Oscar Abello

What Global Development Needs to Make an iPhone? Start With Storytelling

“Tell us about a time when a person or an organization tried to change something in your community.”

There is more to life than randomized controlled trials (RCTs).

Esther Duflo. Abhijit Bhanerjee. Dean Karlan. These have quickly become household names in global development thanks to their steadfast and charismatic leadership for more evidence-based project design and implementation. But besides well-deserved fame, they share a common limitation: their advocacy for a single tool, RCTs, to gather evidence.

By eliminating selection bias in monitoring and evaluation, RCTs are a major improvement upon earlier methods of gathering evidence on the true impact of an intervention. But selection bias is just one obstacle to improving global development with better evidence.

Here’s another name: Marc Maxson (@MarcMaxson). He is a consultant with GlobalGiving who helped create and implement its Storytelling Project, piloting a method of monitoring & evaluation that goes beyond eliminating selection bias. Upon reading this blog post, Maxson may bristle at the mention of him having something to do with evaluation. For him, evaluation isn’t enough; it’s about creating real-time feedback loops.

Maxson is a neuroscientist by training, whose fascination with feedback loops comes from their importance in how the brain functions; I recommend checking out his blog for a deeper dive into his thinking. To create feedback loops, a Maxson-led team from GlobalGiving and some of its partners begin by asking community members to “tell us about a time when a person or organization tried to change something in your community.”

(Check out GlobalGiving Story Project form here).

Weaving stories together using specialized software from UK-based Cognitive Edge, the Storytelling Project team quickly discovers patterns that represent the community’s overall experience of how change happens, including but not limited to people and organizations that have international support.

It’s about empathy with the target market: given the entire breadth of do-gooders out in the world, how does each person or organization figure in the eyes of the community? From the community’s perspective, what’s working, what’s not, what do they wish would work better? Many stories the team compiled were about organizations they’d never heard about before, and they too have access to the feedback collected about them.

Armed with empathy, the possibilities are monumental. When a deep understanding of the end-user’s experience can feed into gut instinct and passion about how a product or service can improve people’s lives, the results tend to look like iPhones or iPads. Regression analysis is helpful but not required for that depth of end-user understanding; Steve Jobs/Apple’s distaste for market testing was/is legendary-but Jobs and Apple view/ed themselves as the end-user, so it was easier to empathize.

Many other industries outside of global development have an easier time empathizing with their target markets. From Starbucks to Nike to Lady Gaga, leaders in other industries are known for more than high-quality products (quite the opposite by some accounts), they’re known even more for connecting with consumers and creating an intangible experience around their products that convinces consumers their lives are better off for buying. Why not use the power of empathy on behalf of better causes?

We might have a lot of passion and gut instinct, but we don’t yet have a deep level of empathy with end-users in the global development industry. We often talk about incorporating insights and inputs from grassroots communities, but even when we’ve done that successfully it remains on a project-by-project basis, RCTs included, rather than delving more broadly into the overall story of positive social deviance-how do people experience change, and to whom do they attribute it.

With a deeper, holistic level of empathy with its target end-users, the global development industry can produce its own iPhones. GlobalGiving’s Storytelling project is an early attempt to capture a deeper systematic understanding of global development’s end-user experience. So far, teams of over 1,000 local Kenyan and Ugandan scribes have collected 23,546 stories from over 5,000 community members, and GlobalGiving has made tools to gather those stories available for others to help deepen empathy in the global development industry.

It makes sense that the Storytelling Project comes from GlobalGiving, as it does not trumpet any specific intervention; nor is it an overly-academic institution that is greatly concerned with getting its insights published in the Journal of Development Economics. When it comes to ramping up the use of evidence in global development, the Storytelling Project’s focus on empathy is a welcome advance from merely eliminating selection bias in monitoring & evaluation.

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Impact Assessment, Social Enterprise
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