Development Work that's Fun and Educational

Dec 2, 2011 10:03 AM ET
In an increasingly noisy communications world, development professionals face an added challenge of sculpting messages that cut through the advertising and media clutter and reach the target audience.  Still, as frustrating as it may be, providing knowledge and influencing attitudes is not sufficient to change behaviors at the individual and community levels.   Globalization has proven the influence of social media and Hollywood on shaping cultural norms that have, as Thomas Freedman would argue, “flattened the world.”    That said, why are the products of Hollywood, which often promote unsustainable livelihoods attainable only by the richest of the rich, so popular among the poorest of the poor, while the messages of how to improve one’s lot seem to fade into a background of Coca-Cola advertisements and golden arches?   A look at the kinds of development messages we are disseminating may give an interesting insight.     In the era of Twitter and Facebook, the appeal and instant gratification a message brings to the audience is as important – if not more so – than its content.  To solve this quandary, enter the communication strategy of Entertainment-Education.    For decades, some communications for development practitioners have used this communications approach to not only engage the target audience, but also effectively and successfully change individual and community behavior through the use of creative media.   In the 1970s, Miguel Sabido, a Mexican writer-producer-director of television, identified a new field of behavior-change communications, Entertainment-Education (E-E), to address the question of how to allow critical pro-social messages to cross-cut a cluttered media landscape.  Spurred by the audience success of a highly popular Peruvian soap opera, Simplemente Maria, in encouraging enrollment in adult literacy classes, Sabido and a team of researchers painstakingly analyzed the popular soap opera frame by frame.  The result was the E-E theory he later put into practice when he developed a series of radio soap operas geared towards inspiring behavior change at the individual level.   Forty years later, E-E has grown into a rich and diverse field of practice and scholarship throughout the globe.  From a reality TV series produced by Soul City, to the storyline consultations provided by the Hollywood Health & Society Program of the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School, to the combination of E-E and social marketing used in Media Impact’s My Community program, entertaining media is increasingly being employed to address complex social issues.  Yet, the question remains: What is the role of media in encouraging individual and collective behavior changes for the greater social good?   Several, says Dr. Arvind Singhal, a professor at the University of Texas El Paso and E-E veteran who cut his teeth conducting the first academic reviews of E-E programs in the mid-1980s.  According to Dr. Singhal, the power of E-E to address complex social issues lies in its potential to “show possibilities which are not normative; possibilities that go beyond what people are experiencing now,” but that are still rooted in every-day stories.   In May, 2010, Dr. Singhal recently facilitated part of Media Impact’s My Island – My Community workshop in St. Lucia which media and conservation professionals from 11 Caribbean countries met for two-weeks to draft a plan to use the principles of E-E and social marketing to address the impacts of climate change on small island communities in the Caribbean.    The use of E-E to tackle the complexities of issues like climate change seems a natural fit that could have big impacts, says Dr. Singhal. “The opportunities lie in E-E’s potentiality to tackle these intractable problems with a research-based understanding and a creative subversion,” he said, adding that the use of drama allows this important exchange in the context of showing and not telling.    To ensure complex messages are brought to the target audience in the most intelligible way, E-E professionals often gather stories from community members through a story harvest, explains Javier Ampuero, Regional Program Director, Media Impact.  Ampuero, who has spent the last 20 years employing the tenants of E-E in everything from mainstream media, to comic book competitions to radio soap operas, argues that this local context is critical to generating successful messages that truly reach the target audience and sway public opinion, ultimately shifting cultural norms.   Too often, said Ampuero, communication professionals believe they publish the supposed solitary “truth” when, in fact, the voices of those people most affected by this truth are excluded from the dialogue.  Take, for example, the conversation surrounding HIV/AIDS.  Often doctors and medical professionals are sought-out to opine on the issue, yet people living with HIV/AIDS are excluded from the conversation, further marginalizing an already stigmatized group.    “To make the issues visible, that is what is important,” said Ampuero.  Adding, communication has three roles in development: raise awareness of the issues, develop local capacities and foment a sense of ownership among the target audience to truly create lasting cultural shifts.   “Development only occurs when people are involved.  It’s not data, not news, not kids who wear a shirt with the campaign’s logo,” said Ampuero.  “Development is when I, my family, my community let these changes enter in our lives--when [development] is personified in the people.”   No one knows the importance of this type of behavioral change at the individual and community level more than Lebo Ramafoko, Senior Executive for Media for the Soul City Institute of Health and Development Communication in South Africa.  Ramafoko joined the Soul City team in 1995, when the soap opera first became famous for inspiring community members throughout South Africa to bang pots outside of houses where domestic abuse was taking place.  Last year, the organization made what is believed to be the first foray of E-E into Reality TV with the production and broadcast of “Kwanda: Communities with Soul,” a reality program wherein participants from five communities strategically designed and implemented community makeovers geared toward addressing issues of local concern.   Through the course of the three-month program, participants worked with local authorities and stakeholders to do everything from address violence at community pubs, educate citizens about HIV/AIDS and build vegetable gardens to feed young orphans.  The participants were, in essence, “rewriting communities,” said Ramafoko.   The story of Soul City -- like many stories of E-E programs -- is the story of communications for social change.  Robert Cohen, Director at Rain Barrel Communications, explains that communications for social change is a participatory process that “involves people and communities in taking control of their own lives and futures by using the traditional and new technologies to improve their lives and to strengthen their human rights, and to challenge the injustices in most societies, but also to protect their health, educate others and themselves, and make their voices heard in decision making.”   Cohen, who spent years working in journalism and as a communication staff and speech-writer at UNICEF, sees this empowerment and engagement as critical to affecting lasting change in communities.  He argues awareness “needs to be complemented by empowerment, needs to be complemented by a more scientific understanding of the culture, of the living conditions, of the enabling facts, of the obstacles that people face in their daily lives and understanding that by involving people in communication and social change processes really has the greater potential for making a lasting impact.”    Ampuero agreed and explained that moving forward communications should no longer be viewed as a separate initiative to promote the gains of other development initiatives, but rather be involved as a core pillar of the program from the first stages of program design.    Some organizations are already including communication professionals during the design and implementation phases of development programs.  “That’s what we are seeking, to be part of the intervention,” said Ampuero.  “Communication for development should be inside of - a component of - the intervention.”    Including communications as a pillar of development programs is only one of the innovations in the E-E field, which is evolving at such a rapid rate and in such a variety of ways that there exists no clear vision of its future.  Indeed, communications for development, especially E-E, is increasingly being accepted as a useful mechanism for engaging and empowering target audiences in the improvement of their own communities and lives and perhaps by looking at the evolution of the field from its creation until now, we can glimpse where it is headed.    According to Dr. Singhal, many lessons can be distilled from the first three decades of E-E work.  Most importantly:  Be humble because E-E is a small but potentially powerful component of development. Strategically dovetail the on-air E-E program with ongoing on-the-ground initiatives, including service delivery.  Don’t preach, but show the audience the possibilities of modeling desirable behavior changes.  And, finally, continue to learn about the power of new media channels, mobile platforms, and social media because the patterns of entertainment consumption will continue to change.   E-E may not be the magic panacea that solves all of our development problems, nor will all agencies implement communications-based programs.  Still, E-E does provide a unique opportunity to make important pro-social and environment messages as appealing and noticeable as, say, the all-too-familiar golden arches.  

*This article was originally published on page 25 of the November 2010 issue of Interaction's Monday Developments under the title "Coca Cola, Golden Arches and Soap Operas."