Published on Let's Talk Development

Making Development Edutaining

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Development is not easy; making it sustainable, even more difficult. Take for example road traffic rules. We can build better roads and install traffic lights, but cannot guarantee adherence to traffic rules. Even with laws in place, people may be more willing to pay fines than stop at a red light or wear seat belts. How do you make people value their own lives or their betterment? To succeed, we have to motivate people rather than just educate them.

Recently colleagues from World Development Report 2015, Sana Rafiq and Scott Abrahams, wrote a fascinating post on gamifiaction, explaining how games can offer a way to tap into a richer understanding of how people think and act. Among other things, their post also elaborated on how gamification or education through entertainment, commonly known as edutainment, are inherently fun and interesting and can go a long way toward improving developmental efforts.

Education or learning through entertainment is neither contemporary nor novel. Since the dawn of human civilization, mankind has been exposed to this form of learning through legends, folklore, music, fables, fairy tales, and social arts. And with the advent of information technology, there has been a proliferation of edutainment which harnesses popular culture and communication. There has always been a message in these forms, but now we are just being more conscientious about what that message is.

Having grown up in India and being exposed mostly to the public service broadcaster, Doordarshan, I am no stranger to edutainment. Content on agriculture, family planning, national integration, girls’ education, health, etc. are in a way the modus operandi of Doordarshan’s (DD’s) programming. The first soap opera broadcast on DD, Hum Log (We the people), in 1984 was loosely based on the theme of family planning and went on to include other relevant social issues, such as women’s empowerment. The show revolved around the nine members of the Ram family, a lower-middle class extended family of three generations, typical of then Indian households. Through the characters the show portrayed societal and moral dilemmas faced by then society. At the end of each episode, veteran Indian actor Ashok Kumar delivered an epilogue expanding the message of the preceding episode and encouraged audience to send their responses. According to content analysis presented in a book by Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers, 28% of the epilogues encouraged viewers to write letters to DD in response to a social or moral dilemma raised in the episode, and 255 encouraged viewers to either write to or visit a public agency, for example, a women’s organization.  Indian television has evolved since then, but issues related to women’s status in a society are still very relevant and hence most Indian soap series today deal with the overarching theme of female empowerment.

Animation and musicals have been widely used to reach out to young children in many instances. Every year, diarrheal and acute respiratory infections take the lives of millions of children in many developing countries. An effective and inexpensive way to prevent this is by washing hands with soap. Yet, despite its lifesaving potential, it is seldom practiced and difficult to promote. Sponsored by UNICEF and several other public-private organizations Global Hand Washing Day aims to teach young kids the importance of hygiene and sanitation. Through games, learning videos, a handwashing kit, and the catchy “Wash your hands” song by the popular Australian musical group, The Wiggles, the program aims to make handwashing with soap and social norm. Similarly, street plays have been employed to raise awareness of social issues to specific communities. Bedari, a human rights NGO in Pakistan, uses the power of storytelling through street theater to challenge attitudes on child marriage.

There is evidence that edutainment can be highly effective at removing cultural prejudices and shaping mindsets, thereby encouraging positive behavior. For example, a 2008 study by Laferrara, et al found that after Brazilian soap operas began portraying families that were smaller than the national average, the fertility rate dropped in the regions where these shows aired as women watching the soap operas sought to emulate the characters onscreen. With edutainment an individual doesn't really notice the intervention. Entertainment is fun, and the message gets absorbed almost through osmosis. So while you are motivating people, as a consumers of content, audiences rarely feel ‘talked down to’.

However, often these efforts are standalone or campaign oriented. Should they be well-integrated into development projects? Shouldn’t people responsible for designing public policies, at the local and national level alike, be encouraged to employ such approaches?

The upcoming World Development report 2015 aims to institutionalize behavioral approaches that can have an impact on development. It will provide a framework for policymakers and individuals alike to look into issues with an socio-economic lens and take into account individual behaviors and norms while developing human-centered policies.

Whether with respect to soap operas or street plays, storytelling or musicals, the intent is to strike an emotional chord with individuals in a society. By invoking social and cultural milieu in an enticing story/plot, these programs try to motivate people to change their attitudes and behavior on specific issues. In an interview to this blog in February 2014 about using social arts as an impactful tool for social transformation, Jacques Rajotte, Chief Operating and Innovation Officer of One Drop, said that if one is touched at an emotional level, then the message stays with one forever.

Edutainment alone cannot solve all the problems, but can be instrumental in shaping mindsets!

* Many thanks to Sana Rafiq, Scott Abrahams, and Merrell Tuck-Primdahl for their valuable suggestions and comments.


Swati Mishra

Communications Strategist

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