Dilemma of a Co-operative Writer (1998)
(Source: Co-op Dialogue, Vol. 8, No. 3, Oct.-Dec., 1998, pp. 5-8)
How I came to be a Roving Writer
In early May, 1998, my telephone rang. It was a blissfully sunny afternoon in Guelph, one hour north-west of Toronto, Ontario. The voice at the other end was Angela Splinter, Youth Program Officer of the Canadian Co-operative Association and its Youth Experience International Program. "Stephanie," she said, "We have a position for you in Communications."
"Really? You do?", I asked breathlessly, "Where?"
"Indonesia," replied Angela.
I sat down on the couch. "Really?", I repeated, "And how far is your office from Jakarta?" The now infamous "May Riots" that accompanied the Asian Economic Crisis had just rocked the 17,000 island archipelago and forced the 32-year Suharto authoritarian regime to step down and was the talk of all my social action e-mail lists. I was sure she was pulling my leg.
"Ummm, it's in Jakarta," she said, "So you're aware of the situation there? Don't worry. The office there seems to think things will return to normal. But we would like to keep you in Ottawa for the first month of your internship. Then we can reassess the situation. If it's still risky, we may have to send you to several locations."
I didn't need to hear anymore. I was jumping up and down, thrilled that after years of hard work, I had finally achieved a major goal in my life: to visit the developing world, not as a passive consumer of culture but as an active participant in striving for some semblance of equity and economic justice in an increasingly polarized world. I grabbed my 7 year old son and sped off to the library where I snatched from the shelves every book on Indonesia that I could find. A few riots weren't going to deter me.
From my perspective, I couldn't have ended up with a better organization. As someone who had spent the last few years living and breathing social activism, I could put the skills I learned as an organizer, editor, writer, and media spokesperson to work overseas for organizations which strive to operate on principles of democracy, collective ownership, and economic equality.
After spending nearly two months writing copy in Ottawa for the CCA's in-house publications, I set out on an itinerary that would include nearly 6 weeks in the Philippines, 2 in Indonesia (a quick visit before the climate turned volatile again) and 3 months in India.
My mission was straightforward - to document the progress of a new project in the Philippines, and to obtain interviews and video footage of the other interns for a short promotional video, to enquire in Indonesia as to how co-operative organizations are coping with the economic crisis exacerbated by political upheaval, and to come to India and assist the International Co-operative Alliance (Region of Asia and the Pacific) with their Communications projects.
As I sit here now, five months later, things aren't so straight forward. I have more questions and points of inquiry than I do answers and clarifications. I struggle with what 'communications' means in the development context. To what extent do video and print stories convey the realities of the people living them? What gets lost in a story when it is told by a third person? How do we measure the intrusiveness of a camera against the old but true adage 'a picture speaks a thousand words'?
Beyond educating a broader audience, what do we, as cooperators, particularly those of us with privileged access to resources and supposedly dedicated to facilitating the enrichment of people's material as well as social existence, expect this education to result in? What do we want it to result in? A change in attitude towards and/or deeper understanding of a situation does not equal social change, if even these basic aims can be achieved.
As is pointed out in an essay entitled Strategy for Media Research, "While the media have the potential for improving and extending international understanding, inter-cultural communication does not necessarily or automatically lead to better international understanding... at the present time (it) is often in fact a 'one-way' flow rather than a true exchange of information. In these circumstances the need for 'cultural privacy' tends to be asserted, and it is considered necessary to protect the cultural integrity of a nation against erosive influences from outside."
Let me illustrate by sharing one of my recent experiences in India. My co-intern, Lana, and I were looking forward to what was my first visit to a Indian village to visit a women's self-help group. Barreling down the dusty backroads of rural Rajasthan in the required jeep, we learned from our facilitator that we were to be the first foreigners ever to visit this particular village. We arrived to find at least 100 villagers waiting for us, women shyly peeking out from behind veiled faces, men standing off to one side, wide-eyed children clustered together with friends and relatives. We were excited, they were excited - it was an awkward meeting, two foreigners dressed in Indian salwar kameez greeting our hosts in 'tora tora' Hindi and they trying to figure out why these two strangers had dropped by for afternoon tea. Suddenly, my mission was not so straightforward.
I have to portray their collective story, I thought, but who are they? What do I really know about how they live outside of a textbook case study? Why should they tell me anything? Because their project leader will be angry if they do not comply?
However, the women seemed quite eager to interact, welcoming us with a traditional song and dance and laughing as we clumsily tried to join in. We asked the women questions about their livelihoods and how they have been transformed through co-operative practices. Often, getting the translator to ask the women themselves rather than answer the questions from his own perspective took several attempts. On another co-operative visit, the women often stared into space as our male translator nearly completely ignored this request. Obviously, I was not going to get these women to speak to me candidly about their experiences with less than a two hour visit and a huge language barrier.
The photograph session went over well; it seems that most people are more than willing to pose, and in fact may ask for more poses than you have film. But bring out the video camera? I just couldn't do it. I already felt as though my pen and paper created an obstacle to casual and open conversation; whipping out the video camera would have been going over the precipice. As a journalist, or in fact, as any outsider to a community, it is crucial to be aware of the boundaries; to avoid objectification. The vast majority of villagers will receive you with their hearts wide open. We were asked for tea at several homes, and invited to spend the night. We have a responsibility to be cautious with relations involving actual or potential power imbalances.
In order to attempt a free exchange of information, we asked the women if there was anything they'd like to know about us. The questions were typical of those asked of us by curious Indians: "Are you married? Do you have any children?" How do I tell them I'm a single parent? I can't. My translator wouldn't hear of it. In a culture where marriage is the achievement and obligation of a lifetime, I cannot explain to them in one day that I come from a culture where upwards of 50% of marriages end in divorce, so that some of us have done away with such "burdensome rituals". This is just one of those cases where 'cultural privacy' is invoked, a shield from the truths of the outside world, though in this case, I suspect I was the one being protected from the repercussions of this information!
"Maybe," one woman suggested, "if you have jobs for us in Canada, we could come there to earn a living ." I tried to tell them how such a rich country could suffer from the effects of growing unemployment and an increasing gap between rich and poor. I did not have the heart to tell them at that time of the escalation of racist immigration policies in Canada which require enormous head taxes which they could never, ever afford. Of forceful deportations of socio-political refugees, such as women from Iran and Afghanistan, who, upon return frequently commit suicide by ingesting poisonous household cleansers rather than face the humiliation of being stoned to death. That if they did manage to succeed in my country due to their hard efforts, there would just as certainly be those who would resent them for "sponging off our 'overly generous' welfare system".
"Why did you want to come to India?", they inquired, "Why to the villages?". The hardest question of all. I never quite know how to explain the fascination that India has held for me since the age of 16. What began as a naive romanticization of a colourful, communal people evolved into an educated understanding of the diversity and developmental dilemmas of the world's second most populous nation and largest emerging middle class, and an unrelenting desire to spend time in that country. "In my studies," I attempted to explain, "I discovered that there is nowhere else on earth like India. India is unique. And why the villages? Because the villages are the heart of India."
For peoples who spend most of their lives within the confines of the village where they were born, it must be difficult to understand, still, how we ended up on their doorsteps that day. We left them with a longing to have us be with them, to know us and have us know them. They were reluctant to let us go.
The story I emerged with is much more complex than what I had anticipated. I can write about their organization and their achievements, but I am not clear as to how the printing of their co-operative experience will benefit a people who do not use such forms of media themselves. What I learned was much richer. I learned the enormity of my impact as an educated foreigner with the world literally at my fingertips on a small, insular community. With only a two hour visit, all I had to offer in return was copies of the photos taken to remember the occasion which was for both myself and the villagers, and unprecedented experience.
My experience overseas as a student of communications has been unique and in many ways I am grateful for the privileged 'inside access' to people, organizations and communities that the average tourist may not have. Being a foreigner, I was able to meet people that even host nationals may not have the opportunity to meet. This is where self-consciousness grabs hold of me. As a person who strives to live my life by co-operative principles, I maintain that in addition to asking questions of the people I meet, I must constantly ask them of myself.
Given the limitations of my position as a visiting foreign journalist rather than development communications facilitator, however, there are a number of things that I think could be helpful in minimizing alienation of the host communities/organizations who may have little or no experience with media.
This may be obvious, but researching the organizations/communities in which you are visiting in order to ask informed questions is invaluable. It allows you to delve deeper.
Consider sending a letter of introduction as to who you are, where you are from, why you are visiting, what you hope to learn, and what you plan to do with the information. Send copies of the publication where article/photos are to appear, if appropriate. Ask them to think about any messages they would like to disseminate.
Learn some of the language! A simple greeting is a start, but if you are spending any length of time in a given area, the more the better. It really is worth the effort.
Gently remind the translator that they are there to translate, not provide their own interpretations.
Spend as much time in a community or with an organization as possible for the best appreciation. If you can, stay overnight. Stay a few days. Build trust. My biggest regret is not allowing more time to build relationships with the people in my itinerary. It is every bit as important as the information you 'extract'.
Be cautious around the 'cultural privacy' issue. One author believes, for instance, that: "The cultural invasion argument is hollow, a cry to preserve old ways... it has taken foreign influences to do away with sati and child marriages. It will take international pressure and opprobrium to force India to deal with its modernized traditions such as female infanticide and forced labour." Knowledge sharing should be there at the core of any communications encounter, yet it hardly serves anyone to visit for two hours, create a big controversy, and then disappear forever, leaving your hosts to deal with the repercussions.
Give something in return, such as copies of photos or copies of the finished product. A thank you note. In some cases, I have been invited back to educational facilities to give an English lesson.
Above all, the utmost respect is due to your hosts. You are their visitor, and it is they who are doing you the favour.
The Youth Experience International Program is implemented by the Canadian Co-operative Association with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.
The program is designed to give talented youth with post-secondary degrees and who are un/underemployed in their field a chance to further their develop skills through on-the-job experience.
The overseas component is to factor in an increasingly globalized world which will require workers with an understanding and appreciation of the diversity of cultures that share this planet.
The CCA, with its successful track record in assisting co-operative development projects overseas, has 15 youth interns serving various positions in Costa Rica, Ghana, South Africa, the Philippines, and India.
* Stephanie Beaudoin is an intern deputed by the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) to ICA Regional office in India and she visited some co-operative grassroots.