Although I was in the Health sector as a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the most fun things I did during my service had nothing to do directly with health education, capacity building, or community mobilizing. One month, I reserved a projector the volunteers in our region shared to conduct some trainings during the day. Taking advantage of its use during the evenings, I invited kids and adults from the neighborhood to come to my house to watch films projected against the wall. Complete with scattered cushions, speakers, and popcorn prepared over a fire, chez moi was instantly transformed into a fairly decent theater! We had a great time over the course of two weeks watching various films I had acquired in French; the audience really loved She’s the Man. (Adolescent humor...soccer...Amanda Bynes disguised as a boy...What’s not to love?!) It was really rewarding to expose kids to new media and it got me thinking about the possibility of using technology as an opportunity for cross-cultural sharing merged with international development, either by using educational programs directly or talking about some message from a movie or television program (gender equality, the role of fatherhood, the environment, etc.) so it becomes informative as well as entertaining.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn share anecdotes in their book, Half the Sky, about the power of media as it relates to development. The first is Robert Jensen and Emily Oster’s "The Power of TV:Cable Television and Women’s Status in India", which looks at increasing female autonomy with the advent of this medium. The second cites a 2008 study in Brazil that found a correlation between the broadcasting of soap operas in various areas and declining fertility patterns. The broad idea is that it is not only the introduction of this form of entertainment but the content as well which matters. As people see a way of life that allows for upward mobility, increased consumerism, and the circulation of new ideas and attitudes, they subconsciously emulate these behaviors.
I saw this on a micro-scale as I chatted with women during weekly antenatal consultations at the local health center I was partnered with in rural Cameroon. At 11:30am, the tiny black-and-white television was brought out and set up in the patient area. Those present (staff, patients, and family members) watched the back-to-back stories and -- during commercial breaks advertising mayonnaise and tomato paste -- heatedly discussed what was going on in the characters’ lives. It was a chance for social bonding while also being exposed to new and different (even sometimes highly unrealistic) cultures and scenarios.
It might sound like a bit of a leap, but one can’t deny the effects of the media on social and political outcomes. “Our findings have important policy implications for today’s developing countries. In societies where literacy is relatively low and newspaper circulation limited, television plays a crucial role in circulating ideas. Our work suggests that programs targeted to the culture of the local population have the potential of reaching an overwhelming amount of people at very low costs, and could thus be used by policymakers to convey important social and economic messages (e.g. about HIV/AIDS prevention, children’s education, the rights of minorities, etc.) [Ferrara et al].”
From projecting movies at my house to allowing Cameroonian friends to use my computer, I saw first-hand just how much this outlet can improve people's lives. As technology rapidly develops, those with access (i.e. typically urban populations) are able to latch on and use these tools for social networking, employment, etc. Typically this only serves to create an even greater divide between them and those in rural, isolated areas. Although it was small on my part, the Internet allowed a few people in village to research the world around - and beyond - them and connect with family and friends near and far through email and Facebook. Although I'm torn by the unequal pace of this infrastructure compared to the development of other resources like water/sanitation/roads, I think there are lessons to be learned. And, perhaps, opportunities for the two to become mutually beneficial... It gave me many ideas that volunteers could implement combining health topics and technology – capitalizing on the novelty and excitement of the latter to share the important messages of the former.
Although many Peace Corps Volunteers who served in the 1970s/80s speak fondly of their disconnect from technology, I think it enhanced my effectiveness as a volunteer. While living and working abroad, the Internet allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends. More than this though, I was able to research strategies to deliver key messages on everything from diarrheal diseases and malaria to dental hygiene and nutrition.