gg storytelling

Crossposted from How Matters blog, big thanks to Jennifer Lentfer!

Why aid projects fail is a big, multifaceted question. But I think I can shed light on why we seem to go in circles around the answers. In order to say more, I need to explain where my answer comes from.

From 2010 to 2013, GlobalGiving’s network in East Africa collected tens of thousands of narratives about any “community effort” that a citizen had been involved with. And while these narratives are not the whole story, I think they better reflect the opinions of the people than experts do. I’ve developed online tools that allow you to lump these 57,000 stories into collections for just about any question, and extend the data to cover your specific group or area, using this process:

fig1 how to use stories to sompare what groups of people think

So to gleam insights into why aid projects often fail, I chose to categorize our thousands of “failure” stories into two storyteller perspectives: In both cases, the storyteller shared a story about an outside group coming, helping, or supporting them. But in one group, the storytellers felt affected by the events, and in the other group, they felt they were involved in making the events happen. (These “involved” stories serve as the reference, or benchmark collection to which the “affected” stories will be compared.)

There are three times as many stories about people “affected” by events as those “involved” in the community efforts they talked about. In fact, across our 57,000 stories, only 1 in 8 storytellers felt “involved.” Comparing the “affected” to the “involved” narratives, I see:

fig2 adults and men more likely to be affected and less involved-1

Adults, particularly men, are more likely to share the “affected” perspective than children and youth. Boys are more likely than girls. And though both of these perspectives are much more negative than the stories observers share (data not shown), people who are merely affected by the failures of community efforts are more positive than those who actually got to play a role in a failed effort.

I believe talking about negative outcomes is a good thing. We learn from our mistakes. We use more cognitive, introspective words, and we ask “why.” People do this less often when things work. But this rarely happens at all. Only 0.4% of all stories use cognitive words like “think” or “believed” and reflect on the events. This supports what Chris Etuka Obinwa argues, that we need more people more intimately involved in community efforts and we need them to fail more often, reflect, and give feedback.

In the center of this is where we find the real opportunity for learning:

fig3 learning lies at the heart of involvement and failure-1

To have only a few hundred stories where real learning can happen out of 57,220 says a lot about what citizens have been taught. They’re used to being ignored and they’ve stopped searching deeply for answers, as Barongo ba Kafuuzi Ateenyi notes. But this same data set can also be used to look at the way people use reasoning, introspective, cognitive words in their stories. This blew my mind:

As our sample Kenyan and Ugandan storytellers gets older, they become less likely to tell introspective stories that ask “why.” Men and Women over 30 are about 50% less likely, and boys and girls under 16 are about 50% more likely. Everybody who introspects is more negative, consistent with what the author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, James Pennebaker, predicts.

Maybe the aid world’s obsession with “happy stories” is precisely what drives us away from learning what we must before we can succeed.

And I believe Njoroge Kabugu is also right. A quarter of all stories are about solutions, not problems. In stories about failure, half talk about a solution. We included this problem-solution question precisely because we thought local NGOs would want to learn from solutions stories.

But we are both the citizens and the “problem solvers.” Our bias against thoughtfulness is personal (citizens) and systemic (organizations). Very few organizations have made an effort to do what I just did in this post.

I’ve developed these online tools to show you life, richly encoded in narratives and understood on a scale that has eluded the aid sector for decades.

All of the tools I used are free and online, and rather extensible. We even reward our GlobalGiving partner organizations if they use them.

In fact, the Nominet Trust has funded us to provide intensive storytelling-grantwriting training to organizations that are curious enough to make better use of what already exists. If you would like to join, our application deadline is a few weeks away. Learn more and submit your expression of interest at

And even if you miss the deadline for the training program, our tools will STILL be free, online, and come with extensive do-it-yourself tutorials at that same link.

The more your dive down this rabbit hole, that is GlobalGiving’s Storytelling Project, the more I think you’ll find practical ways to amplify your organization’s vision and build a real relationship with the people you serve.

The search tool, for beginners:


Marc Maxson is an Innovation Consultant at Global Giving and a PhD neuroscientist. He was formerly a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia (1999-2001) and did a Fulbright research project around the impact of computers and the Internet on rural education in West Africa.

One Response to “How to understand the impact of aid projects? Storytelling!”

  1. Jindra Cekan

    April 7, 2014

    Jennifer – fascinating. What did you learn from the 0.4 who were interested in talking about failure? What did they do, what can we learn? We must listen and learn from both failures and successes, by valuing their voices. And fascinating on the demographics!
    Cheers, Jindra


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