An overlooked side of storytelling (and how not to miss it)

Photo by Joseph Gilbert.
Photo by Simon Law. Some rights reserved.
Photo by Simon Law. Some rights reserved.

“Everyone—community members, donors, national leaders, technical experts, clicktivists, policymakers—need an accurate vision of what the problems are, how they affect people’s lives,  and how best to respond. They should no longer hear only about people in need, but from them.” – from the Development Element

The voice-lens cycle: how one-sided narratives hurt development

Everything we read or see is filtered through a lens. Usually that lens is the eye of the person telling the story or the literal lens of the camera. Other times, it is whatever direction editing teams in films and documentaries take. That lens shapes the way we see a particular problem or success. It molds how we then try to seek solutions to those problems or repeat those successes. And it affects how we view the other people involved in that story.

This blog’s title stems from a South African proverb that speaks to the power of voice. When one narrative dominates media, reporting, and global poverty stories, it runs the risk of distorting issues, clouding complexity, or even silencing important voices. In other words, it shapes the lens through which we view the world, for better or for worse.

Recurring examples 

We don’t have to look far to see how one-sided narratives have caused so much harm. Just think of how minorities have been, and are still portrayed (or not even represented at all). And think how even though people from various minority groups are speaking up, it’s still so hard to get people to listen.

Or, think of the “she was asking for it” narrative regarding street harassment and rape. The dominant voice for decades, even centuries, has tried to blame the victim. It attempts to convince her that if she had only worn something different, or done something different, she could have avoided that unwanted attention or attack. Obviously this is not true. Sometimes this narrative even affects the way that women view themselves after being assaulted. The problem can also flow into how some doctors and police officers question victims. All this feeds into a cycle of shame and confusion.

The chains we make (and must try to break)

People around the world are using their voices to speak out against injustices. They are trying to change the narrative, so that it better represents reality. But it’s hard. One-sided narratives can create chains that are hard to break.

Now think about these challenges in relation to how we talk about international development. Until we let people tell their own stories, and until we actually listen to what they have to say, we may end up tightening the chains from which many are still trying to break free.

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Photo by Joseph Gilbert. Some rights reserved.

Voice and human dignity

Amartya Sen spoke of how, when examining poverty, we also have to look at dignity. He said that human beings should be able to walk around their communities without shame. Admittedly, this is a difficult thing to assess. And people might be walking around in shame for reasons that have nothing to do with poverty. But I’m beginning to think that the power to tell one’s own story might be part of the solution. And maybe that even means we need to stop trying to save the world in the traditional sense.

Diverse voices are needed to break the cycles of biased, patronizing, or harmful narratives. As development practitioners, many of us work with people and organizations whose realities are completely different than our own. Sometimes a new perspective can help make connections or shed different light on a subject. It’s not that an outside voice is always a bad thing. But if that’s the only voice projected, then the cycles of misrepresentation will continue.

So how are we supposed to do this?

  • First, we have to listen. And I mean really listen. Don’t think about your next question before the other person finishes speaking. Try not think about your agenda and the dozens of meetings you have to attend. Of course, unless you’re able to take a participatory media approach, there will be some filtering.
  • But use quotes wisely and frequently.
  • Give context.
  • Try to bring in as much perspective from our partners as possible.

What you find out may not be what you want to hear. But that will only create more opportunities to better address challenges.

We can also learn from documentary filmmakers and participatory media projects. A positive trend I’ve seen in documentary filmmaking lately, has been to omit the all-knowing narrator, and let people speak for themselves. Of course, editing can still distort things. But it makes it easier to connect with the people speaking, and begin to see the world through their eyes.

In other words, let’s let our partners use their voices more.

And in response, we need to listen. Because that’s the other side of storytelling.

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