We have all seen them: the advertisements featuring a lonely, sad, hungry child in a faraway country pleading for your help. The ones where you feel guilty by the end, and the organization producing them hopes you feel just guilty enough to open your wallet. But, here’s the problem: while it may generate donations, this “poverty porn” does not paint an accurate picture of global development and it may not help create meaningful, sustainable change. This storytelling style likely does not sway people to support international development programs or to contact their members of Congress.

From increasing girls’ access to education to treating and preventing diseases like HIV, global – or international – development helps to improve the lives of the world’s poor and most vulnerable people. Over the years, international development’s efforts to reduce poverty and inequality and improve health, education and economic opportunities for all have changed for the better. With donor agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), reexamining their approaches to foreign assistance and the United Nations introducing the Sustainable Development Goals, global development has shifted its focus towards building sustainable partnerships that work to solve development challenges and end extreme poverty by 2030. Until recently, international development messaging had not kept up with these positive changes.

In 2014, a coalition of organizations led by InterAction sought to fix that. Through qualitative and quantitative research, they identified the ways in which global development storytelling can be reframed to not only convey development successes, but to foster a more positive outlook and build support among the general public. This new framework, known as the Narrative Project, is leaving “poverty porn” behind and changing international development storytelling for the better.

The Narrative Project
As they conducted their research, the Narrative Project team found that both the target audience and messaging strategy needed to be reexamined to shift the narrative and motivate audiences to support global development.

Who to Reach
Through surveying people in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France, the project identified three segments of the general public across all four countries: the Supporters, the Swings, and the Skeptics. The supporters were already on board and in favor of international development while the skeptics were unlikely to be swayed from their belief that foreign assistance is ineffective. The Swings, however, were on the fence – they could be led to either support development or believe it is wasteful and ineffective. If international development communications were to focus on reaching these Swings and breaking through the barriers of cynicism, distance, and futility that surround development, then support for foreign assistance could double. The Swings needed to be the new target audience in international development communications.

How to Reach Them
Once the project identified the Swings as the target audience, the question of how to effectively reach them still remained. What new language and messaging could work to build support and motivate them to take action?

The Narrative Project discovered using four particular themes in development messaging could answer this question. By employing the three core themes – independence, shared values, and partnership – with the supporting theme – progress – development communicators could positively change the narrative.

Narrative Project Themes

After the framework’s launch, four of the partners involved in the research applied the themes to their social media content for a short-term trial: three of the four organizations saw a 120 percent increase in engagement during the test. Following in this initial success, humanitarian and development organizations around the world have been implementing the themes into their messaging strategies. But, the key to the framework’s success is not short-term implementation. To create long-term change and shift narratives, organizations and communicators must continuously use the themes in their messaging. These themes – independence, shared values, partnership, and progress – are the missing link to building support among the Swings.

Tell Better Stories: Testing the Narrative Project
Until this year, the Narrative Project existed mainly in theory with development professionals and organizations using the themes but no formal studies supporting the project’s findings. The Visual Epidemiology Project at Yale University and the international development organization PATH, alongside their partners, spearheaded a study investigating how the Narrative Project’s messages can engage the public via internet-based videos and the differences between using a more didactic, lecture-based approach versus an emotional, story-based approach in these videos.

Overall, the study’s findings, detailed in the recently released Tell Better Stories report, show that the public favors the use of story and emotion-based videos when compared to lecture-based videos. The study found that using videos and employing the Narrative Project themes sway Swings to support international development and take action.

When broken down by each theme, the emotion-based video (below) performed better when looking at the independence theme than the lecture-based video and both videos improved upon the control group (which did not view a video and received a generic description of development). There was no significant difference in perception between the videos when evaluating for shared values, but both videos substantially improved upon the control. When looking at the partnership theme, there were mixed results, with the emotion-based video showing superiority in one prompt and the lecture-based video in the other, but, both videos, once again, dramatically improved upon the control. Finally, when measuring for the progress theme, the emotion-based video was superior to the lecture-based video and both improved upon the control group.

In speaking with PATH’s Kelly Healy, the Tell Better Stories study demonstrates the power of video in international development storytelling, proving that while it can be time-consuming, creating videos is well worth the effort and resources to positively change the development narrative. By far, the most impressive result from the study was the emotion-based video’s impact on the participants’ willingness to take action: after viewing the video, they were more likely to take action (i.e. contact their member of Congress) or donate within one week when compared to the control.

What’s Next
As more studies like Tell Better Stories are conducted, international development organizations will continue to adopt the Narrative Project’s themes, especially as the data backs it up. In general, the development community is enthusiastic and excited about the framework; and according to InterAction’s Director of NGO Futures, Deborah Willig, the themes not only validate existing research but are useful for training volunteers and for targeting influencers.

From an advocacy standpoint, the Narrative Project’s persuasive power has yet to be tested on decision makers like congressional staff, though reaction from congressional offices has been positive. Moving forward, there is great potential for the Narrative Project and its impact on international development storytelling. Hopefully, more organizations will follow the Visual Epidemiology Project at Yale University’s and PATH’s lead and test the framework’s application.