Human stories inspire positive change
Research Editor, BBC Media Action
Katy Williams asked political debate show presenters in Nepal and Afghanistan about the real-life changes their programmes have helped achieve. Successes include getting more people with disabilities working in government ministries and prompting other organisations to support communities.
Nepalis and Afghans alike are used to politicians making pledges they don’t fulfil. So, when the studio lights fade on a political debate broadcast, audiences have little expectation that decision-makers will follow up on any promises made on stage.
It’s often understandable why politicians don’t always honour the promises they make on air. Their efforts may be thwarted by a change in government, putting them out of office before they can enact change. They themselves may not be senior enough to take the necessary steps. And, moved by first-hand accounts of hardship, they often over-promise on what they can actually deliver, when answering candid questions put to them directly by ordinary people.
Sometimes leaders defy expectations
Yet ministers do sometimes take action after appearing on talk shows, notes Daud Junbish, presenter of Afghanistan’s Open Jirga (Open Assembly) debate show. One of the highest profile examples of this was when double amputee Asadullah Kamawi challenged then-President Karzai on the lack of provisions made for people with disabilities. After the programme, Karzai invited Asadullah to a ministerial meeting. Karzai later decreed that every government ministry should employ a person with a disability to act as an adviser - a commitment that he lived up to.
More recently, Nepal’s debate programme Sajha Sawal (Common Questions) covered pollution in the Kathmandu valley. The production team took the environment minister to the area where people were most affected by road dust, so he could see the extent of the problem for himself. “He promised to water the roads to dampen down the dust and immediately followed up on that pledge after the show”, said the show’s presenter Bidhya Chapagain.
As to what Sajha Sawal panellists think, ten from the last two years were randomly selected and asked if the programme had led them to take new action. Five said it had. The remainder generally blamed their relative inactivity on a change in government, which meant they’d lost power before they could enact their promises. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who succeeded in doing things differently were mainly ministers, state ministers and heads of parliamentary committees.
It’s more about supporting debate than being a ‘watchdog’
In reality, our governance programmes work on a far more nuanced level than ‘question, answer, response’. A ‘watchdog’ approach, whereby an assertive media and empowered citizenry demand accountability from their leaders can be overly simplistic and not necessarily effective in certain settings.
“We expect our guests to follow up on their commitments but we don’t expect overnight changes in policy,” says Bidhya. “We hope it creates debate. We hope it has that power. The debates often kick-start a wider debate which other media outlets follow up on.”
Open Jirga presenter Daud also notes that playing hardball with politicians is a dangerous game in a country damaged by four decades of war. “Every politician is under pressure. They are suspicious. They can become aggressive. And they may suspect me of taking sides.”
He insists his role is to coax people to be brave and speak up, to give voice to the marginalised – often illiterate women from rural areas. “At the start, five years ago no one raised their arm. Now we have lots of people, including women, asking questions. I can safely say we have given voice to real people.”
Indeed, amplifying people’s voices, creating safe spaces for debate and providing information are ends in themselves, in addition to serving as core pillars of a functioning democracy.
Gripping, real life stories can bring about change
Bidhya has written before about how Sajha Sawal transformed the life of Ujeli, a 15-year old girl displaced by Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake.She believes in the power of ‘immersive programmes’ to prompt other organisations in Nepal to help communities. For example, one episode of Sajha Sawal was shot in a very poor Dalit community in the Terai, in southern Nepal.
The team spent six days living there during the recording. “I am not from that community but for several days I ate, sat and slept alongside them. It was a remarkable way of ensuring that unheard voices were heard.”
Viewers – and panellists – were able to ‘experience’ that children didn’t attend school, the poor sanitation, lack of clean drinking water, high levels of illiteracy and low likelihood of having citizenship. “The response was huge. Now, an NGO and student volunteers are supporting children to be back in school – and helping build toilets.” recalled Bidhya.
This kind of approach is more likely to engage audiences, and catalyse on-the-ground changes.
Building bridges or bridging divides?
Concrete improvements to public services have certainly followed in the wake of many of our shows. But there are less tangible changes that run deeper, Daud insists. He says that other broadcasters have copied his technique of flipping from one official language to the other (Dari to Pashto) to ensure that everyone understands what’s happening. It’s now something he’s noticed even the president of Afghanistan himself do.
“There has been real rivalry between the two language groups. By speaking in both languages we bridged this divide. That is creating real change by bringing people together.”
Bidyha points out that women in Nepal now feel safe about sharing their issues and problems with her on air. “With this growing acceptance of women asking questions and putting themselves forward I think our society is gradually changing. I am hoping that, the day is not that far away when every family will feel proud to have a girl in their family.”
There’s a lot more to find out about how political programmes affect people’s lives. Finding the answers will involve going beyond measuring tangible successes – like building a bridge. But it’s also about taking stock of less concrete, more long-term changes – like bridging societal divides.
Katy Williams is Research Editor at BBC Media Action, she tweets as @KatyMediaDev. Daud Junbish presents Open Jirga (Open Assembly) in Afghanistan, he tweets as @DaudJunbish. Bidhya Chapagain presents Sajha Sawal (Common Questions) in Nepal, she tweets as @cbidhya.
This blog follows the launch of our new practice briefing, ‘Doing debate differently: media and accountability’ which looks at how media can help people influence their leaders, drawing on research from nine countries.
Practice briefing: Inspiring political participation: lessons from the media
Research report: Media and political participation: fostering inclusive governance