Who do you believe – the people or the experts?
One of the areas where narrative research can make a real difference is the development world. Recent conversations with colleagues at the World Health Organisation and UNICEF have revolved around how to address complex environments and issues – and the central role that narrative must play in that, given the need to include context and attitude in evaluation and monitoring programmes.
As we’ve also seen, however, it can meet resistance from field experts. Results taken from the recipients of aid can show radical differences from the opinions of people who have a strong degree of professional status in their knowledge and analysis. And it takes a strong individual to be willing to take on new information that contradicts a long-held position.
Dennis Whittle of GlobalGiving recently ran a project with some Cognitive Edge network colleagues looking at development issues in Kenya. He sums up some of it in the Huffington Post: Dennis Whittle: If You Can Flip a Coin, Can You Be an Expert?. Having compared experts’ predictions with emergent issues from the local recipients, he comments on what may lie in store with approaches like narrative research:
It will create an ongoing, iterative conversation between beneficiaries and experts about what is needed, what works and what doesn’t, and what that implies about priorities and initiatives in subsequent rounds.
My instincts, from experiences last year, are that we need to find better ways of bringing the experts with us (while maintaining their independent viewpoints, the value of their expertise and – where appropriate – their challenge to ensure our approaches are rigorous and clean). If we can do that, the result will be better ways of working in developing areas, monitoring impact at the most appropriate level (not just the higher level that’s easier to reach) and ways of building greater expertise and better judgment at every level – from the field up.