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Africa in Transition | Educational Entertainment: Promoting Health and Social Change through Pop Culture

Please join the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Maternal Health Initiative, in partnership with The Population Institute, for a discussion with experts on improving youth’s access to health information through educational entertainment.

Date & Time

Jul. 10, 2019
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“We are all convinced that educational entertainment is the way to go now,” said Anselme Muzalia Wimye, Program Quality Director at Search for Common Ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He spoke at a recent event hosted by the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative, and The Population Institute. The panel discussed the power of educational entertainment (EE), in particular serial dramas, to precipitate positive behavioral change and public health outcomes in Africa. 

Educational entertainment is the process of designing and implementing a media message to both entertain and educate. The intention is to increase audience member’s knowledge while also shifting social norms. Essentially, educational entertainment is storytelling for change, said Amy Henderson Riley, Assistant Professor at Jefferson College of Population Health. It can be used to shift attitudes on a variety of topics, from sexual and reproductive health to domestic violence and even climate change.

Transitional Characters as Role Models  

Serial dramas, or long-running television or radio series which have a continuous plotline, are powerful in part because they often unfold over the course of hundreds of episodes, said William Ryerson, President of Population Media Center (PMC) and Chair of The Population Institute. People don’t change their views overnight, he said. It takes time to form an emotional bond with a fictional character, as it does with anyone, he said. “But once those bonds are formed,” he said, “these characters can have more influence by far than the Minister of Health in any country.”

In Population Media Center’s programming, there are good characters, bad characters, and transitional characters. Transitional characters behave like the target audience. They make mistakes and suffer as a result. Ultimately, the transitional characters evolve into positive role models for viewers. “They’ve got a lot at stake in ultimately making the right decision,” said Ryerson. The key is getting people to believe that they can and should adopt new behaviors, he said.

“. . . once those bonds are formed, these characters can have more influence by far than the Minister of Health in any country.”—William Ryerson, President, Population Media Center

Quantitative data suggests that serial dramas can be powerful. According to Ryerson, a study of the Tanzanian radio drama, “Twende Na Wakati,” showed that 82 percent of listeners reported increasing their condom use and decreasing their number of sexual partners after listening to the show, which was designed to prevent negative behaviors associated with the spread of HIV. And in northern Nigeria, 67 percent of family planning clients cited the radio drama, “Ruwan Dare,” as the reason they visited a clinic.

Emotional Response as a Change Agent

Drama is inherently emotional. These emotions serve as a kind of fuel to lead people to action, which in turn creates change, said Wimye. To change behaviors, it is not sufficient just to have people listen or see, said Wimye. Instead, Search for Common Ground creates serial dramas and facilitates participatory theater and mobile cinema.

After viewers watch a program, they have the opportunity to engage in discussions about sensitive topics within their communities, Wimye said. This has resulted in powerful discussions around pervasive issues, and even in instances of change, he said. Search for Common Ground’s programming has included messaging dealing with gender violence and inequity, police relations, and Ebola, all touchy subjects in the country. Content is developed in collaboration with the target audience to understand how each of these topics impacts their daily lives.

For Wimye, educational entertainment programming isn’t just a way to spread a message. It’s a way to dream of a new future, he said. He illustrated this point by discussing “Ndakisa,” a television serial dealing with police-civilian relations in the DRC. The show follows hero Elombe as he clashes with a corrupt police officer who prevents him from effectively protecting the local community. Episode after episode, the audience watches as the police unit follows the example of Elombe, rather than the incompetent officer.

This show reimagines the relationship between civilians and the police. When Search for Common Ground first started developing police-oriented content in 2008, less than 30 percent of those surveyed had a positive perception of the police. Ten years later, 86 percent of those surveyed believed that the police contributed to security in their communities. In Ituri province, 75 percent of those surveyed reported that radio and TV productions have had a transformational impact on the behavior of security forces towards civilians.

Narrative Persuasion

Something specific about storytelling seems to lead to social change, said Riley. Storytelling is a less pushy way to educate audiences compared with propaganda or public service announcements. “We’re showing people choices—not trying to tell them what to do,” Ryerson said. With narrative persuasion, said Riley, the audience is engaged in a story, which is different from listening to a public service announcement or being preached to.

Educational entertainment allows people to see a range of behaviors and their realistic consequences, said Ryerson. By engaging with the narrative that is presented, the audience has the opportunity to choose which behaviors and characters they would want to emulate, he said.

Image removed.To be effective, the storytelling cannot stand alone, said Riley. It must be part of a suite of delivery and supply approaches. If we know that we are increasing demand with our programs, she said, we have to work with colleagues in the private sector, government, and elsewhere to ensure products are available. “For instance,” she said, “if you learn about long lasting contraception from a radio drama and you’re excited, but there’s nowhere near you to get long-lasting contraception, we have a real problem.”

Although a large body of research demonstrates that educational entertainment works, said Riley, the body of evidence may not yet be rigorous enough to support massive scale up. All kinds of research show that educational entertainment can change individual knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. But we don’t know how it works to bring about social change, she said.

“What we don’t know, and what we’re all trying to figure out, is exactly how to measure these concepts of social norms,” said Riley. Without many large randomized control trials, it can also be hard to determine the programs’ quantitative impacts.

Foreign Policy Tool

Despite the evidence of impact offered by panelists, popular culture, and particularly serial dramas, are seen as feminine and not taken seriously, said Meaghan Parker, Executive Director of the Society for Environmental Journalists, who moderated the panel. We need to recognize that these narratives have a tremendous amount of soft power, and thus are critically important foreign policy tools, she said. “Policymakers need to understand that this is a tool that can dramatically ramp up behavior change on health and social development issues,” said Ryerson.

Continue the conversation on Twitter by following @NewSecurityBeat and @Wilson_MHI using the hashtag #AfricainTransition. You can also find related coverage on our blog at

Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock, All Rights Reserved. 

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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