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SHARING WISDOM. Using videotape, people in many isolated villages are being given the opportunity to share in problem solving

By Kristin HelmoreStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 1986

New York

IMAGINE a village in Mali -- dusty, dry, isolated, and poor. There's no electricity, no running water. The people are farmers, eking out a meager subsistence from the arid soil. On this particular morning, two women stand in front of a mud-brick house pounding millet, their bodies wrapped in brightly colored cotton sarongs. Their babies sleep in slings of cloth on their backs. Another woman from the village sits on the ground between them, listening as they discuss local problems. She is dressed similarly, and is also barefoot. But one thing about her is different: She has a video camera on her shoulder.

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Nearby in another village women are working sound equipment. They are taping conversations -- about the problems of good soil that is being overworked and turning into dust; about the desert that is gradually creeping onto their lands; and about ways to conserve fuelwood and plant new trees. When finished, the tape will be sent to other villages in the developing world, and to international agencies in the so-called developed world.

These women are members of a unique communications organization: Village Video Network.

Since the mid-1970s, scenes like this one have been taking place in a growing number of developing countries. Local people -- often illiterate -- have been learning a communications skill that enables them to share ideas with others in similar situations.

The information exchanged on these videotapes often leads to practical solutions to problems ranging from overpopulation to energy shortages to basic health and nutrition needs. And the knowledge gained gives participants an unusually rich opportunity to exercise control over their own lives.

A major obstacle to development efforts, most observers agree, is poor communication between the providers and the recipients of aid. No matter how eager foreign experts may be to understand, the realities of village life are not easily conveyed in reports they write. Most development planners work from data culled by foreigners visiting the developing world -- second- or third-hand accounts which rarely present life's true intricacies.

Foreign -- often Western -- experts are also usually the communicators of development strategies to the villagers themselves. But their inability to communicate relevant ideas effectively is greatly impaired by their very foreignness. And if their message does get through, their work may foster dependence on outsiders, rather than self-reliance, on the part of the people involved. Moreover, the people at whom development schemes are aimed almost never have an opportunity to express their views and concerns to anyone outside their immediate community.

``It is my experience,'' wrote Martha Stuart, founder of Village Video Network (VVN), ``that villagers doing family planning work in Jamaica and Egypt have much more to learn from each other than either can learn from what filters down to them from their respective national governments or from international agencies.''

Martha Stuart, who died in 1985, was the director of Martha Stuart Communications, and of a video production company called ``Are You Listening'' which produces tapes of group discussions on such subjects as widowhood, abortion, and other issues for broadcast in the United States. Since her death, her children, Sally and Barkley Stuart, have been directing the various branches of Martha Stuart Communications.

``Martha Stuart's vision of communication was to listen to those who were being talked about and give them an opportunity to share their views with others -- rather than always having professionals analyzing people's experiences,'' says Michaela Walsh, director of Women's World Banking, a New York-based group that arranges bank credit for women in developing countries.