Interview produced by Katie Gach.
I recently sat down with Blair Glencorse, Executive Director of Accountability Lab. The Lab “catalyzes a new generation of active citizens and responsible leaders around the world.” As part of this year’s Media Rise festival, Blair will lead a workshop on media’s role in promoting civic engagement, happening at the OpenGov Hub on September 29, 2015 (register).
Media Rise: Last year, Accountability Lab was the Media Rise Pitch Night People’s Choice Award. That contributed to the film school in Liberia where students are making films to educate the public on Ebola. How have things gone since then?
Blair Glencorse: It’s been going very well. We ran a session at the film school with 10 students, who made dramas in local languages. Then in December, we led a Mobile Cinema around all of the Ebola hotspots in Monrovia, as well as all over the country. Hundreds of people came to watch the films, and it had a real impact on behaviors during a major health crisis.
About six weeks ago, we had a big film festival in Monrovia and showed all the films to a domestic and international audience. Policy makers and decision makers came to talk about what’s going to happen now in terms of responding to Ebola. It has helped Liberians become aware of their rights and responsibilities and the role the government should be playing.
MR: How has the program grown?
BG: We’ve now held five film schools. Before Ebola we looked at broader accountability issues, and students were making videos about everything from lack of clean drinking water, to corruption, to lack of education. With this new film school cycle, we’ve raised money that has allowed us to build a residential dorm, which is brilliant, because one of the key constraints is the cost of travel to and from the film school.
There’s never been a proper film school in Liberia. Now that the technology is increasingly cheap and available, it’s easier for us to help support them and to build a movement around filmmaking. In this last school, there were several students who were former child soldiers, and they’d suffered hugely in 14 years of civil war. And now, through film, they’ve transformed themselves into responsible citizens who have a future and a set of skills and ideas that can pave the way towards a better future. Seeing that on an individual basis is really powerful—all the more so as, sadly, so many others can relate to those stories.
MR: Tell me more about your personal experiences at the school, and with the students.
BR: I was at the school in May for about 2 weeks. Accountability Lab provides them with the training, the networks and connections, mentorship, all the support that they need to get everything done, to make sure they have the right resources and can get the films where they need to go. We also help organize the film festival.
In an exciting development, the Bushwick Film Festival in New York every October, is having a Liberian section for the first time ever, which will feature our Ebola-related films. They’re bringing the film school director and one of the students to New York for the festival.
MR: You’ve also done work in Nepal, with both earthquake relief and the long history of corruption there. Tell us about that.
BG: In Nepal the conditions are still difficult in the affected districts. Citizens don’t feel that they’re getting the help they need in fair and equitable ways.
The day after the first earthquake (Apr. 25, 2015), we deployed Mobile Citizen Helpdesks in theworst-affected areas. We mobilized volunteers, mostly local students in groups of 5-10, with a district coordinator who’s a local journalist. We asked them to begin collecting feedback from people about what happened and what they need. People had lost their house and they didn’t know how to fill in the relevant forms to get compensation, or they’d lost a family member, and wanted to get in touch with the relevant people to see if they were still alive and where they were.
In the last couple of months, that support has evolved into a more rigorous citizen feedback process, which we developed with partner organizations to create representative, robust data on how people are feeling. We’ve just completed a large citizen feedback survey in all of the 14 worst-affected areas. The response is overwhelmingly negative. We are feeding this data back up to the UN Humanitarian Affairs agency (OCHA) and into the entire international system, to the big agencies like Save the Children, Oxfam, and others. So the idea is that each month there’s an iterative process with a feedback loop where we provide the data, then they can adapt their activities accordingly.
Volunteers are also tracking rumors. Every week, we’re producing a report that outlines some of these rumors and the real information. Those reports are disseminated online, to local news and radio stations, and we’re pinning them up in local government offices, to make sure people have the right facts and information.
To give you an example, the government had been handing out identity cards to people, which they needed to get compensation. The cards were different colors for no other reason except that the government didn’t have lots of cards of the same color. There was a rumor going around that if your card was red, it wasn’t valid and you wouldn’t be able to get compensation. That was not true. So our volunteers tracked that rumor, and brought it back to us. We then spoke to local radio DJs who went on air and said, “Look, this isn’t true. If you’ve got a red card, you can still get compensation.” Now that rumor has been quashed.
MR: You recently had a piece in the New York Times about this work, and you seemed very optimistic about individuals and communities coming together.
BG: The most impressive thing about Nepal, generally, but particularly after the earthquake, is the sense of social capital among the younger generation. You see a lot of solidarity among youth—using their resources, forming volunteer organizations and so on. They’re pushing for the change that they want, in ways that are critical to that post-earthquake period. Because without that, things would have been quite a lot worse. So that’s encouraging, and it’s continuing.
We have a film school in Nepal as well. We’ve now mobilized a group of five former students to make documentaries about post-earthquake issues. They’re partnering with the Thompson Reuters Foundation, who are going to provide support in terms of editing and storytelling and dissemination through their website.
MR: That sounds like a very different set of challenges, shifting your work between Nepal and Liberia. What have you learned from each place?
BG: Very different and very challenging. There are lessons that we’ve learned around how to engage people in these kinds of issues. One is that pointing the finger at people who are corrupt, trying to wave a big stick…that doesn’t work. Not only do those people not like you very much and try to get rid of you, but for young people, it doesn’t create a narrative that they can buy into. We have found that they’re tired with the general chatter around corruption and pointing fingers at people in power. But if you can help them think about a different reality, that there are people doing good things and that there are ways to fix some of these problems, young people get excited. They can get behind that. And it’s a lot more politically feasible. When you’re celebrating the winners rather than trying to investigate the losers, then it’s easier to push a bit.
One thing we did last year in Nepal, which we’re doing again this year, was a TV show called “Integrity Idol.” We asked people to nominate honest government officials. It created an interesting national discussion around what it means to be a public servant. Last year, we had just over 300 nominations, but this year we have well over 500. This year will be fascinating because there are some local government officials who have done some incredible things around the earthquake response.
Integrity is something that young people care about, and the idea of voting for a TV show has been so popularized that combining the two has got people engaged. We’ll be doing that in Liberia this year as well.
MR: For the group coming together for this year’s Media Rise, what’s something that we could be involved with? How can we collaborate with you?
BG: Any help getting the word out about what we’re doing is extremely useful. You could help through blogging, promoting us on social media, that sort of thing.
Also, every year we partner with the One Campaign for the Honesty Oscars, which has elements of Integrity Idol. In the week leading up to the Oscars, we nominate people in categories that are analogous to the Oscar categories, but around transparency and honesty. Instead of “Best Actor” we have “Best Activist,” we have “Best Film,” and “Best Song” and people vote for their favorites. Last year, we had over 90,000 votes in 4 days. We’ll need a team to help with that, so if people would like to volunteer, that would be amazing.
Then, we’re building the community around these issues. We have a co-working space called the Open Gov Hub where we’re hosting one of the Media Rise events. There are about 30 organizations there working on open government. We do a lot of events, and we always need interns and volunteers to help out.
Finally, we have standing terms of reference on our website for people to help us in Nepal, and in Liberia in three-month stints or more. So if people want to get involved in those countries as well, we’d love to talk about that.
A huge thank-you to Blair for taking the time to fill us in on Accountability Lab’s work! Be sure to catch his presentation at the 3rd annual Media Rise Festival. Until then, check out Accountability Lab’s website, Twitter handle, Youtube channel, and their events at Open Gov Hub.