Storytelling in Development Practice

Hamsini RaviHamsini Ravi

‘Reflective Practice and Social Change’ is one of the modules on offer to MA students here at IDS , convened by the Participation team. The course offers a stimulating weekly space to try out and reflect on practices that can potentially make us better development practitioners. In the session on storytelling and narratives, we reflected on the number of ways stories can be used in development practice.

We unanimously agreed that stories are a powerful, yet underrated medium. Humans are socialised through the myriad of stories, bonds are created, history is relived and lessons are learnt through stories. The non-profit sector is a treasure chest of humbling and powerful stories of men and women, seeking and braving change. Stories have the magical power to liven up a 500-page annual report that no one wants to read; they can foster a shared organisational spirit in a room full of people working in different contexts and capacities; as well as lend depth and meaning to an evaluation study.

In the context of a development organisation, stories and storytelling can be used in:

  • Research
  • Monitoring & Evaluation (M & E)
  • Communications/ Advocacy
  • Organisational learning.

Research

Storytelling works wonderfully well in research studies and investigations, and can be an effective prompt, when asking people about personal moments in their lives. It also enables the storyteller, as well as the listener, to be reflexive  about the topic in consideration. For a researcher, it can help unpack their positionality in the research process and allow them to confront and work on their biases upfront. As a research tool, stories are accessible, account for cultural diversity and require no reading or writing skills. As useful as this may seem, there are some ethical considerations, viz, ownership, use of data, confidentiality, placing the story in its respective cultural context. These can be navigated by acquiring informed consent, and constantly reflection on use and interpretation of other’s stories by the researcher.

Monitoring and Evaluation

As a tool used in M & E, storytelling can challenge our linear thought processes, giving space for non-linear relationships in interventions. They enable a more holistic understanding of people’s lives, dismissing the categories that funding and donor agencies tend to box beneficiaries into. The politics of using storytelling in monitoring and evaluation of development projects is that the evaluator may not always hear the things he/ she wants to hear. It is therefore necessary to constantly negotiate expectations of community reviews with the donor.

Advocacy and Communications

In advocacy and communications, stories can make up the oft-missing emotional link. It can also inform funders of realities on the ground and be used in promoting inter-cultural communication and understanding. While, a proportion of non-profits do use stories in their marketing and advocacy collaterals, it is apparent that this is often plagued with issues of manipulation, representation and dissemination. Stories could be tweaked and exaggerated to suit the needs of the organisation, and these issues can be overcome by strengthening consent processes and quality checks.

Organisational learning

Organisational change and learning can involve a healthy dose of stories and storytelling. From organising sharing sessions to using stories in induction programmes to integrating divisions within an organisation, there are a multitude of possibilities. For instance, each division of the organisation could narrate the intricacies of their project through a story to the marketing division to foster better understand.

While tapping into the collective processes of sharing and telling, storytelling can make the development sector as a whole more reflective in its approach and policies. It can bridge geographical and hierarchical divides and highlight the more humane elements of our work and personalities. Can we take this as a personal challenge to incorporate more stories in our work as development professionals?

Hamsini Ravi is an MA Development Studies student at IDS.

The MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) at IDS is a unique 12-month course providing experienced development workers and social activists with the opportunity to critically reflect on their practice and develop their knowledge and skills through a work-based action research project.

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