Can a Soap Opera Help Alleviate Poverty?


Director Michal Joachimowski captures a scene in the soap opera where an ICM Transform trainer talks to a participant

Films, books, and television have the power to influence culture in society. But could they be used to help alleviate poverty? International Care Ministries (ICM), a non-profit in the Philippines, is creating a 15-episode soap-opera to test just that.

ICM’s Transform program is a four-month education and training course designed to help those in ultra-poverty, living on US$0.50 per person per day. And while its results are already impressive, increasing ultra-poor families’ incomes by 107%, ICM strives to increase the impact Transform has on the neediest people.

The soap opera, entitled “First Light,” has all the drama, love interests, and plot twists that you might expect to find in a typical television show. But within each episode are life-changing lessons about savings, income creation, health care, and resilience, which are key behaviors and outcomes that can help the poorest work their way out of poverty.

A scene in the soap opera where a poor couple watches their bamboo house burn down

“We know that what ICM teaches can truly transform people’s lives. But, because of people’s past challenges or failures, not everyone believes that they can do it. We want this show to inspire, to give people a mirror to look into and see that it is possible,” said the show’s co-director Louise Joachimowski.

To test whether the soap opera actually helps families in poverty, ICM will run a disciplined Randomized Controlled Trial, which is the gold standard of academic research. Starting from July 2023, 3,300 ICM participants will watch the soap opera when they attend their weekly Transform training session. Another 3,300 will attend Transform without the video series. ICM will conduct detailed surveys for every person in both groups. ICM’s research partners, led by Professor Dean Karlan, an Economist and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, will be able to determine which outcomes are directly caused by the videos.

Written in Cebuano and shot on location in March 2023 in Sipalay, Negros Occidental, the story follows families in the fictional Hacienda Laguda. The characters struggle with life in poverty, unpredictable incomes, the threat of relocation, health crises, and more. The main characters start to put into practice lessons from Transform, with varying success, showing how the small changes they make can create a long-term difference in their lives. Many of the actors and extras cast were themselves ICM Transform participants, who acted alongside professional actors.

A scene portraying a day in the Transform program

ICM is not the first non-profit to test using edu-tainment (educational entertainment) to help those in need. The MTV Staying Alive Foundation saw improvements in attitudes towards stigma around HIV with its “Shuga” drama series in Kenya; researchers working with the government of Niger saw income increases when beneficiaries watched videos and received coaching with their cash transfer; and farmers in Ethiopia had greater aspirations, higher savings, and increased school enrolment because of documentaries they were shown.

ICM’s approach is unique in that, as far as ICM can tell, this will be the first attempt to screen a video every week for a period of several months, directly in its target communities. Many of the locations where the show will be screened do not have access to electricity. The weekly episodes will be shown on battery-powered televisions in each location.

The show’s production was largely funded by the Global Innovation Fund, a multi-government funded donor, which seeks to find and scale the most innovative and effective approaches to alleviating poverty. ICM received a multi-purposed grant of US$5M in 2019, to test multiple innovations in addition to the soap opera, including early childhood education, cash grants, and attendance incentives. The research produced through this grant has the potential to improve millions of lives; the 200,000+ served directly by ICM annually, plus by charities around the world who may learn from proven innovations to serve the poorest people in the world.

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