Published with permission of Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

We often dismiss soap operas as harmless fun, but increasingly they are being used to convey powerful messages to sectors of society with the intention of changing behaviour and attitudes. In the UK we have used to seeing challenging subjects such as abortion, cot death and mental health conditions portrayed in programmes such as East Enders, but internationally, the format is being used consciously to shape the perceptions of societies and to change their social norms.

The Team is a TV and radio soap opera based on a fictional football team which is currently being produced in 17 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It is explicitly designed to promote tolerance and the peaceful resolution of conflict through the soap opera format.

Executive producer John Marks says 'story telling has been a powerful mechanism for change in many cultures around the world, so we wanted to use soap opera – the modern equivalent of storytelling – to see if we could address issues of prejudice, hatred, ethnic rivalries, gender inequality and a range of other topics. Our goal is to use popular culture to make a profound impact on the attitudes and behaviours of a mass audience.'

In each country, the plot centres on a fictional football team – except in Pakistan where cricket is the more popular sport. The cast is made up of characters who reflect the diversity of that country and its conflicts – whether tribal, ethnic, religious or socio-economic. In Kenya, the players come from different tribes; in Morocco the gulf is between rich and poor; in Cote d'Ivoire the series explores the divisions between the Muslim north and the Christian south. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence against women is a huge problem, the Team is made up entirely of women and the central issue is preventing sexual violence.

To achieve cultural authenticity, The Team uses local writers who incorporate the country's storytelling traditions, and local actors. In addition to airing on TV channels in each of these countries, the programmes are shown at film screenings around the country to reach parts of the population without access to TV. 'We show two episodes together using mobile cinema technology' says John Marks. 'We take members of the cast with us, who have become celebrities, and run facilitated discussions after the showings to explore questions of violence, tribe and national unity. We focus on violence-prone areas and ensure that we have local tribal and community leaders present.'

The response to the series has been positive. In Kenya, where 39 episodes have aired, the programme has consistently ranked in the top 10 and was recently nominated for a national award. The Cote d'Ivoire series won the best African series award at the Verona Festival. New series of the Team are currently in production in Palestine, Nepal and Sierra Leone.

John Marks will discuss the role of soap operas in contributing to social change at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Saїd Business School Oxford on Thursday 31st March.

A 80-minute documentary on the "making of the Team," made by Canadian Patrick Reed, will be shown at the Forum on Wednesday March 30 at 10:00pm at the New Theatre, Oxford.

The largest funder of the project is the UK's DFID (Dept for International Development) with the support of a range of other funders. 'The UK has been instrumental in this, not just in terms of funding' says John Marks. 'Our original inspiration came from series such as The Archers and the iconic Till Death Us Do Part, which led to the US spin off All in the Family, which had a powerful impact in the US and made it no longer acceptable to be a bigot. We are looking for that sort of impact for The Team in each of the countries we are targeting. We want to change society. The issues the series addresses are not confined to the developing world. We are currently working on a US series based in Baltimore, and we are investigating other possibilities in Europe.'

Soap opera is not the only media format being used for social change. The 99 is the first cartoon book series, now showing as an animated cartoon on TV with superheroes inspired by Islam. Hugely popular, and receiving critical acclaim and the support of the great and the good, including Barack Obama, the series provides role positive models for young people, incorporating basic human values.

Dr Naif Al-Mutawa will discuss the creation and impact of his hugely popular cartoon superheroes The 99 at the Skoll World Forum on Friday 1st April.

'The superheroes of The 99 stand in the proud tradition of Batman, Superman and Spiderman' says Al-Mutawa. 'We wanted to create characters for the next generation which share these basic human values and which draw, for the first time, on Quranic archetypes. The characters and story lines are designed to give young people a new frame of reference and to lend support to an anti-extremist perspective.'

The series, originally produced as comic books that have been licensed in 8 languages, is now a major TV series co produced by media giant Endemol UK. A The 99 Village theme park has been opened in Kuwait.

'From the start we wanted high production values and brought in leading figures first from the comic book world and then from animation. We developed positive story lines which resonate with young people globally. This is not about proselytizing or about religion: these are secular heroes which convey basic human values that Islam shares with the rest of humanity (just as Superman is based on Biblical archetypes) says Al-Mutawa.

Skoll World Forum

The importance of storytelling, narrative and the media for social change will be a key theme of the Skoll World Forum this year. A number of speakers will discuss the importance of communication from a range of perspectives including film makers, journalists, writers, advocates and others concerned with media. For details of additional sessions dealing with media related issues, please see below.

A snapshot of the Forum experience is available here: http://www.skollworldforum.org/about/

For those unable to attend in person, there will be Forum content available in Virtual Forum, including live streaming of events such as the plenary sessions, audio and video of a limited number of sessions and live social reporting from the event. Follow us on Twitter: @skollworldforum