asked for telephone calls from the listeners at the end of each documentary, a relatively new production technique in the former Soviet Union. Listeners were especially vocal about the first documentary on pensioners. Some were sympathetic: one person phoned to say that her son lived in Karabalta and wanted to help the retired teacher. Others were sceptical: a listener commented that it was useless stirring up people over this issue, because the government would never increase pensions or help the elderly. Another listener was worried about the radio team: she warned them they would be fired if they kept producing such critical work. To us, this lively exchange of opinion indicated that participatory radio could act as a catalyst to activate and energize its audience. A further indication came the next day, when a listener (himself a pensioner) drove to the KTC station with a carload of supplies for the retired teacher in Karabalta. He had been motivated by listening to the documentary.
We feel that this participatory approach to programming, if it were expanded and developed, could be used to organize groups to act on common concerns. During the project, we established links with an international NGO, Counterpart Consortium, which was helping Kyrgyz people form community associations to address local problems. Counterpart's coordinator was interested in channelling the energy created by participatory programmes into more organized community action. The documentary on pensioners, for example, could be used to start an association to provide hot meals for the elderly. By using participatory radio as a catalyst, local people would be encouraged to solve their own problems, lessening their dependence on a resource-poor government.
The focus group sessions for government officials were also successful. The KTC team went into these meetings prepared for a negative reaction from the bureaucrats: their documentaries contained sections that were critical of government policies and actions. The programmes portrayed the plight of poor people in a direct, emotional manner, which is uncommon in Soviet-style media. However, the officials reacted like normal listeners; they were moved by what they heard and eager to discuss ways in which the situation of poor people could be improved. Here is a sample of their comments:
"As we see in this documentary, the mass media can attract attention to the problem; it can include the reaction of listeners after the programme, and can show the very roots of the problem. This information is very useful for the government."
"The government should use the media better; the media can help the government hear from those people at the bottom of society."
"We in the government have many problems. Enthusiastic people from the community should also be active. The mass media can help the community to be more active. People can solve some problems themselves. Our people are so dependent. We must remember, people and government together have a good opportunity to solve problems."
We cofacilitated the focus group meetings, presenting grassroots media as a valuable tool for government officials, rather than as a threat to their authority. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, officials have been struggling with budgets that are a fraction of their former size. They are no longer able to attend to the social welfare of the poor; sometimes they cannot pay their own employees. Most of the officials who attended the focus group sessions saw participatory radio as an opportunity to share responsibility for planning and delivering social programmes with concerned people. They realized that the documentaries could activate the population, creating a more effective partnership between the government and its citizens.
The sole exception was a group of three men from the Department of Labour who attended the focus group meeting on unemployment. Rather than listen to the voices of the unemployed people, they chose to challenge the radio team's statistical grasp of unemployment in Karabalta. The team replied that the documentary was not made to challenge the authority or knowledge of the officials, but rather to offer them a different perspective on the problem: the perspective of the people they were supposed to be helping.
The community workshop and documentary-making sessions in Naryn Oblast produced results similar to those in Karabalta. In Naryn, the team worked in a very poor village – the settlement was all that remained of a collective farm that had been privatized in 1992, leaving most people with very small plots of land, no access to fertilizer or other inputs, and failing markets for their crops. Eighty villagers attended the community workshop, although just 30 were invited. Participants quickly grasped the idea of the problem tree, and spent a productive day analysing community problems and proposing solutions. The team spent a further three days in the village, recording interviews and location sound for two documentaries, one focusing on the problems of smallholders and the other on the situation of rural women.
The participatory broadcasting techniques that were established over six months have been partially sustained at KTC. Senior management has kept the small team of reporters and producers together; it still produces a weekly programme that focuses on social issues from the point of view of local people. The team still uses western production techniques, and their programme still sounds much different from standard KTC radio formats. However, the broadcasters no longer use community workshops to plan their documentaries. Nor have they maintained contact with academics at KSNU. Now that UNDP project funds are finished, the team cannot spend long periods of time researching its work. The most important lessons we learned relate to helping participatory media become standard practice in a bureaucratic, state-run setting.
Spend more time and money on project planning. Our project would have been more sustainable if a participatory planning workshop had been conducted during the planning stage. A workshop would have allowed Kyrgyz managers and broadcasters to state their views and priorities, and then reach a common understanding with UNDP administrators and consultants on the nature and purpose of the project. Participatory methodology would have helped ensure that Kyrgyz participants "took ownership" of the project and continued working on it after UNDP support finished. The Democratization Project was negotiated at a senior level in the Kyrgyz government. When we arrived to plan and implement the media component, we felt that the Kyrgyz side had a different understanding of its purpose than we did. They focused on the UNESCO-supplied equipment and the development of links with western media agencies while we concentrated on the opportunity to use media to support democratic development at the community level. This lack of common purpose meant that senior Kyrgyz officials were not committed to sustaining the project.
Include managers in the training process. Like many state-operated media agencies, KTC lacks flexibility regarding resource allocation, planning and programme production. Currently, managers are trying to transform their operation from a Soviet "controlled" model to a system that responds to the needs of an emerging democracy and a fragile market economy. They are making this transformation during a time of shrinking budgets. Since they are only familiar with Soviet-style programming and production techniques, they need help if they are to understand the potential of new concepts. Currently, for example, KTC managers do not allow many dissident viewpoints on the air, and are suspicious when western consultants train their journalists to include them. They must also become familiar with new ideas if changes introduced at the operational level are to take root and grow. Manage-ment training should also include strategic planning and fiscal manage-ment, which will allow senior officials to place experiments with new programme formats in the context of their own plans and priorities.
Look for institutional constraints within the host agency. One of the reasons that the team no longer uses community workshops to plan its documentaries is KTC's system for paying production staff. Reporters and producers get a small basic salary, plus a bonus for the quantity of programming they produce, regardless of its quality or developmental value. The use of participatory techniques meant that programmes took longer to produce. Team members were losing their bonuses as a result – no small matter in a country where salaries do not meet basic needs. We solved this problem temporarily by paying "UNDP bonuses" from project funds, but were unable to convince KTC management to compensate the team for higher-quality work after the project finished. Transportation was another constraint. The team needed a vehicle to efficiently conduct field interviews, which KTC could not supply on a regular basis. Again, we rented one using project funds, detracting from the long-term sustainability of our work. Ideally, constraints should be identified and solutions proposed during participatory planning sessions.
Be flexible. We soon learned that a western model of journalism is not appropriate to Kyrgyzstan's culture, and adapted our approach to account for local conditions and the views of senior officials. Amanbek Karypkulov, the President of KTC, listened to the team's first documentary before it was broadcast. He was clearly unprepared for a programme that contained such critical comments and demanded to know why the journalists had offered no solutions to the problems under discussion. In future, he said, they must include their own opinions, in keeping with Soviet media tradition. Since this directive came from the President, there was nothing we could do about it. In subsequent documentaries, journalists included some personal commentary, even though they were neither experts nor directly involved in the story. The team considered it a major victory that the documentaries were broadcast at all. We were willing to compromise on the issue of opinion in order to accomplish broader goals.
Build networks with like-minded agencies. The project would have demonstrated the value of participatory radio more effectively if we had established a partnership with Counterpart Consortium during the planning stage. Counterpart could have used the energy we created through the documentaries to help build community associations, amplifying the impact of our work and creating a sustainable framework for local action. Unfortunately, our work in Karabalta was ending just as Counterpart was establishing an office in the town. Other organizations, such as UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency), were also interested in working in Karabalta. The team's documentary on the situation of Tajik refugees could have been used as a catalyst for local action if it had been coordinated with UNHCR's plans. Future work in this area will be more effective if organizational barriers between like-minded agencies are overcome.
Build evaluation mechanisms into the process. After the project concluded, KTC was unable to evaluate the participatory production techniques that we had developed and decide if they had made a contribution to its overall plans for radio development. If we had helped the managers to develop techniques to examine the impact of the documentaries, they would have been in a better position to make this analysis. Audience surveys would have provided feedback. So would programme analysis sessions with local people, government administrators and the broadcast team itself. This kind of evaluation would also have helped the team modify and improve its approach to participatory programme production.
We feel that we demonstrated the value of participatory media to community-level democratic development in this project, but did not do enough to ensure that our work continued after the project finished. If the lessons that we learned in Kyrgyzstan can be applied in the future, other projects in the use of participatory radio might lead to sustainable, long-term change.
To Technologies: Telecommunications for sustainable development