Since novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the 'danger of a single story' in her 2009 TED talk (text at the link; video above), the issue has become more pressing.
Numbing global statistics – 38 million people displaced, 800 million without enough food, thousands of refugees dying at sea – too easily generate a political rhetoric of fear of being swamped by migrants in perpetual need. Such stereotyping creates only one story, a story that subverts a myriad other stories of courage, ingenuity and resilience. These are the stories we need to hear if next year's World Humanitarian Summit and this year's review of Sustainable Development Goals are to achieve lasting change.
Ngozi Adichie's upbringing in a Nigerian middle class family of professionals, followed by a university education, left her unprepared for the reception she received in the US in her late teens. She discovered that her roommate had a preconceived idea of Africa as 'a single story of catastrophe'. The effects ran deep. 'In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.'
Insisting that 'stories matter' is not simply a novelist's whim. A growing body of research shows that stories increase empathy and understanding; they affect our attitudes and judgements. Oliver Sacks' career choice was not influenced by hearing his medico parents discuss case histories at the dinner table, but by listening to them telling the human stories of those patients. His storytelling has enlightened millions of readers on the complexities of brain science. He wrote in his autobiography: 'I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition going along with our powers of language'.
The idea that the human brain is structured to think in narrative is increasingly supported by studies in neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary sciences, a fascinating debate I have summarised elsewhere.*
The hard-nosed corporate world has grabbed at 'the power of story' to form public opinion and influence values; most large corporations now hire professional storytellers to disseminate their 'truths'. Storytelling is big business. Yet many academics remain resistant to 'stories' as lacking rigour and measurability. But in development, we deceive ourselves into a false sense of security if we focus only on what appears to be concrete and claim that as the single story. The reality of development is far more complex, multi-faceted and multi-voiced. Past tragic errors of top-down development models could have been avoided by listening to stories on the ground.
Local stories can challenge the Western-led definitions and perceptions that steer development. In an entry to PNG's literary Crocodile Prize, Reilly Kanamon writes on the growing gap between rich and poor – contradicting the 'economic transformation' blithely claimed by urban elites and outsiders who venture no further than Port Moresby (in the comments, Jack Klomes' questions the external definition of 'poor', and values the dignity of simple self-sufficiency).
Using narrative – relating matter in the form of a story – does not make it 'untrue'. With appropriate skills, hard facts can be told as a story with far greater clout in influencing people than a dry treatise. Hard facts, though, are rare, especially in the field of development; more often, guesstimates, theories and wishful thinking pose as 'facts' to produce the certainty we crave and attract the funding we need.
When academics and professionals ignore the power of narrative, limiting their communications to jargon-laced statistical analyses, they end up talking only to each other. This leaves the public with nothing but media stereotypes. In a functioning democracy, policy is generated by voters: an ill-informed and disengaged populace is in a weak position to press governments for more humane policies.
Fiction, like myth, can portray deeper essential truths than straight reporting in which strict objectivity may be aimed for but is impossible to achieve. It comes as a welcome breakthrough when a credible professional such as Tess Newton Cain sees value in reviewing a novel – Drusilla Modjeska's The Mountain – and posting it on the Devpolicy website. Dr Cain highlights the narrative's authenticity and the insights it provides into Papua New Guinea's past as it creates its present. She recommends reading the novel as a means of achieving better balance in the 'stories' told about Papua New Guinea.
Part of the 'single story' problem is the assumption that poverty is confined to 'developing countries'. It is not. Deep, debilitating inequity is shamefully present in the world's richest nations. How do we re-orient development to local needs and values? How to create a public understanding that becomes a passion, and sustain it for the long haul to ensure governments act for better lives for everyone? Engaging with the multiple voices behind numbing statistics is a good start.
* Ed. note: This essay, From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters (2013), is no longer available following the demise of the publisher, but the author is happy to provide a free Adobe edition. Please contact email@example.com.