Let's 'market' development stories — Rajiv Shah

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah wants to invest in marketing and telling stories about development work to encourage more people to get involved. Photo by: Gerald R. Ford School / CC BY-ND

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Shah is calling for more and better “marketing” of development stories.

Stories provide a unique way to spread the message about global challenges and successes, including those facing women and girls — but the development community does not always do a good job of marketing itself, Shah conceded at a Women and Girls Lead Global event in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

USAID, he said, should be able to invest in marketing and telling stories about development work in order to involve many more people in the search for solutions, despite the fact that the agency is technically not allowed to spend money on marketing or advertising.

“I think it’s insane that we’re not able to tell the story in a structured way, to invest some resources and get professional,” Shah noted, adding that stories an important tool in expanding the “pool of talent committed to solving these real problems.”

Women and Girls Lead Global is a public-private partnership between USAID, the Ford Foundation and the Independent Television Network — in collaboration with CARE — which uses documentary films to spark conversation and inspire action about issues related to women and girls, including child marriage, teen pregnancy and gender-based violence.

No ‘smoothing over’ values

In a conversation with The New York Times columnist and author Nicholas Kristof, the USAID chief described the program as one way to effectively capture and tell the stories of development.

While the tone was lively — with Shah joking with Kristof about hoping to get a tweet out of the appearance so that the million and a half followers of the journalist on Twitter would know more about the agency’s commitment to women and girls — it also touched on some serious issues.

In particular, the head of USAID discussed the importance of empowering local people to speak out for themselves, rather than pushing an agenda in a way that creates a backlash and can be deemed cultural imperialism, pointing to the current situation in Uganda after the passage of a strict anti-gay law.

“The truth is it will be Ugandan faith leaders, Ugandan civil society leaders, Ugandan women and Ugandan men that ultimately create a better future and a more inclusive future for that country and a lot is riding on the decisions that they make that only they can make,” he said.

What’s necessary is to work together and tell the stories to empower people to speak to power and, on the part of those working for the U.S. government, “resist the temptation to smooth over — for diplomatic purposes — our values.”

In some cases, Shah pointed out, USAID has stayed true to its principles, refusing to agree to any agreements that precluded the agency from investing in civil society and free media — even if it resulted in being kicked out of a country.

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About the author

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    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.

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