We are given incentives for fitting our work into story structures: for publishing research where we prioritize novelty over replicability; for providing success stories, when we know there is more to be learned from failure or, perhaps even more so, in the spaces between failure and success. Social media demands messages be boiled down to 140 characters for the eight-second attention span. These are packaged into convenient parcels to demonstrate our preferred identity as we share a link to a story we’ve never read. The pressure is to keep things simple, short and compelling.
Stories are powerful, but too often their power comes from ignoring aspects of reality that don’t fit the narrative. The focus on a protagonist obscures the range of efforts and individuals that go into development outcomes. Used irresponsibly, stories can undermine the reality of how development actually takes place, understate the challenges facing our partner communities, and can make us appear naive or, at worst, cynical. And that doesn’t even touch on the ethical questions of us defining the protagonist’s story, rather than them.