Unlocking the transformative potential of storytelling


Thea ShahrokhThea Shakrokh

“When people connect to political issues through personal stories, they see them in a different way. They don’t just see democracy in the abstract, they see ‘my democracy.’ The transformative potential of storytelling is written into the fabric of our lives.” Joanna Wheeler

Joanna Wheeler, until recently research fellow in the IDS Power, Participation and Social Change team, talked about Unlocking the transformative potential of storytelling in a recent Open Democracy article. The following summary is edited from Joanna’s Open Democracy post.

Joanna explains how people can understand democracy differently when they connect to political issues through personal stories. They don’t just see democracy as an  abstract concept, they see how it is relevant to them on a daily basis. Although stories may not provide all the answers, she emphasises that what is gained through their telling is important for social justice and democracy. They connect us to issues and to one another through the power of a narrative and the experience of empathy.

In 2013, she and Tessa Lewin helped to lead a collaborative process with citizens’ groups and government employees IDS partners MDPi and OneWorldSEE. They designed and supported a process that used creativity and technology to help people tell their stories about their experience of local governance (pdf). They called it ‘creative citizen engagement through storytelling’ and the examples bring to life the transformational power of stories. Telling a story in a safe space can be cathartic, revelatory, healing and empowering. It can also be unsettling, uncomfortable, and painful.  A collective process of creating and sharing stories becomes a crucible that helps to resolve these conflicting emotions. Furthermore Joanna’s insights provide an interesting reflection on how connections are made between personal stories and collective issues which are political, in the sense that they address relations of power. Read more about Participatory Visual Methods  and the work in Bosnia Herzegovina on participatorymethods.org.

Wider conversations on storytelling at IDS
In a previous blog, Hamsini Ravi, at that time a MA student at IDS’ MA in Participation, Power and Social Change course, sums up the learning from one of the sessions on ‘Reflective Practice and Social Change’ and lists the ways in which stories can have unforeseen impact.

Julia Day, Deputy Director and Head of Communications at the STEPS Centre based at IDS, explores the power of simplicity in storytelling through ‘Photovoice’, a participatory approach by which people combine narrative storytelling with photography, which is being used by their project partner Shibaji Bose, for the STEPS Centre’s Uncertainty from Below project.

The Participate Initiative engaged a series of participatory visual processes using digital storytelling and film to portray development issues through the stories and perspectives of those affected by poverty and marginalisation. These processes use multiple forms of creative media (images, film, audio, design, drawing, drama) in conjunction with participatory research processes to articulate, distil and communicate powerful messages.  For more information see their homepage  and the Work with Us online exhibition.

Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS working on the role of visual methods in social change initiatives with Joanna Wheeler over the past 18 months..

Read more blogs by Thea Shahrokh:

Working with creativity to empower women and children


Vivienne Bensonprofile picture Vivienne Benson

Every year on 8 March, thousands of events are held around the world to inspire, celebrate and empower women to mark International Women’s Day (IWD). This year on 6-7 March, it is directly preceded by the President of the General Assembly to the United Nations (PGA) High Level discussion on The Contributions of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

At the centre of the PGA discussion are the challenges that continue to impede groups from participating fully in society and from having the scope to ensure the accountability of decision-makers through their actions and voices.

Empowering marginalised women, men and young people to speak for themselves on issues of equity and rights should be a primary objective of the UN and other global decision makers. Key to that objective is developing the skills and capacity of women, men, young people and civil society to use different tools for creative expression in order to support people to speak through the medium that is most relevant to them.

Telling their own stories
The Participate Initiative’s partners have worked with participatory methods to facilitate processes where people living in poverty and marginalisation can tell their own stories about how and why change happens in their lives. The Middle East Non-Violence and Democracy (MEND) works to promote active non-violence and open media in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. They have worked with marginalised women from these areas to share their reality through film.

Palestinian women filming

Palestinian women share their stories with the world through participatory film-making. Credit MEND 2013

MEND worked with a group of women in the village of Al Jib. The group learnt how to make their own films, from behind and in front of the camera. Reflecting on this process the women involved explained that they were ‘happy because we have a voice and we can send our message out’. In making their film, they are able to talk about what is most important to them: ‘there isn’t a single word in the world or in the dictionary that can express my anger and sadness [about the Wall that encircles village] and the tragedy because it really has no limits’. The clarity and poignancy of this message is expressed in their short film – Unhappy Birthday.

The participatory video process enabled the women to build relationships and learn from other women in their community. It has supported them to build the confidence and belief that they can and have the right to express their aspirations for change, ‘what I gained from the project the most was that I have more self-confidence, I am more strong and more sociable now’.

The Participate Initiative has 18 partners within 29 countries, all of whom have worked with the poorest and most marginalised communities to communicate the issues that are important in their lives, on their own terms. The Seed Institute, Kenya, Nairobi worked with children in Mwiki to conduct their own research on the experience of children living with disabilities. In their findings they explained that these children were forgotten and ignored. Using participatory video, they voice their concerns and identify practical solutions to improve the lives of children living with disabilities, and their families.

International Women’s Day and the PGA discussions should stand as a reminder that women and children should be heard in their own voice. The use of video and other creative mediums are effective ways to empower communities to find their own voice and speak their unfiltered message locally and globally.

Vivienne Benson works as Research Administrator at IDS and is the Events Coordinator for the Participate Initiative.

Read other recent blogs about Participate:

Watch the short videos:

Top PPSC blog posts in 2013


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

As we’re approaching the end of 2013 I would like to use the opportunity to highlight the top ten posts of the Participation, Power and Social Change blog, as well as some other interesting posts, that you might have missed.

This year we had an interesting array of posts providing commentary on events around the world, such as political change in Egypt, riots in Brazil, tragedies and revolts in Bangladesh, as well as presentations of outputs from some of our main research programmes and initiatives. Bloggers included researchers from the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change team, some of our partners, working with us on a variety of projects and some students associated with the team through our MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and through our PhD programme.

Welcome to all those that joined our follower-list in 2013. We now have over 450 people following our blog and compared to 2012, we have more than doubled our views, which is excellent news. We hope you have found our posts interesting and even enjoyable. Please feel free to invite others to join our follower-group and find out what we’re up to.

Top 10 blog posts:

1. Participation for Development: Why is this a good time to be alive? By Robert Chambers

2. Bangladesh: Rana Plaza is a parable of globalisation by Naomi Hossain

3. From making us cry to making us act: five ways of communicating ‘development’ in Europe by Maria Cascant

4. The Marriage Trap: the pleasures and perils of same-sex equality by Stephen Wood

5. Bangladesh is revolting, again by Naomi Hossain

6. Storytelling in Development Practice by Hamsini Ravi

7. Missing the pulse of Egypt’s citizens? by Mariz Tadros

8. I’m (still) hungry, mum: the return of Care by Naomi Hossain

9. The crisis of Brazilian democracy, as seen from Mozambique by Alex Shankland

10. Heteronormativity: why demystifying development’s unspoken assumptions benefits us all by Stephen Wood

Other interesting blogs that you might have missed:

To give a different nuance to our commentary and research, we’ve also introduced some visual blog posts this year, showing videos, photographs and cartoons. Have a look:

Finally, on behalf of the Power, Participation and Social Change Team at IDS, we wish all our readers happy holidays (if you’re celebrating) and a good start into 2014. We will be back with more blog posts in early January.

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.

Work with us: Community-driven research inspiring change


Susanne SchirmerSue_Schirmer200

‘People are sick and tired of being subjects of research. We are doing action research so people are becoming subjects of transformation.’

For me this statement from Walter Arteaga, one of the partner researchers in the Participate Initiative, sums up the creative approach my colleagues in the Participate Initiative are taking to engage those that are most affected by poverty and marginalisation in change and to bring their perspectives into the post-2015 process.

The Participate Initiative, recently launched a new short video which showcases some of the exciting participatory research the team has been undertaking with their partners in 29 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe in the past year. The team has been using participatory videos and digital storytelling – together with other participatory research methods –to make excluded voices heard in the UN debates around a post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework.

Watch the 20 min documentary and be inspired:

Alternatively, if you’re pressed for time check out some of the shorter films:

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.

Read other recent blogs about Participate:

From making us cry to making us act: five ways of communicating ‘development’ in Europe


By Maria Cascantmariacs-60

A few weeks ago I watched the ‘Red Nose Day‘, an annual TV show in the UK that collects funds for development projects. IDS fellow Spencer Henson wrote a blog on the apparent disconnect between the high levels of donation for such events and UK citizens’ scepticism on keeping the target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid. As for me, I got caught by the images used, namely helpless children. I went to sleep that night wondering how much development communication had really evolved in the last decades.

picture of sad boy in Kenya

example of ‘shock effect’ type image

laughter blog 4 April

example of ‘positive image’ type

Some days ago, a colleague passed me the article ‘Post-humanitarianism: humanitarian communication beyond a politics of pity‘ (2010). I was fascinated by the read. The author, LSE fellow Lilie Chouliaraki, suggested three types of appeal used in humanitarian and development communication. Type number 1, the ‘shock effect’, may be familiar. An early example is the Red Cross/Life magazine photos on the 1951 Bihar (Indian) famine showing starving children, old women calling out ‘Sir, we are dying’ and a begging mother with a child in her arms. With increased criticism and ethical controls on these images, a more ‘positive image’ type of appeal emerged in the late 80s. These are images of children smiling or farmers with newly acquired farming tools. They can be easily found in most of current sponsorship ads.

One would think that starving children and smiling children are pretty opposed ways of communicating. Yet Chouliaraki sustains they are not. They are in fact the two sides of the same coin. Both use photorealism in their format and are emotion-oriented (guilt or gratitude) in their content.

It is here that Chouliaraki’s article suggests the emergence of a third ‘post-emotional’ type of appeal, which breaks with previous ones in both format and content. The format defies photorealism and experiments with a range of artistic methods. The content moves from using emotions to using branding (i.e. of a renowned NGO) to attract the spectator. A paradigmatic case is Amnesty’s ad ‘Bullet. The Execution’, which won the ad production prize at Cannes Festival in 2006. The use of popular TV stars in development communication and campaigning could also be seen to follow this post-emotional trend. In short, it is the message’s format and spokesperson what validates the message itself, more than its content.

Pretty different this time from the other two, one would think. Yet Chouliaraki objects again. All three types still transmit a disgraceful context ‘there’ while the sole action expected from the European spectator ‘here’ is to feel attracted (by pity or by brand) and to donate to solve the matter. The sufferers are depicted as perpetually awaiting the spectator’s generosity, portraying development as a gift from Europe to elsewhere. None of the three types opts to explain at least one of the many reasons that create the unequal situation in the first place. None addresses, in this sense, the limitations of development interventions.

Chouliaraki’s article concludes here, with the description of these three types of appeal. With current initiatives like the Red Nose Day show or Kony 2012, one would think, yes that must be it – development communication has not really advanced much further. But perhaps you may have in your inbox, as I do, one of those emails asking to ‘sign the petition’. Most of these do not seek (only) our money, but our ‘click’ – a click to show ideological support to a cause; to lobby a decision-maker, MP, bank or firm. Other petitions even take a step further: they ask you to sign but also to change something in your lifestyle.

For instance, the Clean Clothes Campaign (2010) explains how jeans produced with the abrasive technique of sandblasting have toxic effects in the Bangladeshi female workers that make them. Besides appeals for e.g.  lobbying those firms using sandblasting and asking governments to regulate on the practice, the campaign asks us to stop buying that type of trousers. In the same line, the Bank Secrets Campaign (2009) lists those banks investing in human right abuses such as polluting powers, controversial weapons, and repressive regimes. It then asks us to move our money to ethical banks and to organise chats, stalls and video-debates besides more lobby-based appeals like ‘discuss with a banker’ and ‘send an e-card’.

Are petition appeals different from previous ones? Perhaps not on the format. Petitions can be as creative as post-emotional type appeals (i.e. caricatures) but they don’t really suggest anything aesthetically new. Yet in terms of content, they do. They are political. They engage the spectator in an intellectual exercise instead of an emotional or consumerist one. They present a cause-effect message between the ‘here’ of the spectator and the ‘there’ of the sufferer, showing that at least one of the causes of the other side’s distress originates in the spectator’s own context (i.e. a MP decision, a consumption pattern).

Petitions have their own constraints. Lobby-type ones may become repetitive and bring a certain ‘petition fatigue’. They also miss out on self-reflection and personal change, and may even remind us of the immediacy and superficiality of post-emotional, consumerist modes (‘email this MP and done’). Conversely, lifestyle-type appeals are less efficient on tackling urgent actions than, say, crowd bombardment of a MP’s inbox. Both types seem thus complementary. For instance, one-off, massive, urgent petitions can be matched with longer-term pledges on the same cause by more committed, self-organised groups. What seems important in any case is that appeals use both consumer and citizen power to put pressure not only on those firms and banks operating unjust practices but also on states, the ultimate regulatory and decision-making bodies.

All in all, petitions are just petitions. They rely on large numbers saying ‘no’ all at once and are thus meant to be limited and timely to a particular cause. We can help save workers from sandblasting today, but forget their overall work precariousness tomorrow. Petitions may thus need other protest forms beside to help shake the more difficult political stuff. And yet, even within their limitations, petitions do have some relative power to keep firms, banks and governments thinking twice about their moves, and to keep citizens, including business, bank and government citizens, informed and active.

Promoting these more political types of appeal, rather than lingering on emotional ones or adapting to ad-like ones, would give development communication a more constructive role. Emotional types are still dominant, as seen with the popular Red Nose Day. Yet, some organisations and agencies have already made a move. They may lose in fundraising power and in popularity, but gain a lot in coherence. An opportunity cost worth considering. This would bring deeper levels of participation in development communication and campaigning, and ultimately, a paradigm of development engaged in personal and institutional change not only ‘there’ but also ‘here’.

Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. She is interested in development activism with a focus on the links between popular education and economic (tax) justice campaigning in Nigeria and the UK.

Read other blogs by Maria Cascant

What were the PPSC blog’s Top 10 posts of 2012?


Stephen_Wood200Stephen Wood

On behalf of the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team, I’d like to welcome back our readers to what we hope proves to be a fascinating year for our blog. Reflecting the outputs from several research projects and a number of pressing global debates and issues we are engaged in, the PPSC research team have some really interesting pieces in the pipeline in the next few months.  I hope you’ll continue to read and engage with the debates and discussion that arise from our articles.

However, in case you missed some of our blogs last year, I thought you might like to look at our Top 10 most popular pieces, as well as some of our articles that you might have missed! Please do share these with your networks, add comments if you haven’t already and as always, encourage others to subscribe to the blog!

Top 10 blog posts of 2012:

  1. “Just do women’s empowerment”  by Naomi Hossain
  2. “On having Voice and Being Heard: Participation in the Post-2015 Policy Process”  by Elizabeth Mills
  3. “Spring uprisings calling spring academics: #bring books out to the streets” by Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere
  4. “Global development: the new buzzword?” by Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere and Alex Kelbert
  5. “Eleven predictions for Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood (if they continue to remain in power” by Mariz Tadros
  6. “Post 2015: What do policymakers know about poverty?” by Joanna Wheeler and Danny Burns
  7. “No gong for Cameron’s Hunger Summit” by Naomi Hossain
  8. “Challenging attempts to silence civil society in Uganda” by Stephen Wood
  9. “Are we ready for an ‘academic spring’?” by Danny Burns
  10. “Digital activism in post-revolution Egypt: How relevant is online dissidence in the marathon for democracy?” by Hani Morsi

Excellent blog posts you might have missed in 2012:

Stephen Wood is a researcher on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood: