Opinion: A necessary distortion? Storytelling and responsibility in global development

Photo by: Viktor Hanacek

Storytelling is a vital part of the global development communicator’s toolkit. So let’s begin with a story.

Sarisa was one of 20,000 people who live in the slums of Bangalore and go door to door collecting and recycling waste, earning about $2 a day. This profession is responsible for recycling 600 tons of waste a day, 20 percent of the city’s trash, but Sarisa and her fellow waste collectors were treated like thieves, harassed by police and exposed to toxic chemicals. Then she was approached by a development organization that, in partnership with the city of Bangalore, provided identity cards to informal waste collectors. This allowed them to earn legal recognition for their work and to access health care. Sarisa became president of a waste recycling center, which safely recycles and sells to paper producers, where she earned $5 a day and led 13 of her fellow waste collectors. After running the center for a few months, Sarisa quit her job there and began working as a maid.

A critical skill for global development professionals: Storytelling

The story — from a fast pitch to a media kit to other investments ranging from social media outreach to film production — can make all the difference in goals such as raising funds, attracting investment, mobilizing supporters and bringing new partners on board.

This is a true story of a program participant in a Global Communities project. In most cases, however, global development communicators would edit out the last sentence. Sarisa would still be working at the recycling center in our imaginations into perpetuity.

Storytelling can be incredibly powerful. From parables to allegories, stories can make difficult subjects understandable and the strange or foreign relatable. They can turn a slow, technical process into an inspiring human story of transformation.

But every time I get invited to another storytelling conference, I feel like I am being asked for new money for old rope — or old papyrus is perhaps more appropriate. These story structures have been used since time immemorial. Odysseus’ wanderings, knights errant, modern Hollywood and the standard global development success story all have the same basic structure: The protagonist faces an insurmountable problem, sets off to solve it, gets stuck, an intervention of some external power sets him or her back on track, success is found, and then they live happily ever after. Whether that intervention is a microloan, an identity card, Zeus or a magic sword makes little difference.

We are given incentives for fitting our work into story structures: for publishing research where we prioritize novelty over replicability; for providing success stories, when we know there is more to be learned from failure or, perhaps even more so, in the spaces between failure and success. Social media demands messages be boiled down to 140 characters for the eight-second attention span. These are packaged into convenient parcels to demonstrate our preferred identity as we share a link to a story we’ve never read. The pressure is to keep things simple, short and compelling.

Stories are powerful, but too often their power comes from ignoring aspects of reality that don’t fit the narrative. The focus on a protagonist obscures the range of efforts and individuals that go into development outcomes. Used irresponsibly, stories can undermine the reality of how development actually takes place, understate the challenges facing our partner communities, and can make us appear naive or, at worst, cynical. And that doesn’t even touch on the ethical questions of us defining the protagonist’s story, rather than them.

Why Save the Children is recruiting a storyteller to save lives

Save the Children's new Emergency Health Unit will provide a rapid medical response in humanitarian crises. And as part of the team, a storyteller will be an essential asset in their lifesaving operations.

The job of development communicators is to help raise funds, but it is also to educate decision-makers to support projects that are effective. This has never been truer than today as we face strained budgets, isolationist political movements and a crisis of facts in media and government. We cannot give those who oppose global development the opportunity to undermine our work based on how we communicate it.

So, should we abandon storytelling? No, but stories must know their place. Storytelling is how we begin a conversation and make a connection with our audiences, but what is important is what we do next. The power of storytelling is when it is used to introduce the reality of process, evidence and nuance. Movements such as solutions journalism are embracing this, as is Google’s suspected preference for long-form content in search engine optimization. We need to commit to being creators and consumers of more thoughtful content, and not retweet stories we haven’t read. We have an ethical duty to the people we serve in development to use stories responsibly and to educate those who are willing to invest resources in our work.

Sarisa left the recycling business to get a better paid, safer job, closer to her children. She made a rational economic and personal decision. The actual outcome of the project was different: the Bangalore municipality agreed to construct recycling centers in 198 wards of the city, formalizing the role of thousands of waste collectors in a sustainable municipal framework. Some waste collectors even went on to attend the Paris Climate talks in 2016. That was a long process that does not fit a tidy narrative. Our job is to equip people with the tools they need to make empowered, rational decisions that help their families and communities. That’s the real story.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

  • David Humphries

    David Humphries is vice president for communications and public affairs at Global Communities, where he oversees branding, media relations, communications, marketing, policy and Congressional relations. In 2012, David developed and led the rebranding strategy from CHF International to Global Communities. David has experience leading media and communications strategies in countries across Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia in the nonprofit, government and private sector.