Development with a Side of Drama

Contestants on Cambodian reality show You’re the Man!  participate in a cooking challenge in which they learn about health, hygi
Cooking up Change: Contestants on Cambodian reality show You’re the Man! participate in a cooking challenge in which they learn about health, hygiene, and gender roles.
Sea Sokhon

Doomed lovers Gifty and Kweku live in Biribireba, a coastal fishing village in Ghana. Beautiful and passionate, Gifty is a health and environmental educator. Her former childhood sweetheart Kweku is a mechanic. Apathetic about his life and community, Kweku regularly pollutes the Eku River with chemicals from his workshop. But Gifty lights a fire under him by showing him the importance of conservation. The two begin fighting together to save their community, but all is not well. Gifty’s tyrannical father, an irresponsible fisherman who goes against everything his daughter preaches, threatens their community and their love. He engages in illegal fishing techniques like dynamite fishing and wages a battle against the conservation law-enforcing chief fisherman Agya, who happens to be his brother-in-law. In his attempt to ruin Agya, he enlists the help of powerful but corrupt Commander Bawah—and promises him Gifty’s hand in marriage in return. Treachery, jealousy, scheming, and even murder ensue.

There is a reason this sounds like a soap opera. This is the plot of “Biribireba,” the radio series that captivates 2.5 million Ghanaians each Thursday. The soap opera is part of the USAID Hen Mpoano (“our coast” in the local Fante language) program, which is implemented by the Coastal Resources Center, Sustaina Metrix, and Friends of the Nation Ghana. The program works to raise awareness about health and conservation in Ghana in innovative, engaging ways. The program also produces a callin talk radio show where listeners can sound off on “Biribireba’s” seamy plotlines and important messages. Multimedia behavior change campaigns like this one are playing an increasing role in health and environment initiatives.

Social Change Meets Behavior Change

Behavior change communication has long been key to development. Traditional behavior change initiatives deliver straightforward messages to individuals through presentations, pamphlets, and billboards. Merri Weinger, senior environmental health advisor at USAID, said that while important, these methods alone are not always enough. She proffered the example of handwashing: “When you boil it down to messages, such as ‘wash your hands before preparing food,’ it does not necessarily ensure that people have the wherewithal to wash their hands,” she said, “You also need to demonstrate ‘small doable actions’ that people could do to wash their hands even when water is not abundant, such as building a water saving device or tippy-tap to use as a handwashing station with either soap or ash nearby.”

USAID’s Hygiene Improvement Project worked throughout the world to spread this type of comprehensive knowledge by educating targeted populations about the whys and hows of hygiene through radio and television messages, children’s books, and even puppet shows. This project was effective because rather than just presenting the messages on their own, it also demonstrated feasible ways to put them into practice in an engaging format.

Currently, more programs are using multi-media in innovative ways to educate communities. USAID’s C-Change project has successfully educated thousands about malaria, HIV/AIDS, family planning, and water, sanitation, and hygiene through concerts, humorous television spots, captivating radio dramas, and even comic books. The project has worked with NGOs, community based organizations, faith-based organizations, and the media in a number of countries to build their capacity to inspire lasting change.

While the project has recently concluded, its impact has reverberated throughout the health community, showing practitioners the need for engaging communities and catalyzing interpersonal communication. “The innovation that C-Change brought was to combine social change and behavior change,” said Antje Becker-Benton, deputy director of C-Change, “This has been more effective than raining messages down on people.”

Reality Check

While reality shows are generally not perceived as powerful tools for social change, USAID has harnessed them to inspire it.

Current and past USAID-funded reality shows include “Dream and Achieve,” an entrepreneurship-promoting Afghan reality show modeled after “The Apprentice”; “Tosalel’ango,” a Congolese show covering hot-button youth issues; and “Challenge 10: Peace for the Ex,” a Guatemalan show about former gang members struggling to live legitimate lives.

USAID/Cambodia’s “You’re the Man!,” a hugely popular reality show which just wrapped its fourth season, made waves by promoting general health, respect for women, and personal responsibility while combating HIV. “Our goal is to change the concept of masculinity and promote a new model of social norms in Cambodia,” said Sea Sokhon, associate director of strategic behavioral communications at FHI 360, which produces the show.

The first season, which aired in 2009, followed six men: multi-lingual sophisticate Chea, disabled activist Oung, artsy aspiring singer Heng, sporty city-boy Choun, joke-cracking homosexual actor Sat, and black-belt holding “tough guy” Tony. The men lived in a house together for two months and competed to prove who was the “real man.” Challenges included living in a village and cooking and cleaning (making sure to wash their hands and store dishes hygienically), writing and performing non-sexistkaraoke songs, and convincing their peers to get tested for HIV.

A companion peer education program was launched to drive home the show’s messages. Each week, peer educators visit entertainment venues throughout Cambodia donning “You’re the Man!” gear to discuss the show’s themes. Taken together, the messages have resonated with young Cambodians. In a focus group, one young man said the show helped him encourage his friends to live healthier lives. “We can take examples from the show to be more persuasive.”

Journeys Of Change

Soap operas are another unconventional social and behavior change tool that USAID has effectively harnessed. Radio has been the medium of choice in the poorest communities where not everyone owns a television. Dr. William Banham, programs director at PCI-Media Impact, a USAID partner that produces several radio soap operas including “Biribireba” said, “Soap operas are an effective way to communicate about complicated issues because the stories themselves are long-running and complex. They take you on a journey.”

They can accordingly tackle multiple issues without sacrificing entertainment value. For instance, “Callaloo” is a radio series funded by USAIDand produced by PCI-Media Impact that airs in 15 Caribbean countries. A “callaloo” is a type of stew consisting of a hodgepodge of ingredients, and appropriately, the drama follows the lives and loves of four Caribbean clans. Characters include a corrupt businessman with plans to drain a wetland, an HIV-positive teen prostitute, a nurse whose philandering boyfriend jeopardizes her health, a struggling businessman caught between his work and the environment, and a newspaper editor who takes on environmental issues—and his father. The show educates listeners about climate change resiliency, biodiversity conservation, and HIV/AIDS while entertaining them with engrossing storylines about betrayal, desire, love, and revenge.

To ensure the messages and not just the seamy plotlines of soap operas like “Callaloo” resonate with the millions they target, they are paired with wideranging social change movements. “Callaloo” is part of a joint initiative by USAID, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the German Development Bank, and a consortium of partners called “My Island-My Community.” It also encompasses local call-in radio talk shows and community events such as beach clean up days, tree planting festivals, football matches, cook-offs, and health testing drives. “It is important to not just leave the drama out there, but to also forge discussions about its messages,” said Dr. Banham.

Controlling The Message

While powerful, multimedia initiatives present unique challenges. Their messages and audiences can be difficult to control, as anyone can watch or listen to reality shows and soap operas—or opt not to. “Mass media is in some ways challenging because it is difficult to target the highest risk populations,” said Mr. Sokhon.

Research is imperative to ensuring that the shows attract and resonate with the targeted audiences. Shows employ focus groups and surveys before a single script is written, and then pilot several episodes before launching the large-scale production. “We bring in the voices of the target audience during the research phase,” said Dr. Banham.

“Thirsty for You” is a USAID-funded radio soap opera that airs throughout Peru, which involved particularly intense research because of Peru’s diversity. The show follows the travails of young couple Amanda and Wilkins while educating listeners about water, sanitation, and hygiene issues. Researchers were dispersed to the capital, the north coast, the Amazon, and the Andes. “Each area has very different populations and water challenges,” said Brenda Campos, programs director at PCI-Media Impact, which produced the show. “We held workshops with local partners at each location to identify the biggest local challenges and understand the perception communities have about water issues.” The ensuing program engaged listeners with a universal love story that touched on a variety of water issues including handwashing, paying for water, and conservation.

However, no matter how meticulous the research, it is impossible to fully control perceptions. On “Biribireba” for example, a conservation law flouting fisherman was written as a villain but became a fan favorite. “We had conceived him as a negative role model but we found out he was popular because he was funny,” explained Dr. Banham. To rectify this, the “Biribireba” team flipped the script. The fisherman retained his explosive sense of humor, but slowly realized the importance of conservation.

Ensuring programs like these stay resonant and relevant is no easy feat, but the potential payoff is tremendous. Few other behavior change programs have the power to touch people so profoundly. For instance, one listener on a “Biribireba” call-in show confessed, “I haven’t missed an episode. I don’t have a radio set so I listen to the program from a friend’s house and whenever it’s time for the program, my friend calls me. The other day I put food on the fire and left to listen to the program only to return to see the food burnt.”

Because of this level of devotion, entertainment education programs have the power to infiltrate public consciousness for the long term. Back in Ghana, the nation is rapt, waiting to see if Kweku and Gifty will save the village—and their relationship. While it is impossible to predict what will happen, one thing is certain: Because of “Biribireba” and other educational programs, millions are abuzz about the issues that will determine their futures.

C. Zeilberger

Last updated: July 17, 2013

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