Why International Development Needs Storytelling


By Shannon Sutton, IDRC 

I’ve always been interested in storytelling. A story is a time-tested way to pass experiences down from one person to another. A story is how wisdom is shared with the next generation, whether a historical text or a bedtime story, and it’s how we as development practitioners inspire action and change. Storytelling got me interested in communications and it’s the reason I believe that we need to build storytelling into all our project plans.  

As a Senior Program Officer with Canada’s International Development Research Centre, I also recognize that, while we often expect partners to share stories about their experiences working with us, we rarely have an opportunity to build capacity around how to best do this. So, for this project, a collaboration with Gender at Work, we decided to do things differently. We went beyond simply asking participants to write a policy brief or blog. Instead, we guided them and ourselves through a process aimed at surfacing stories of impact and transformation. 

Along with the five think tanks participating in the Think Tank Initiative’s Gender Action Learning Project (learn more in our recent blog post on Using action learning to promote gender equality), we all met in Guatemala City in March 2019 for a Writeshop with writing coach Ethan Gilsdorf. Ethan guided us through a process of private, personal and public writing, equipped us with tools and suggestions for pitching ideas, and encouraged us to dedicate time to writing (by hand, with pens and pencils!) daily in our journals. What he really did for many of us was reinvigorate a love of writing and storytelling. As Ethan describes: 

Storytelling is about capturing an experience, in a narrative form, with a beginning, middle and end. Ideally, a story conveys some personal journey. By including dramatic situations, conflicts and dilemmas, and characters we can root for, great storytelling makes an individual, unique experience feel universal and conveys universal truths. 

Throughout this 18-month action learning project, all the participants have been exploring a gender issue at their organizations, be it the research or their organization’s policies and practices, documenting the process, and using evidence to take action. For example, Nigeria’s Centre for Population and Environmental Development is working to develop an organizational-wide gender policy; El Salvador’s Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económico y Social has crafted a new Memorandum of Understanding to create a network of Salvadorean women; and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development in Bangladesh is working to integrate gender considerations in all research and project design. These and other stories are captured here in this Gender at Work series.  

This had me thinking about why we tell these stories, particularly in the world of international development. A few reasons came to mind and, given the participatory nature of this workshop, I had the opportunity to crowdsource these ideas. 

Firstly, we tell stories to make sense of our own experiences. Reflecting on our projects helps us to understand our progress and what we are learning. For example, in one of the sessions I heard a participant say: 

We know that gender isn’t just a women’s issue and I wonder if we should have focused more on projects that looked beyond the role of women.  

The same individual also noted that she’s observed that her organization’s efforts to build institutional capacity around gender has had a major impact on the younger generation at her organization. By taking time to sit back and reflect on our experiences, we begin to understand the change process that we’re a part of and learn how to best strengthen our own work. As one participant noted:  

We do this to build a common understanding of our collective experience. It allows us to make sense of what we’re doing and connect with others. We have similar experiences and this helps us to remember what we have in common. 

Secondly, storytelling allows us to connect with people we otherwise wouldn’t reach. If only we could have an in-person conversation with all the organizations, fellow researchers, government agencies and funders we want to share our message with. Unfortunately, we must work to have our voices heard through all the noise that’s out there, particularly given social media. Finding ways to document and publish our stories, be they blog posts or op-eds, allows us to share our message with those we can’t speak with directly.  

Thirdly, we tell stories so that others can learn from our experiences, and we can in turn learn from them. Unless we find a way to document what we’re doing, others won’t be able to learn from our work. Storytelling opens up a conversation about a topic, and allows us to both share our ideas as well as interact with others who can share their own experiences. As one participant said: 

 It’s about the ‘aha’ moment that comes from hearing someone else’s story. We don’t experience this alone. 

Stories, and the process of telling them, can be transformative. Be they work-related or personal, the act of sharing these narratives helps us to make sense of our world, understand the experiences of others, build empathy, and inspire action and change. I hope you, the reader, enjoy the stories in this series, and I look forward to continuing to learn from all our participants as they share their ongoing journeys of organizational change.

Shannon Sutton is a Senior Program Officer with the Think Tank Initiative at the International Development Research Centre, and the coordinator of the Gender Action Learning Project. Her complete bio can be found here.

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