The set of the reality TV show Fekr Wa Talosh (Dream and Achieve, roughly) is mounted with a few overhead lights and draped with a velvet background, maroon on one half and black on the other. Paper signs are taped up in the background with sponsors’ names and logos written out in marker. A group of about 20 men and women, in turbans and various styles of headscarves, sit in three tight rows of white metal chairs, hands folded in their laps. On the left side of the set, a man in reading glasses and a suit and a woman in a dress with a shiny silver scarf draped over her head sit with notepads and pens. The woman speaks to the group who listens intently. The looks on people’s faces are serious, even dour, but this scene represents one of the brightest moments in economic development in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban—an idea that could prove to be a model for developing nations around the world.
Dream and Achieve, the part-game-show-part-documentary-style reality TV show made in Afghanistan in 2008, sought to connect the worlds of international aid money and local know-how to improve the lives of Afghans after decades of chaos and violence. War had left Afghan society crippled and the world’s development organizations confounded in their attempts to improve conditions. The men and women seated in the white chairs, the show’s contestants, were people from all over the country with innovative businesses seeking education, investment, and national exposure. Through the show, these entrepreneurs represented a new movement of people working to improve Afghanistan from the bottom up, one community at a time.
Beyond entertainment, Dream and Achieve was conceived as a development project. First, as a defense against the inevitable onslaught of global capitalism, the show looked to educate about business (as the Western world understood the term) in a country that had long been insulated from both its positive and negative effects. The show wanted to promote ideas about sustainable business practices. Second, Dream and Achieve functioned as a megaphone to celebrate and promote the work of innovative Afghans working to improve their communities. As a popular program on national TV, the show worked to thrust the conversation about rebuilding Afghanistan into the public sphere by providing a weekly platform for discussion of the most promising Afghan-designed development initiatives. A simple text messaging system allowed viewers to vote for the best projects, making the show an interactive experiment in democracy in a country that had long struggled to establish participatory systems of government.
In 2003 Anna Elliot, then an undergraduate in college, began what would become a series of trips to Afghanistan. She first went to visit her father who was working there on private sector development initiatives. Over the next several years, she took time off from school to return, conducting research, gathering oral histories, and studying Pashtun poetry. She spent several months traveling all over the country with a theater group, putting on performances of a translation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Her experience was both inspiring and disheartening. While there was an eagerness among Afghans to take control of the fate of their country after years of war and oppression, it was clear that many of the development strategies employed by aid organizations were failing to resonate with everyday citizens. The country had been ravaged by decades of violence. The economy was in ruins. The central government was only nominally in control. People needed jobs. In a country where half the population lived below the poverty line, many development projects seemed to have put the cart before the horse—getting people out of poverty had to take priority. In order to tackle issues like women’s rights, public health, and education, Elliot realized that there needed to be a base level of economic and political stability. If projects were to be effective, they would have to be sustainable and, to be sustainable, they had to come from the people. If they didn’t earn the support of Afghans, their social impact would fizzle out once the project ended.
Serendipitously, Elliot was in Afghanistan during the first season of a TV show called Afghan Star, a reality show based on the popular Idol shows, in which competing contestants sing pop songs and are critiqued by a group of judges. Even without any of the flashy production of its counterparts in the Western world, the show was a smash hit, capturing the attention of millions of Afghans and creating a buzz of excitement across the country as entire households tuned in every week to watch the unfolding drama. On the streets, in markets, and in people’s homes the previous week’s episode was discussed, rehashed, and debated.
In most of the world, reality TV is disparaged as trashy entertainment, a fair judgment in most cases, but in Afghanistan, its impact went far beyond entertainment. By showing people singing on TV, the show pushed cultural boundaries in a country where singing and dancing in public had been prohibited under the Taliban. The show’s contestants, along with its voting viewers, were all implicated as participants in the new opening up of society, bolstering its power and authenticity. Most importantly, Afghan Star revealed that a television show could have a substantial impact in a poor country of isolated populations and a limited, antiquated communication infrastructure. While much of the world had moved to computers and the Internet, in Afghanistan, radios and televisions were the only mediums available in most homes. In Afghanistan, in contrast to the West, television was still the best way to reach a broad audience.
Afghan Star, a simple easy-to-produce reality show about singing, showed that it could connect people, celebrate national culture, foment debate, and spark the imaginations of thousands of Afghans. But the show was still, ultimately, about singing. What if, Elliot thought, a reality show could get people talking about economic development like they talked about music? What if innovators, entrepreneurs, and the leaders of social and economic change—instead of singers—could become Afghanistan’s heroes? If a show that did this could be made—and made interesting—she believed the outlook of the entire nation could change.
Taking time off from college again, Elliot worked to develop a new project: a reality show that used the Afghan Star model but substituted social entrepreneurs as its contestants and built episodes around business challenges. The goal was to entertain viewers but also to give them concrete business lessons that they could then apply in their own communities. After securing finances, local corporate sponsors and a deal with the country’s main TV network, TOLO TV, she helped oversee production of the show, Dream and Achieve. TOLO launched a nationwide outreach campaign and its Afghan production team scoured the country, holding auditions for men and women from all walks of life with viable ideas for potential social enterprises that could benefit their communities.
Members of the business community and academia were tapped as judges. Each entrepreneur had to convince the judges that their business idea was viable, sustainable, and healthy for the growth of Afghanistan’s fledgling economy. It was part Dragon’s Den, part Apprentice, and part televised business course. Contestants were specifically encouraged to think about how their enterprise might be sustainable and scalable—replicable in other places with similar conditions—in order to increase their potential social and environmental impact.
The contestants selected for the show formed a diverse cross section of the country—men, women, young, and old—from Kabul as well as smaller cities and towns. There was a former military commander who had gone through the disarmament process and sought to expand his milk-processing factory, a young female student trying to open a cotton and textiles business, a woman with a jamming and pickling business that employed widows and refugees, a man with a plastics recycling plant, and others. Judges and viewers eliminated contestants in each episode, and the country followed the drama. When the former warlord was voted off the show, leaving several women with more sound business ideas still in the competition, it was a small but symbolic moment. For the first time in many years, Afghan women were competing with men on television, and the women were holding their own. The show became the country’s number-one series of the summer season.
Behind the scenes, partner organizations worked to provide all of the contestants with practical, educational resources, such as assistance in making business plans and applying for loans, and with advice on marketing and inventory management, among other useful tools, to assist them in their entrepreneurial efforts. The show was sponsored by the leading telecommunications company, the national bank, academic institutions, business associations, the chambers of commerce, and aid organizations who all donated prizes for the contestants. In total, it cost about U.S.$400,000 to produce the 13 half-hour episodes. In the final episode, an estimated seven million viewers tuned in as Faizulhaq Moshkani, the plastics recycler from Kandahar, won $20,000 to expand his plant to use renewable micro-hydropower. He has since gone on to receive a significant investment to start his third recycling plant, this time, for paper. Maryam Al-Ahmadi won second place and was able to grow her jamming and pickling business, an unprecedented feat for a woman in Afghanistan at the time. She employs over 200 women widows and refugees, and received $10,000, which she invested in a bottling machine for her products.
After the first successful season of Dream and Achieve in Afghanistan, Elliot returned to the United States to finish college and form Bamyan Media, a social enterprise that produces reality TV programming in developing countries to entertain and educate viewers and to celebrate socially responsible entrepreneurs. Bamyan Media partners with the private sector (television companies, corporate sponsors, and the business sector), other nonprofit development organizations, and the public sector (government funding initiatives and university business schools) to achieve these goals.
Bamyan is currently working to bring the show to several countries, beginning in South America. In Colombia, Bamyan found that the reality television landscape is already well developed and highly competitive. The show would have to compete with a handful of other glossy reality shows whose sole aim is to entertain and earn ratings. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for creative solutions to the country’s social ills. Colombia has suffered from years of violence that have created huge numbers of impoverished, displaced people in rural areas. The economy has begun to turn around, however, and Bamyan is working to capitalize on this moment. If solutions generated by local people can be promoted and turned into a national social movement, Colombia could propel itself out of decades of economic disparity and internal turmoil and move toward a more prosperous future.
With these aims, Bamyan is working with a team of Colombian social entrepreneurs, television writers, and cultural consultants to adapt the format for one of the largest Colombian TV networks. The focus is a popular, commercial, highly entertaining show on social entrepreneurship and “inclusive businesses.” Bamyan is currently designing the episodes with a production team and aims to broadcast the show before the end of 2012.
In Egypt, after the revolution, Bamyan has identified another opportunity to use its unique approach to help promote a new generation of entrepreneurs. In contrast to Colombia, the Egyptian model will focus specifically on addressing youth unemployment and small- and medium-enterprise creation in the informal sector. With each new endeavor, a new strategy is crafted to fit the needs of the local context. In zones of extreme poverty, a radio show might be more effective. In places where agriculture dominates, the show might have specific segments focused on smallholder farms, irrigation innovations, or microloans. Wherever there is poverty, the unique characteristics of reality TV can be put to work to help make economic development exciting, participatory, sustainable, and locally driven.