The Stories That Change Our World: How Narrative Fiction Can Take the Development Sector to Greater Social Impact
The husband was yelling into the celebration from the street. At first the women didn’t notice, because they were all cheering and clapping out the beat while the wife danced on a table in the center of the circle. Then he pushed his way in, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her away from the group.
I heard this story several years ago when I worked with a microfinance organization that provides a combination of microfinance services, healthcare and training to some of Latin America’s poorest women. At the end of each loan cycle, the women in the microfinance group would gather to celebrate their collective successes. It was at one of these parties that the angry husband showed up. But the story wasn’t over – because these women had learned to take charge of their lives. They’d gotten a taste of autonomy and authority, and it felt right. So before the husband could drag his wife more than a few steps, the group jumped to her rescue, collectively beating and kicking the husband until he ran off.
At first, the story inspired me. What an incredible show of strength, confidence and solidarity. Then I began to think: What happens when she goes home? The husband will be there, and her friends will not. His family will be there, and they won’t have received any of the training or community support that she has received in the past few months. The statistics show that they will likely side with him.
In short, she has changed, but the world around her has not.
Using Storytelling for Social Impact
My point in sharing this story isn’t that these types of group microfinance models don’t work. Women need financial support, business training, and access to quality sexual and reproductive healthcare. These programs play a critical role in providing these services, and in building local economies. But in order to make a lasting impact, these programs also need support in changing the social norms that keep men and women trapped in traditional gender roles.
I believe that storytelling can help. I work as a consultant and social impact producer exploring ways to increase impact in the international development sector through media. One example of the power of this approach that stands out to me involves a radio soap opera called “Musekeweya” – which means “new dawn” – created to support reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. The program was produced in partnership with a Holocaust specialist, Ervin Staub, Rwandan storytellers, and a psychology reseacher, Betsy Paluck. Dr. Paluck’s impact research showed that after just one year, listeners began to change some of the ineffable behaviors critical for shifting social norms. For example, supporting intermarriage is one of the central pillars of Dr. Staub’s research on preventing a genocide, and Dr. Paluck found that “people who listened to ‘Musekeweya’ began supporting intermarriage even if they didn’t personally think that intermarriage was a good thing.”
Advocacy campaigns and journalism can all contribute to raising awareness around social issues. In order to actually change these norms, however, I believe fictional storytelling presents greater promise. Dr. Paluk’s research shows that fiction creates an environment where viewers can engage with a story while their defenses are at rest, in a way that is less threatening than a fact-based news story. Psychology research confirms this, providing evidence that humans actually dig their heels in deeper when faced with facts that undermine their beliefs.
Using soap operas to convey messages isn’t a new concept in the world of development. There are many organizations, including the World Bank, that have shown the effectiveness of embedding financial literacy messaging into television programs. These successes highlight a unique untapped opportunity to tackle the tougher issues that keep financially capable women from accessing adequate credit to grow their businesses, taking a job or advancing in their careers, or enjoying an equitable and respectful marriage.
Partnering with local Storytellers
How do we take advantage of this opportunity? Development practitioners have a treasure trove of stories that are waiting to be told. The countless data points and anecdotes that we collect from our work in the poorest communities around the world are exactly what local storytellers need to create content that will resonate with their audience. We need to find ways to partner with these local creators, so that our clients’ stories can be told in a way that challenges the last-mile social norms that keep women and other disadvantaged groups from realizing their full potential. These partnerships could take different forms, ranging from providing funding or filmmaking equipment to local storytellers, to advising on storylines, to finding the right distribution channels.
Here are a few examples of stories that are beginning to address social norms in their communities:
- A wildly popular soap opera in Senegal that tells the story of four women facing domestic violence, sexual abuse and barriers in the workplace
- An Amazon Prime series that addresses class issues, homophobia and sexual harassment in India
- An American Idol-like television show in Somalia designed to reduce islamic extremism
What stories might have benefited our microfinance client and her family, from the beginning of this article? What are the most powerful stories you’ve come across in your own work in low-income communities? Are there local storytellers in your area looking for ways to make a difference – and if so, how could you collaborate with them? If you have any ideas or opportunities you’d like to discuss, I’d love to hear about them. You can reach me at www.linkedin.com/in/lara-storm.
Lara Storm is an independent consultant and social impact producer exploring ways to increase impact in the international development sector through thought-provoking film and television.
Image: Screenshot from the Senegalese soap opera “Maitresse d’un homme marié (Mistress of a Married Man).“