Foreign Policy Blogs

Aid, Microfinance & the Stories We Tell

Halfway through Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, I find myself with many of the same thoughts that plagued me during my graduate studies – how could so many smart people get this so entirely wrong?  Regardless of whether you agree with the intensity of Moyo’s criticism, you will find your head nodding along at some point.  You will remember the stories of foreign aid through the decades – as though you are recalling the fashions of that time frame.  Aid as reconstruction, aid as poverty alleviation, aid for good governance, and aid by celebrity.

We create our realities through these stories – whether or not the work is particularly “good”, “useful” or “effective”.

Working in the field of philanthropy, we rely heavily on stories to bring the stark reality of the world into people’s hearts and heads.  Donors are not always close enough to the issue to understand its operations and intricacies, so our stories help guide on why their support is so necessary.  Yet, the stories we tell can not always capture the entirety of the dilemmas we are seeking to solve, the changes we are trying to make.  Usually, our stories focus on one perspective, from one perspective.

The danger of this is oversimplifying the problem.  And if we use aid as an example, we’ve oversimplified the story and changed the story to a point to where we are all confused.

This article came across my Google Reader today “Values Underlying Microfinance Success Stories” (Romani and Lerpold).  It examines how Western values are coloring our stories of  microfinance’s success.  My favorite point comes near the end “Are the signified values and assumptions representing beliefs and preferences of microfinance clients, or rather those of development professionals?”

We assume a lot about the importance of our work – and what if our perspective is only using one set of values to tell these stories?  Are we oversimplifying?  Are we missing a critical message?

As a philanthropy professional, I don’t always take as much notice of my values bias when I tell stories of our organization.  In thinking about aid, microfinance and telling stories of our own work, are there ways to tell a more complete story from the very start of our work?