An Institute-supported Afghan radio drama using themes of youth empowerment and the rule of law will continue to be broadcast across Afghanistan through the fall amid initial survey findings that indicate it has gained a wide audience and is encouraging Afghans to consider the implications of the issues raised for their society and young democracy.

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“One Village, A Thousand Voices,” a weekly program that has aired since late April, is receiving additional U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) funding that will allow the program to spotlight themes of citizen participation and responsibility in connection with Afghanistan’s upcoming elections for president and provincial councils, which are scheduled for next April. The country’s conduct of credible and transparent elections is widely seen as an important step toward consolidating representative democracy and channeling political disputes through peaceful political processes.

Over the past six months, “One Village, A Thousand Voices” has presented stories of villagers confronting problems that illuminate young Afghans taking a greater voice in their futures and navigating sensitive legal issues. USIP and Afghan partners developed and are managing the program, which draws on the Institute’s earlier work and research in the country. Radio is the leading means of providing information and entertainment on a large scale in underdeveloped, mostly rural Afghanistan, and the program is heard in the country’s two leading languages, Pashto and Dari, twice a week on Radio Azadi, which is Afghanistan’s most popular radio network. After Friday broadcasts, a call-in discussion is aired with a focus on the legal, policy and societal issues underlying the fictional drama.

Surveys of Afghans following the first several programs found that some 50 percent had listened to the show, and nearly all of those had listened to at least one episode. More than 80 percent of those surveyed rated the drama as “good” or “very good,” and 44 percent of listeners had also tuned in to the discussion program. Fifty-eight percent rated the discussion portion as “very good.”

Focus groups conducted after the first few episodes among Afghans who have listened to the series suggested the program was prompting people to think anew about the role of young people in making decisions and playing a greater role in public affairs. “Our youths are mostly educated and want a peaceful life. They do not want to repeat what their elders did—quarrels, battles, disputes, etc.,” said a youth participant from Jalalabad. An elder participant from Badakhshan, remarked, “A huge, good change would come if youths take decisions.”

“After listening to the programs, both the elders and the youth were far more open to talking about the positive role that young adults in Afghanistan can play,” said Michael Dwyer, a project designer and senior program officer for media and peacebuilding work at USIP. “It’s too early to talk about resilient attitude change, but creating that space for an honest discussion is a really important step.”
The show’s early curricular priorities of youth empowerment and rule of law have run through the story lines scripted by professional writers from USIP partner Equal Access, an international NGO specializing in communications for social change. USIP’s Afghan staff in Kabul supervises the writing, production and broadcasting.

By emphasizing real-life disputes and settings, making references to recent Afghan news and using an entertaining dramatic framework, the series’ developers believe they can help more Afghans engage in larger themes than would straight public affairs programs or announcements. “We take a more nuanced, dramatic approach here. Compared with radio drama, messaging campaigns are like sledgehammers. And who wants to be hit over the head with one of those?” said Dwyer. “This is not about foreigners presenting new ideas and changing Afghan attitudes. It’s about creating an opportunity for Afghan communities to talk more freely about the obstacles to progress they perceive.”

Basharat Rahimullah, a senior media officer in USIP’s office in Kabul who helps supervise the writing and production of the program, said the live discussions indicate that callers are connecting with the characters and their troubles and triumphs such “that sometimes one feels that the characters are their neighbors or relatives.” Rahimullah said that audience acceptance is greater with a program delivered as a real-life drama from Afghans’ own experiences. “In our society, people show some allergies to concepts and terms that come from the outside,” he said. The program, he noted, provides more than rule of law information but also practical strategies, ideas for sharing power, examples of the growing clout of weaker members of society and conversation about finding resources to help defend their rights.

The program is now turning toward election-related themes as Afghanistan prepares for a critical test of its democracy next April. In the program’s plot, the village will soon decide to set up a soccer team and it needs to select a captain. Woven into a dramatic narrative, those decisions will “function as a microcosm of a process of freely selecting their representatives,” said Dwyer. “We can quickly explore ideas on how leaders are chosen, what can be expected of leaders and other questions that relate to the electoral and political issues facing Afghanistan.”

The program’s shift in themes reflects the core role of elections as a peaceful mechanism for handling political disagreements. As Scott Smith, USIP’s deputy director of Afghanistan programs, notes, “elections are ultimately a means of conflict resolution. They allow political differences to be resolved according to agreed-upon rules, avoiding the need for violence.” Smith said the intention is to dramatize not only elections but specific elements of them—“discussion, the search for consensus and the acceptance of an outcome fairly arrived at even if we don’t agree with it.”

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