Throughout our explorations of power and development in Laos and Cambodia, a dull glow followed us, revealing that villages were using their newly minted power supply not for reading light or productive activity, but for television. All the villages we visited, both on and off the grid, had at least a few TVs. Out of the roughly 15 bus rides we took, at least 90% of the buses were equipped with televisions in the front, usually blasting the ever-popular karaoke videos with which anyone on a trip to SE is all too familiar.

Wherever we went, from to city center, a TV flickered somewhere in the corner of our consciousness.

In Laos, Ban Naphia (the spoon-and-bracelet-making village) had been hooked up to the grid three months before we visited. According to Liz, who had been there several times since power came to town, the only change was that every bamboo, rickety household had a giant satellite in its front yard and a TV blasting through its bare planks.

In Cambodia, we visited Koh Pdao, an island village in Kratie Province nestled along the Mekong River, with Cambodia Rural Development Team(CRDT). Koh Pdao is under threat of total destruction if and when the Mekong damn projects go through, because the damming of the river would cause major backflow, submerging the entire island and all its inhabitants under water. Relocation is a sore subject here and the grid has made no progress toward this island. All the energy used is either human, animal or brought in by boat from the mainland. CRDT has installed a few biogas digesters for interested households in the two villages on the island.

Saeng Kim and his family were one of the interested households. Saeng Kim is an older and respected member of his community. He is an avid fan of biogas systems and renewable energy in general. He takes great pride in maintaining and using his biogas digester and was more than happy to show it off and tell us all about it. There are 6 members of Saeng Kim’s family. They collect around 30kg of waste per day from the 3 cows they have, and mix it with 5 gallons of water in their digester. The digestor produces about 12 litres of methane gas in a 4-meter-deep container every day. This is enough gas for the family to cook all three meals with and fuel the biogas lantern they have, providing light until 10pm or midnight each night. The only time Saeng Kim’s family has to use wood to cook with is if they are having a big party, greater family gathering or hosting a large group of homestay tourists.

In this same village, we encountered a few households, including our own homestay, with biogas digesters who had forgone the extra light and were using wood in their old cookstoves. Instead, they were attempting to power an hour or two of television to enjoy after the work day was done. We were told that unfortunately, biogas isn’t that effective as a small-scale electric power source. This experience opened the door to our musing about what simply providing power as a tool for development really looks like. What are the different end-uses of said power and will they be productive or helping villages become better educated and more economically secure?

As Bennett will expand on in his next post, most off-the-grid power in Cambodia comes from diesel-charged batteries, powered by an entrepreneur who collects the batteries uncharged and delivers them recharged to household users at night. As with other sources of power, this expensive, inefficient, dirty diesel battery system was mostly used to power people’s sets.

The realization that TV is a primary use for even the scarce amount of power that people have access to made Bennett and I wonder whether we were heading down the wrong path. Why work to provide a sustainable source of power to people merely to watch cheesy Thai soap operas all day and night? Would we be contributing to the rotting of a new generation of brains where we had set out to do something good? How could we encourage the people we would help access power to use it “productively”, like for a sewing machine, rice-mill or water pump?

It seems to me that we can’t discourage people from using electricity to power a TV. Being a TV junkie myself, how could I deny anyone the pleasure of zonking out in front of the boob-tube for a few hours a day? Maybe that little release and relaxation from the here-and-now of everyday life is just what people need to be inspired to work harder or improve their position. Maybe the social space created around watching a program together with your neighbors and friends allows for new connections that lead to the forming of a business. Maybe the promise of a new TV, and having the time to watch it, is exactly what motivates people to start a community rice mill project.

Or, maybe none of that happens and TV has no effect on family and village food security and economic mobility? Worst case: the money spent on watching TV threatens the families’ economic stability.

TV, whether we like it or not, has become an integral part of modern life. Saeng Kim told us he wanted the village to have access to solar power. When we asked him why he wanted solar power and not just the biogas he already used so efficiently, he mentioned several things that biogas just couldn’t provide.

The first thing he wanted was TV.

We asked him why and he told us “for information, of course.” Watching TV, having access to the local and international news is the only way for Saeng Kim and the rest of the villagers living on an isolated island to be able to participate in the global forum, to know what is going on in their country and in the world. If you cannot afford a boat-ride to the mainland every week to go to the market to get foodstuffs, equipments, medicine and news of the world, you are reliant on the kindness of others in your village to tell you what’s going on and share their small cache of knowledge and possessions. A TV provides you access to the world without having to go anywhere, making it easy to understand why it ranks so high on the energy-needs totem pole.

One amazingly creative, far reaching and well-organized NGO we met within Cambodia, Resource Development International- Cambodia (RIDC) picked up on this desire for TV and the Cambodian love for Karaoke. They decided to make the best out of it. Along with the boggling number of cool initiatives they work on, including producing and distributing elegantly simple ceramic water filters, building and installing easy-to-pump wells, measuring water quality around Cambodia, and promoting health, sanitation, safe motherhood and safe natural remedy application practices throughout the country, they started their own media production studio to create popular media about health and sanitation.

The studio is built out of re-claimed shipping containers, stacked on top of each other to produce a huge sound stage, editing rooms, set construction area and more. In this studio, RDIC, working with Cambodian university students and media professionals, produces a series of educational programs, public service announcements (PSAs), re-dubbed movies, educational karaoke songs, etc. The PSAs, similar to the American show, we all love, Sesame Street, use a mix of puppets and inspirational figures to promote their educational message.

RDIC realized that the majority of Cambodian television programming was not original, and not produced for Cambodian audiences- mostly Thai soap operas and game shows. They also realized that story telling is an innate part of Cambodian culture and decided to use this to their advantage, rather than see TV only as a mind-numbing Medusa.

They created popular PSA’s about water safety that gained the attention of the national public so well that even the Prime Minister decided to participate and was filmed talking to “Mr. Op Op,” their water sanitation expert-frog puppet. Realizing that rural villagers will drive, boat or walk to the nearest TV in the evenings no matter how far, they realized the untapped potential of the powerful tool that media could be and used it to their full advantage, promoting health standards, HIV awareness, child safety, etc. through fist pumping karaoke sing-a-long songs that played off the back of their mobile media centers (vans and motor bikes with TV’s strapped to the back). Soon whole villages were singing the words about child safety and kids were naming their toys after Mr. Op Op the water sanitation friendly frog.

To watch some of RDIC’s videos click HERE

The “lesson learned” for us here is that we cannot and should not try to dictate what people do with the power we help them generate. It’s up to them, and powering a TV is not necessarily less useful than powering a light. Instead of preventing the use of television, it is we, the outsiders, that need to adapt our conceptions to fit the cultures we are trying to support and make media more valuable, filled with PSA’s and original, culturally appropriate programming.

This is my position, my part in life, helping to expand upon people’s ability to develop in the ways they have chosen for themselves. So, if TV’s the chosen tool then I say, let’s power it cleanly and sustainably and support the development of appropriate cultural media!