Story project aims to put people back at the heart of development

23 November 2010

Women taking part in a storytelling workshop at the University of Cairo.29 November 2010

Concern that an obsession with numbers is leading to development donors distancing themselves from those they seek to help has led to the creation of a new initiative which seeks to bring stories and story-telling back into the heart of development communication.

Storytelling for Change has been launched by the Pathways of Women's Empowerment Research Programme Consortium, which is coordinated byIDS.

Led by Mona Ali and Sahar El Mougy, founders of the Egyptian initiative 'I am the Story', it seeks to shed light on the characters, the narratives and the dramas that are part of lived experience - and to seek to use this to restore a sense of humanity to international development.

Earlier this month the group held a successful storytelling workshop at the University of Cairo in which the stories based on research on the experiences of Egyptian women's lives by members of the Pathways consortium were narrated. They included the tale of a rural woman who suffered from her husband's negligence, a pianist who gave up music because of her bad marriage, a bride-to-be subject to her fiance's over-possessiveness and an abused woman who left her violent husband.

Andrea Cornwall, director of the Pathways programme, says: 'Development agencies responsible for administering aid and making development policy seem to have lost interest in the everyday lives of the people for whom their efforts are supposed to be intended.

Beyond counting

'Instead of encouraging researchers to find out what matters to people, what their cares and concerns are, how they see their lives and what is happening in those lives that development can do something about, they seem to value only that which can be counted.

'There's nothing so real as a well-told story. Stories captivate, drawing the reader into a world in which they are totally entangled until the story releases them. The most powerful stories linger in the imagination, leaving something changed in their wake.'

Andrea Cornwall points out that it is not that development does not need numbers. 'Counting the number of people living with AIDS, the number of women dead or maimed because they were denied safe abortions or the number of people unable to access safe water can make policy makers pay attention to issues they might otherwise not make a priority.'

But, she said: 'It is time to speak back to the folly and the arrogance of those who try to reduce the complexities of life to proxies and metrics, and create with their numbers the emperor's new clothes.'

Storytelling for Change takes material produced by Pathways' researchers in the form of interview transcripts and tapes, and offers it as food for inspiration to writers. By taking a turn of phrase, a tone of voice, a detail that might be otherwise neglected, storywriters create tales that bring back to the researchers elements of their material they may otherwise never have been able to see.

The initiative will generate short stories that speak to the Pathways programme's concern with understanding what makes change for the better happen in women's lives. Workshops with writers in Pakistan and Bangladesh, led by Neelam Hussain of the Pakistani NGO Simorgh and Bangladeshi writer Shamim Asad, are currently generating inspiring results as more experienced writers mentor and encourage newer authors, and collaboration with Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, of the publishing house Cassava Republic, holds the promise of generating engagement with some of West Africa's most prominent story-tellers.

The stories will be shared through a web-based platform aimed at engaging story-writers, bloggers, activists and academics to share and reflect on stories of change.