Monday, May 27, 2013

NEWS: Small Idea, Big Results: Learning through Soap Operas

Originally posted on Asian Development Bank - Nov 2, 2012

A woman works on her sewing machine in a ger, the traditional Mongolian tent-like dwelling. ADB experts are working with the Government of Mongolia in producing TV dramas that teach poor households the importance of saving and financial planning.

An innovative ADB project in Mongolia aims to teach the most vulnerable in society how to overcome times of financial hardship using simple, effective tools, and a bit of advance planning.

Two years ago, Mongolia’s herders lost millions of livestock in what they call a dzud - a long, severe winter following a dry spell that had destroyed grazing areas. Natural disasters and health emergencies such as the dzud can drive poor households deeper into poverty. Often living in a subsistence economy, the most vulnerable in society may not know there are ways for them to protect themselves.

An innovative ADB project in Mongolia aims to tackle this problem by creative use of mass media. Using TV dramas, ADB experts are working with the government to educate people about their options. Events such as a drought or a period of illness can be overcome using simple, effective tools, and a bit of advance planning. The shows will teach people how.

“What makes the project different is that it will use soap operas to talk about microfinance and financial inclusion. It is a form of infotainment,” says Betty Wilkinson, lead finance specialist at ADB’s East Asia Department.

The power of stories

ADB has used storytelling in the past to help people understand sensitive issues and improve social behavior. For example, ADB supported short radio dramas in Cambodia to promote women in governance. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Viet Nam, ADB-funded projects used radio dramas and short films to discuss the risks of sexually transmitted infections.

Serial dramas or soap operas attract a wide audience because the stories are based on real-life experiences and tied to the local culture. Viewers are able to identify and learn with the main characters, who gradually evolve in their thinking and behavior as the story unfolds.

Mongolia is one of the largest yet most sparsely populated countries in the world. People live far from each other and nomadic herders move from one place to another. So it would be difficult to organize face-to-face training sessions.

Television makes an ideal medium of instruction in Mongolia. Most households own a television set or watch regularly with friends. “In the middle of the Gobi desert, you will find solar panels installed on gers (a traditional home), and people watching television,” says Wilkinson.

Soap operas are also quite popular in the country. “At least 40% of Mongolia’s population watch one specific Korean soap opera dubbed in Mongolian,” Wilkinson says. “They see on these shows how other families deal with crisis. We will provide a homegrown version.”

Tools for social change

ADB’s project in Mongolia will also make use of mobile phones as an educational tool.

“In Mongolia, the people are early adopters of technology. Most people have cell phones,” says Wilkinson. The TV show will encourage viewers to call or text answers to key questions posed after each episode. The program will also offer callers free cell phone airtime as a reward. She explains that the live call-in will help identify the audience profile and determine if viewers are learning from the show. The script may also be modified based on the audience response. The pilot show will be launched during the winter season, which is when the people spend much time indoors watching TV.

The Government of Mongolia has agreed to continue to fund the TV series if the project proves successful, Wilkinson says.

Word List:
  • innovative: introducing or using new ideas, ways of doing something, etc
  • subsistence: having just enough money or food to stay alive
  • tackle: to make a determined effort to deal with a difficult problem or situation
  • drought: a long period of time when there is little or no rain
  • infotainment: television programmes, etc. that present news and serious subjects in an entertaining way
  • sparsely: only present in small amounts or numbers and often spread over a large area
Pronunciation MP3:
= innovative
= subsistence
= tackle
= drought
= infotainment
= sparsely