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Writing Humanity into Development: Telling the Story of the Personal Impacts, Not Just the Statistics

“…it seemed to me a shame that between the highly technical, acronym-heavy documents written within the world of development and the often saccharine self-descriptions of the church workers, there were so few people writing development stories from a human perspective. Stories that were not especially concerned with a man’s eternal soul or his statistical representation, but with his life.” –Zadie Smith, taken from her article “Mind the Gap” on Guernicamag.com

Authors Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and a host of others are writers selected to do just that — to report and write on the perils of the education system in a variety of countries — Nigeria, Haiti, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Pakistan…etc.

So first of all, I think that Zadie Smith writes a compelling, interesting and well-written article. But so much surrounding the very essence of this project — to take a few great writers to spend a limited amount of time doing this project to contribute a few articles on education development — just reinforces some of the challenges I see in this sector, and in promoting communications as a viable tool for promoting and explaining development for a global audience.

On my first read, I loved this article, because so much of what she wrote resonated with me. This is EXACTLY the type of work that I am doing at present and plan to continue to do in the future. But that’s just it; the question is, how to make a career of it? Because this is totally the undervalued aspect of development, particularly in funding.

For what I’m sure are a host of reasons, a focus on writing on development project and program impacts in a way that’s accessible and interesting to the public is much easier said than done in the current state of affairs.  This is a sector where most organizations prefer or are only able to hire writers on a consultancy-type basis to develop content for them — writing stories, taking photos, etc. — rather than having even just one person on full-time staff who is charged with this.

I’m still trying to determine whether this is an issue that is internally derived (organizations don’t want to spend money on this sort of thing) or externally derived (donors are not interested in this sort of thing, they just want their professional reports and other M&E requirements).  But it is definitely an issue. And, isn’t this Writers Bloc project, which is great by the way and developing some great content, just contributing to this, in some sense?

Additionally, I think that one major strength that international development writers or communicators can bring to the table that these writers may struggle with is the importance of context. Yes, we have to get beyond the numbers, but I would argue, why aren’t we trying to find a way to make the numbers real? Why aren’t we telling these stories within the context of project impacts.

But, it’s not that I don’t agree with Zadie Smith on this article. There is so much focus on macro indicators, statistics, and meeting deadlines, with not enough focus on the people and individuals in communities and their personal experiences and impacts. It’s their stories that make it real, make it worthwhile. And it’s these stories that can more tangibly demonstrate to a global audience why these sort of international development interventions are still merited.

So, perhaps the key is to find a healthy compromise — yes, projects have to justify their funding through impacts, and measurements of indicators and statistics. But adding that additional dimension — recognizing the value in the human aspect of development — is essential as well. But I would like organizations like the Open Society Institute to put their money where there mouth is, that is to say, to work to promote more long-term communications for development projects, and to work with organizations to take this on and adopt their mentality, and see the value and the need for making this a permanent part of their work.

  • http://www.sushiinaccra.com Nathan

    Hello Victoria – really good post here. There's a precedent for this from way back in the 30s – husband and wife team Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange, an economist and a photographer, did fascinating fieldwork for the US Farm Securities Administration during the Depression, combining hard research with powerful photojournalism. A different context, but definitely touches on the sort of synthesis you're talking about. There's a good account of it in Linda Gordon's biography of Lange. Interesting that what they explored is still so out of the ordinary 80 years later.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02949860238411636683 victoria

    Hi Nathan — thanks for your comment. I'd tried to post a reply, but I'm seeing just now that it never went through! Anyway, your discussion reminds me of a fantastic course I took on photojournalism when I was studying journalism in undergrad – some excellent examples of people covering the humanity of situations (especially in war situations), and in your example as well. Provides some great fodder to consider how to think about integrating this into development work. Thanks!!