Video Volunteers recently started a new program in Brazil that is focused on using video as a way for young people from favelas to earn a living. Starting a project in a new country has been an interesting, but also challenging, process.

When I started VV in 2003, we did a few projects in countries such as Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda and the U.S. in addition to India, where we are currently based. But at that point, what we were doing was relatively easy: identifying volunteers, designing some basic video training modules or film script ideas, and sending them off. Once we came up with the idea for the Community Video Units, we realized we needed to focus on one country. The work was too intense for us to be able to manage in several countries, especially given the hands-on nature of community media.

Making the Decision to Expand

In our experience, social change initiatives that are based on empowerment, voice, and creativity are hard to replicate. This is because the training needs to be of such high quality, and the projects need a lot of hands-on management. So we focused on India for three years, always telling ourselves, “next year… next year… we’ll be ready to launch outside of India.”

Our board and other mentors seemed to be divided about whether we should expand. Will it detract from the work in India and spread us too thin? Do we need to be in other countries in order to continue to learn and test our models? Are there practical issues like availability of funding or being perceived as “global” that make it smart to expand? These are some of the questions we debated.

In the end, one thing really convinced us: the Brazilian community arts and culture scene. It is so rich and fascinating, and probably the biggest in the entire world. It’s also producing some amazing media. We had to be there.

Lessons Learned

Now that we have finally expanded outside of India, here are some lessons we’ve learned that might be relevant to organizations of a similar size.

Understand Cultural Differences: This is the hardest — and the best — thing about working in another country. One big difference between Brazil and India are the priorities and outlooks of the groups working in citizen/community media/journalism. In India, community media is generally seen as a tool, never as an end in itself. So for VV, though we are motivated personally by the belief that the right to speak and be heard is a human right, we also see our work as a tool for community-led development, strengthening local governance, etc. In India, media and information are seen as tools for poverty alleviation or human rights — probably because India’s problems in these areas are so much deeper than in a richer country such as Brazil.

In Brazil, by contrast, community media is first and foremost a form of creative expression for youth. The primary purpose is giving people a voice to combat misrepresentation. That’s what funders and the government seem to demand. As a result, the videos are very high quality, and the young people in the youth media/journalism programs are free to express themselves about whatever they wish. But because the environment (meaning primarily the funding environment) allows these groups to stay focused only on empowerment and self-expression, issues like mainstream distribution, sustainability and job creation seem like they are not happening at the level they could.

We found people in Brazil seem to doubt the importance (as well as the feasibility) of young people earning a living as a result of these programs, which I think is a big cultural difference between the non-profit world in Brazil compared with the U.S. and India. Livelihood, sustainability, and revenue creation are ingrained in the thinking in the non-profit world in the U.S. and India. The issue they are dealing with in urban Brazil is youth violence and disaffection. Perhaps people have realized that the best way to combat these issues is not livelihoods and jobs, but empowerment and self-expression. I wish there was actual research on this fascinating question.

Think About Organizational Setup: Do you want to start with your own office in a new country, or partner your way in? In Brazil, the pro bono lawyers at Lex Mundi told us we had two options. We could register as a Brazilian non-profit, staff it locally, and then begin work. Or we could identify a partner NGO to hire as consultants. At VV, to say the least, institution-building is not our strong point. We could not imagine starting in Brazil by first taking a year or two to go through legal and government processes of registering. (Also, registering and opening an office would have been prohibitively expensive for us.)

We knew we first needed to do a pilot project in order to gauge the possibility of success. Then, with that completed, we could work on registering. That said, there were also drawbacks to the other option. Working through consultants and partners means less control and potentially less ownership. Some people might see you as a funder in their country, and people will question how committed you are to the country for the long term. But on the plus side, things can get going really quickly.

Choose Your Partners Carefully: We initially developed a proposal with one organization in Brazil. Then, for various reasons, realized we should go our separate ways. It took us almost a year to find another partner, and we interviewed several different groups to find one that would be suitable. After speaking to several of the leading media organizations in Brazil, we decided that the most important thing for us was to go with a group we trusted and felt like we knew well. A good “gut feeling” about the organization was more important than going for the most experienced group in our field. Very vague, I know.

Our eventual partner, Casa Das Caldeiras, did not have any video experience when we started this project, but I could tell that, as a relatively new organization themselves, they would make this project a priority. They have as much riding on its success as we do. I could sense integrity, energy, passion and creativity — and these were the most important qualities. So far, it’s been a great partnership. They are focused on the visual arts, and run artists-in-residency programs, as well as working with lots of Sao Paulo non-profits that run programs in the slums on hip-hop, painting, graffiti, and more. So all of this creativity is influencing our project.

Expect Some Things to be Lost in Translation: Managing things at a distance is hard. For our project, it’s been a challenge to run the entrepreneurship side of the project from afar. CDC has managed the video production side of things fantastically. They’ve selected great fellows, who are producing exactly the kind of videos we need in a very short period of time. But the video entrepreneurship elements are harder for them, I think, because it is so new.

VV has been obsessing about the issue of earned income for three years now, and we have a lot of ideas and learnings to transfer to the project in Brazil. But this transfer of knowledge has been harder than we expected. It’s an area where face-to-face contact is critical, and so it was very important that Stalin K., a VV board member and media and human rights activist, and I could spend the whole month of October in Brazil.

All in all, going beyond India has been a good step for Video Volunteers. I’d love to hear from other people running small or medium-sized NGOs who can share their own stories and lessons from expanding to different countries. Please share your thoughts in the comments.