On Message: Sisonke Msimang on how to 'shake things up' in your communications

Sisonke Msimang, South African writer. Photo by: Sims Phakisi / TEDxSoweto / CC BY

Sisonke Msimang recently challenged development communicators to dissect the storytelling patterns the aid sector has long relied on. For Msimang — who spent over a decade working in development — the existing formula lacks imagination and authenticity about the complex narratives of people around the world.

This week, I spoke to Msimang about what we can take away from her call-to-action and why she’s convinced that development communicators can — and must — evolve today’s pattern of storytelling.

“There's a need to shake things up and look beyond the usual suspects for where we get inspiration, how we think about how to make a bigger impact, and how to tell stories better.”

— Sisonke Msimang, author

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let's set the record straight. What is your definition of a development trope and how does one spot in their work?

A development trope is something that you assume to be true that is predicated on a generalized idea of a place or people. Common development tropes can both be “negative” and “positive”. They’re generally negative because they're tropes. But often the ones that are hardest to spot are the ones that look as though they're positive.

On Message: How development tropes have failed us

Are advocacy and global development storytelling fit for today's informed reader? In a world where authentic stories are more important than ever, it's time to reexamine what role development tropes still play.

For example, in South Africa, a common trope would be that “empowered grandmothers are running the villages.” While there may be some truth in that, lots of times older women are left in villages because people have gone to the city or because HIV has had a huge impact on us, etc. What it does is set up a benevolent idea that all people are like something.

The test for me is this — if I can't imagine a situation in any community in North America or in Europe where people would say “the older women are running the community.” The test is always — would this make sense if I just applied this generalization to another group?

What is the antidote to that? You talked about how the aid sector has misinterpreted the definition of storytelling. What ways have we misinterpreted what we call storytelling?

I consider it [development storytelling] to be PR. I consider it to be marketing. And those things are important so I'm not proposing that we throw them away, but I do think that storytelling has different kinds of uses.

If we're going to use it substantively [in programming work] then it ought to be based on the experiences of the people whose stories we are translating. If you're interested in stories about the work — whether there is an impact or the money they receive or the activities in which they are engaged — then you need to engage in storytelling in a way that emanates from those people. It has to be as unfiltered or unprocessed as possible.

What steps can organizations or communications experts take to tell stories differently?

The steps reveal themselves once you get underneath the skin of politics. A lot of what I find is missing in development organizations is a particular politics around race, colonialism, and understanding power and hierarchy within the systems that we exist in.

It’s always interesting to me because we have such a powerful critique of the rest of the world. We understand why certain countries are poorer than other countries. And we work in ways, systemically, to address those structural imbalances, yet we also continue to replicate the [colonial] language.  

What would you say to fundraisers who argue that the current style of development storytelling resonates with people and gets people to donate? 

I think it’s true. But I also think it doesn't have to be true. If we are serious about shifting the world and ending global poverty and inequality, then how can we lack the imagination to also shift people's mindsets?

On the one hand, your goal is so ambitious [to end global poverty] and then you don't have the same ambition about eradicating development tropes? It’s absolutely true that Western publics are interested in particular notions that are deeply steeped in old ideas or newish and benevolent ideas about who Africans are, who the people in the “developing world” are.  It is absolutely true.

It is also true that the business of shifting those ideas is fundamentally intertwined with the business of changing the development indicators of our world. You can’t do one without the other.

What's at stake if organizations don't move away from these patterns of storytelling? 

What's at stake is their credibility and the very resource base that they seek to protect by projecting old tropes. What I've realized is that development stories are incredibly boring and that they are pitched at a certain idea of a person who isn't actually the general public. They’re often pitched at each other.

So we're often talking to other NGOs or we're talking to an imagined donor, which is not the general public [...] We're not speaking in sophisticated ways. We're not speaking in interesting ways.

If you're a development communicator and you're thinking about your peers, part of that includes diversifying who you think of as groups that are like you and not all of them sit in the development sector. There's a need to shake things up and look beyond the usual suspects for where we get inspiration, how we think about how to make a bigger impact, and how to tell stories better.

Is there an organization that you think is doing it right? 

There’s a fantastic group called HOLAA. They’re completely wild. They’re sex-positive. They’re queer. Everything that you don't think really exists in Africa. They do good workshops and host important conversations about shifting gender inequality.

About the author

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    Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is the Associate Director of Communications at Devex. She writes about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications to the global development community. Previously, Carine has led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.