Fighting poverty in the Arab world: With soap operas?

“Edutainment soap operas” have often helped bring about critical behavioural changes around the world, writes Semlali.

Joelle Behlok
Lebanese actress Joelle Behlok in the drama series "The Last Cavalier" [Photo courtesy: Nasib Albitar]

Some of you might frown when you hear the words “soap opera”. Others might chuckle and recall “Besos y Lagrimas” (kisses and tears) – Saturday Night Live’s hysterical parody of the usually overly dramatic Latin American “telenovelas”. If we are honest, however, quite a few of us have a hard time containing our excitement and anticipation for the latest episode of our favourite show.

If you think you are immune to the lure of a soap opera then try watching an Egyptian soap. At first, you will be amused and perhaps even laugh at all the melodrama, but in the end you will most certainly find yourself wondering: Will Alia expose her evil twin sister? Will Omar learn how to read, propose to his beloved and be accepted by her upper-class family? 

Soap operas have an appeal that cuts across a broad social spectrum; viewers range from highly educated people to those with little or no formal education. The Middle East is no different. Although men might deny that they watch soaps, they too become engrossed. In fact, more than 80 million people from Casablanca to Riyadh regularly clock in for a single soap episode and these viewing figures rise significantly during the fasting month of Ramadan. 

In the past, people would gather after the breaking of the fast to listen to a “hakawati” or a storyteller, recount tales and myths. Soap operas now fulfill the same role as the “hakawati“. Today, Arab satellite channels will air dramas that last for 30 episodes, one for each night of Ramadan, when whole families gather to watch.

Soap operas in the Arab world often address issues of class, with stories that often include central characters struggling to escape poverty. They not only combine the usual characteristics of American soaps – extravagant plots, love and family drama – but also carry certain cultural values that audiences can relate to. Viewers often identify very closely with the lead soap characters. 

Khadija, a 49-year-old seamstress in Rabat, Morocco, said about her favourite heroine: “She is like me, she suffered and had her heart broken, but she still tried to make life better. Just like me.” Soaps also provide an escape from the daily routine and harshness of reality, particularly in conflict-affected countries. In Gaza and Yemen for example, you will find the streets empty as the soap of the moment is airing.

Soap operas can play the same role that myths and fables have throughout history. By introducing a critical social issue into the soap narrative, the soap can go from being simply “entertainment” to being “entertainment-education” – or in short: “edutainment”. In fact, around the world edutainment soaps have often helped bring about critical behavioural changes. 

“Soap operas have an appeal that cuts across a broad social spectrum; viewers range from highly educated people to those with little or no formal education.”

In South Africa following a televised drama that addressed sexual practices, it was found that viewers of the soap opera were four times more likely to use condoms than non-viewers. Enrollment in literacy classes increased nine-fold in Mexico City after the airing of a soap opera with a central storyline about a character learning to read. In the US state of Colorado, the number of low-income families applying for child health insurance increased drastically after an edutainment soap opera highlighted its importance and how to find it.

Even topics that are considered taboo can be brought up within the fictional universe of soaps. They can help to decrease the stigma surrounding certain issues without being socially or culturally intrusive. Soaps in the Arab world have already begun confronting sensitive, at times taboo, subjects. In Jordan for example, there are several so-called Bedouin soaps that portray traditional village life. Highly sensitive issues such as honour killings have been confronted, and the tensions between the traditional and modern ways of life explored.

There are many topics that the Arab entertainment field could help shed light on through this popular medium – soap operas. Poverty alleviation would be an important one. In the Arab world, a growing middle class exists alongside abject poverty. According to a recent World Bank report, “Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa”, more than a quarter of the children in the lowest economic strata in Egypt, Morocco and Syria are chronically malnourished. At the same time, the subsidies that governments rely on to protect the poor are mainly captured by the rich. 

Even in the face of strong evidence that there are more effective ways of fighting poverty, alongside compelling international examples, citizens of the region tend to resist subsidy reform. The poor also seem to share the belief that subsidies are their best option. One way of changing attitudes and paving the way for critical reforms is for governments and international organisations to team up with the entertainment industry to use the power of soaps to educate the population. By introducing the theme of how poverty can be better fought into soap operas, the message could reach wide audiences across the Arab world.

What might at first look like light entertainment could indeed be a potent tool to influence attitudes and break down social prejudices and stereotypes. With their tremendous reach and popularity, it is time to take soap operas far more seriously. 

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank.

Amina Semlali is Human Development Specialist and works on Labour Market and Social Protection issues for the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region.

Follow her on Twitter: @Amina_Semlali

A version of this article first appeared on the World Bank MENA blog.