In March 2020, the GSMA and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) asked Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Barranquilla, Colombia, to tell us about the importance of mobile connectivity in their lives. They shared their own stories using the medium of their choice, with control over creative direction and narrative.
When developing this project, we started with a simple question: how can we best support displaced people to share their own stories, with their own creative control, and use our platforms to amplify these?
Venezuelans displaced across the border into Columbia receive minimal international media attention, even so, in 2019 when this project was pitched the situation was dire. This creative project also served as an important opportunity to not only understand how to give communities agency in telling their stories, but to also learn about people’s experiences, and their mobile connectivity usage and needs.
This project ran in development for several months, with lengthy discussions and negotiations on scope. It was difficult to draw boundaries in terms of mandatory inclusions and final delivery, while trying to remain fluid enough to ensure participants had legitimate agency in terms of how their stories were told. How would outputs be measured? How could we define success? What kinds of protections and accountability measures would be included?
The creative process was so open and iterative that, contractually, we also needed to set parameters that allowed for adjustment throughout the project. We settled on a goal of 20 stories, that we would aim for gender balance, and that we would aim to include a range of people from different backgrounds. These discussions continued on the ground while implementing the project, and involved feedback from the participants as well. We ended up collecting 22 brilliant stories, however, four were unable to be shared due to legal and protection concerns.
To dive deeper and to share lessons from this project more widely, I spoke to Giulia Balestra, Associate Innovation Officer, and Erika Perez Inglesias, Associate Connectivity Officer, from UNHCR’s Innovation Service about our joint development and execution of this project, as well as Regina Kiriutina from our GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation (M4H) team, who facilitated the story collection in Colombia.
Why do you believe that participatory storytelling matters?
Giulia: As humans, we tell stories all the time. Storytelling is our sense-making tool, the way we find meaning, and what keeps us together as societies. Through storytelling we can transmit values and worldviews, we can reinforce, but also challenge and change behaviours. The same tool can unite but also divide us, and this is why we need to have a conversation around what ethical storytelling is and why participation matters. Participation and participatory storytelling involve both the giver and the receiver of the stories, it is about making space for stories to be told and listened to, honoring different views and perspectives. Over the years, UNHCR Innovation Service has been looking at storytelling from different angles: capturing the role of stories from an innovation perspective, as a means to foster organizational change, as a space to innovate and experiment with how we communicate, and as a tool for healing and community building. Stories hold power too and it is important that the storytelling process is not misused, that stories do not get worn out, that voices are not appropriated, silenced, or controlled. Things are rarely if ever perfect, always evolving and forcing us to learn, change and adapt, but I believe that an ethical and inclusive approach to how we tell stories is an ideal we should strive towards and not compromise on.
Why were the stories of displaced Venezuelans in Colombia of particular interest to you?
Erika: Colombia is usually the first stop for Venezuelans leaving their country escaping an unfolding political and economic crisis. This country has now become the second home for 1.8 million Venezuelans, positioning Colombia as the largest hosting country in the region. Venezuelans love sharing their lives and being connected to the world through their mobile phones, but unfortunately, these devices are among their most valuable possessions that need to be sold inside Venezuela or at the Colombian border to be able to fund their journey. Keeping this in mind, we wanted to hear from them first-hand the role that mobile connectivity played during their journey and when rebuilding their lives in Colombia.
Giulia: Over the years, the use of technology and mobile devices in the refugee response has received a lot of attention. To a large extent, however, the situation of Venezuelans in Colombia has been less examined. What I find interesting in this project is the first-hand collection of qualitative data and subjective experiences of the role that mobile technology has in situations of displacement. It was a different way to learn about mobile usage and preferences and how these reflect some of the major challenges that displaced populations face in a new context and while they are on the move and a good reminder of the importance of listening and observing to understand patterns of use, mobile technology preferences, and access.
What were the biggest challenges you faced while implementing this project?
Erika: This storytelling project was the first time that the GSMA and UNHCR embarked on a project of these characteristics, which presented great opportunities along with challenges. Due to the nature of the project, the selection of the most adequate location to capture the testimonies was one of the first challenges. The continuous population flow which defines the Venezuelan crisis reduces substantially the number of potential ideal scenarios where there has been a meaningful previous engagement with the participants. Getting a diverse group of participants was not as straightforward as initially planned; most of the Venezuelans who wanted to take part were young women (in their 20s-30s) as their partners were usually working Monday to Friday. Therefore, the team had to increase efforts to identify relevant participants representing various groups (across Age, Gender and Diversity) to obtain the richest content. Lastly, the outreach efforts done by UNHCR and its partner in Barranquilla, Pastoral Social, to motivate the Venezuelan community to participate led to a larger number of interested people than anticipated. Given the resources available, the team had to manage expectations and design the sessions to include the maximum number of participants possible.
Regina: Ensuring the diversity of participants and stories told was of paramount importance for us (see Luis’ story). This presented a particular challenge when we have first met with the field partner that primarily caters to children and mothers. Allowing enough time to work with each workshop participant considering the taught storytelling element, the unlocking of participants’ potential, and the delivery of the actual story in the chosen format (David’s story comes to mind). Also finding a balance between the participants owning their stories and the quality of delivery. Striking the “correct” amount of hands-on support was crucial for us to get the final material brought to the viewers.
What differences did you note in terms of how participants responded to different storytelling methods?
Erika: Generally there was more interest in joining in the photography and video sessions, probably because these formats were the ones participants felt more familiar with. But, due to the high number of interested participants, all sessions were filled on the first day! Venezuelans attending the audio and writing sessions were highly engaged and pleasantly surprised with the techniques practiced. Across all four storytelling formats practiced, participants demonstrated a high level of engagement and willingness to tell their stories in a very open manner.
Regina: I also believe photography and videography were the most popular methods among participants due to a widespread desire to be able to learn how to capture better content using their phone. Writing and audio were methods chosen by people who are passionate about these mediums like participants with a shining writing talent (Josélin’s written story) or those who love music and radio (One Zee). Interestingly, closer to the end of the project we discovered how the audio was a brilliant means to tell written stories, and how writing could be used to express stories that are too difficult, emotionally or otherwise, to tell using other methods.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned on the ground?
Erika: The commitment from participants, which was beyond question from the start, motivated by the great desire to try and practice new techniques, was one of the key success factors of this project- and this was completely unexpected! The dire need to tell their stories and be heard implied that the team on the ground had to quickly learn how to effectively steer conversations around mobile connectivity to capture relevant content.
Regina: The most surprising thing that I learned during my time in Colombia was how people who underwent such monumental changes in their lives think that their stories are uninteresting or unworthy of being recorded and told. In my opinion, the team that I worked with did the most amazing job of uncovering all the hidden gems that we are privileged to watch today. There was a phrase that we heard the most during our workshops: “I got here like everyone else did, I just walked on the dirt roads, nothing interesting…” (example from Estael’s story).
If you could work on this project again, what would you do differently?
Erika: As the nature of the project was relatively new for both GSMA and UNHCR and its scope was quite broad, learnings from this experience in Barranquilla have increased our knowledge on the type of skills and experience required by external suppliers collecting stories and engaging with refugees and other displaced populations in the field. In addition, the involvement of UNHCR and Pastoral Social, its partner in Barranquilla, was instrumental in the execution of this initiative- from the selection of the location to contacting relevant potential participants. Therefore, the engagement with the colleagues on the ground, as local experts, should be done as earliest as possible to get their support and recommendations during the planning phase.
You can view all of the Mobile Stories / Historias Móviles on our website and Youtube channel. At GSMA Thrive Latin America we also held a session diving into this project, as well as broader issues in the region, which is available to watch on demand. For any further questions about this project or our process, please get in touch with us. We would especially love to discuss this project with anyone looking to use similar methods.