At the Lab, we try to cultivate an innovative, agile environment where teams feel inspired to find new ways to address accountability challenges in their countries. In a small, flexible organization staffed by individuals who are mission-driven, it’s not uncommon to conceptualize programs that can be ambitious. We hope to succeed and deliver programming and results that make us proud, but along the line, it’s also important to reflect on challenges, and even failures, that come with ambitious projects. Cheri-Leigh Erasmus, Global Director of Learning at the Lab, takes a closer look
Over the last fifteen months, Accountability Lab Liberia implemented the Reel Peace Project with the support of UN Peacebuilding Fund. Aimed at amplifying the voices of women in policymaking in this post-conflict context, the program equipped 45 women from across Liberia’s 15 counties with storytelling, filmmaking and editing skills. Additionally, participants were trained on advocacy strategies that would ultimately create pathways for them to bring their communities’ challenges and their envisioned policy changes to powerholders. Firstly, one can never remove a project, its activities, and outcomes from the context in which it will be implemented. While AL has undertaken similar film projects in different countries and at various scales, Liberia has a unique set of circumstances that created both opportunities and challenges.
Connecting can be harder than you think
Reaching 45 women regularly across 15 counties during the country’s heavy rainy season, and often with limited telephone and internet connectivity, was challenging, despite mobilizing a network of skilled mentors for ongoing training. These connectivity challenges had an impact on our ability to provide equal access to hands-on guidance for all program participants. We mitigated these challenges as best we could by ensuring that participants were visited and contacted as frequently as possible, and by establishing a WhatsApp group that built a network and a space for peer learning, even when mentors were out of reach.
Each team was ultimately able to identify a story and produce a film, but we recognize that participants would have benefited from more guidance. In the future we will, we will plan and budget for more frequent, centralized and structured in-person training to mitigate these challenges.
All starting points aren’t equal
Reel Peace’s recruitment progress drew talented women who showed immense interest in telling their communities’ stories, and selecting only three candidates per county was not an easy task. The success of this project relied heavily on providing both filmmaking and editing support, and it became clear during the first formal training that participants’ varied levels of technical competence would provide challenges. Some participants had slightly more exposure to camera equipment and were computer literate, while others had very little previous access to computers. Getting comfortable using editing software can be challenging for the savviest tech users, and training participants with very little access to computers was no small feat.
Acknowledging that this was a challenge doesn’t negate the fact that it was also one of the biggest opportunities. Many of the participants reported that they gained transferable computer literacy skills that may lead to greater employability. And going forwards we are revisiting the profiles of an ideal candidate for a program like this, and also planning and budgeting for additional support to participants who may need it.
Access to tools matters
Needless to say, this project required a lot of hardware. Each team received a filmmaking kit which included a video camera, laptop, solar generator, microphones, tripods and much more. Most of the equipment could not be bought in Liberia, or was very expensive in local shops. So we brought all the equipment from the US, leading to delays when a specific tool was needed, or when something broke and it couldn’t be serviced or replaced on the ground.
We learned important lessons around managing projects that require so much inaccessible hardware and have already used these lessons to improve our film fellowships in other countries. For example, we’re now experimenting with mobile filmmaking through our film fellowships in South Africa and Nigeria, as it requires less equipment. Not only is this easier in terms of logistics, but fellows are trained to use tools they can access easily and this leads to more sustainable skills development and learning.
Be prepared for staff turnover
Over the 15 month period, we saw staff turnover that had an impact on program implementation and monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL). A project that’s so focused on cultivating individuals’ skills and building a network of change-agents is deeply rooted in personal connections. Replacing staff meant that relationships with participants and the mentors who were being managed remotely had to be built from scratch, and we undoubtedly lost both time and impact stories due to this.
While it may seem obvious, this reminded us of the importance of cross-training within teams as well as the value of strong, organized MEL systems that prevent any loss of information. So, going forward, we are putting in place stronger structures where more team members are up to date on particular projects to reduce the risks associated with turnover. Additionally, we’ve earmarked resources across country teams to strengthen our MEL practices based on lessons learned. This includes streamlining how we collect, store and use data, as well as creating opportunities for our team members to strengthen their skills.
Nevertheless, the progress is exciting
Despite all these challenges behind the scenes, participants produced 15 short films that thoughtfully capture some of the most critical challenges faced by Liberia’s women. From extremely high maternal and infant mortality, to lack of access to economic opportunity and education and the complexities of tribal divides in a post-conflict environment, these stories need to be heard. Now, our team continues to work alongside these women to get their stories to national power holders, local elected officials and civil servants, and civil society organizations to grow their reach. We are incredibly proud of the opportunity to play a small part in creating a space where women have ownership of their own stories and use their voices to advocate for change.