Sharing valuable voices: Community Digital Storytelling

By Seija Anttonen

Sharing their experiences in using participatory media for development, CARE International in Vietnam has recently published an excellent report on Community Digital Storytelling (CDST) – a method they use to engage with especially the most vulnerable communities to get their voices heard.

A variation of ‘digital storytelling’, Community Digital Storytelling is a participatory development approach that focuses on collaboratively created group stories, which can be used specifically to improve programming and policy in a development context.

“Such stories not only help us understand the diversity of this dynamic country, but can also inform important development decisions that impact the people whose stories most need to be heard.”

CARE in Vietnam has used the method as part of their community-based project to support vulnerable communities in the Mekong Delta Region, to adapt to emerging climate change effects and to improve their climate resilience. CARE International has also published ‘CDST Guidelines’ for the basis of training and support on the approach.

How does Community Digital Storytelling work?

The process of Community Digital Storytelling consists of three stages: preparing, developing and sharing the story. All of these stages are done in partnership with the community members, with the help of a trainer or a facilitation team that has been trained to use the CDST method. The entire community is in key role throughout the process, from identifying the participant storytellers within the community, to approving the final photo-videos.

“Through the storytelling process in the hands of fisherwomen and men themselves, an authentic picture emerges as to how Cham people living on boats or by the river are affected by increasing and more severe floods. Their stories add to a wider conversation about how development programming and government policies can more effectively help different at-risk groups adapt to a changing climate.”

In order to foster community participation and voice, CDST approach prioritizes a set of values that are considered foundational to the method. These include community-driven participation, flexible and embedded approach that supports wider development initiatives, and respectfulness to local culture and customs, with specific focus on gender. In addition, CDST values meaningful dialogue and listening both within and beyond the community, informed consent of all participants and the use of their pictures, as well as choosing easy-to-use, smart and preferably free technology to best facilitate learning in the community.

“It is important to be aware of how local power dynamics affect who participates, and to keep the overall program objectives in mind. Remember that those who raise their hands first to participate may not benefit the most. If people in more privileged positions within communities are selected to participate, the CDST process could inadvertently reinforce local power structures instead of challenging them to benefit people living in poverty or marginalisation.”

Impact and lessons learned

A core part of the CDST is to use the photo-videos created to facilitate discussion and policy engagement, with aims to connect the community members with those who can best respond to their concerns. The stories and photo-videos are an essential tool in this process, from the community level to regional, national and even international arenas. As key principle, community members should be involved in also this process, and part of the resulting decision making. It is also important to mitigate risks that community members may face in this process, to e.g. avoid further marginalizing people or putting them at risk for having their photos used against them.

It is highlighted that CDST should be valued as a process for social change instead of seeing it as ‘only’ a method for documenting a development program or making promotional videos. In Vietnam, the conversation initiated by the community photo-videos has continued for over a year after the actual CDST activity was finished. This shows the potential of CDST as a tool for long term awareness raising and dialogue.

“Community storytelling is an iterative process that aims to open up new spaces for dialogue and influence with decision-makers. As such, it requires sufficient time, resources and support for identifying community concerns, building people’s confidence for sharing their stories, creating the photo-videos and engaging in policy debate and dialogue.”

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