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stories

Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not.

Heather Lanthorn's picture

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

The Danger of Stories

David Evans's picture
Who doesn’t love a great story? In development, we have wonderful stories to tell. We tell stories about children going to school because of cash transfers in Tanzania and about women in Costa Rica who are empowered through their jewelry businesses. The World Bank recently sponsored a day of development storytelling. Armendáriz de Aghion and Morduch recount the following story of a microcredit borrower from Mexico:
 

“Consider the story of Mrs. Braulia Parra, who lives with a family of seven in a poor neighborhood in Monterrey, Mexico, in a home with cardboard walls and dirt floors. Illiterate and inexperienced in the workplace, Mrs. Parra took her first $150 loan from ADMIC, a local microlender. The loan allowed her to buy yarn and other sewing supplies to make handsewn decorations. Each week she sells about one hundred handmade baskets, dolls and mirrors, going door-to-door in her neighborhood. After ten loans, Mrs. Parra had earned enough to install a toilet in her modest home, as well as an outdoor shower. Building a second floor was next in her sights.”

These stories inspire us, but we have to be careful. Stories are dangerous.
 

Why Stories Matter

Ravi Kumar's picture
Children in the classroom. Kenya.

When Jane Otai said there are flying toilets in slums of Nairobi, most of her audience, like me, was trying to figure out what she meant.

A few others laughed softly. Because there are no toilets, she said, “people just do it [in bags] and throw it on the rooftops.” And it is really difficult for women and girls, she added.

Annual Report 2009 distributed at the Annual Meetings

Can Kevenk's picture

2009 Annual ReportWe started distribution of the World Bank Annual Report 2009 this morning at the Annual Meetings in Istanbul. The free publication, outlining the Bank's activities in fiscal year 2008, is available for journalists, government officials, civil society organizations, academic and public libraries — and anyone else interested in learning more about the Bank and what it does.

The report summarizes the Bank Group’s commitments and approved projects during the recently completed fiscal year, and also includes a CD with complete financial information and a slideshow summarizing the regional, sectoral, and thematical categorization of funding.

I had a chance to work with the team that was preparing the Annual Report this year. Our goal was to put together a colorful and easy-to-read summary of the Bank’s development activities for everyone who is interested. Photos from the project sites and personal stories about recent Bank Group projects from all around the world are featured in this year’s report. All six of the Bank’s regions are presented with a regional snapshot as well as the summaries of funding operations taking place.

This year, the Annual Report 2009 website has been enhanced in terms of design, online content, and interactivity. The site includes interesting videos about recent projects taking place in the field. The PDF version of the Annual Report is downloadable in 8 different languages from the website. You can also view the whole ‘Year in Review’ with our interactive widget.

Looking back at Spring Meetings 2008

Sameer Vasta's picture

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick and the founding President of the Center for Global Development Nancy Birdsall

The 2009 World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings are about to get under way in a few days. Before they do, here's a quick look at some of the big stories from last year's Meetings.

Global Economy, Human Development Goals Top the Agenda
The 2008 Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank opened amid rising concerns about the impact of the credit crunch on the global economy and uneven progress towards such human development goals as wiping out hunger and malnutrition.

Global Monitoring Report 2008
At the halfway mark to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) deadline of 2015, World Bank economist Zia Qureshi said the world had not made the necessary progress, but success is still possible given certain conditions.

Ministers, Bank President, Tout Women’s Empowerment as Key Development Goal
World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick announced several measures the World Bank Group plans to take to boost women’s empowerment at a seminar on ways to bridge gender gaps.

Food Price Crisis Imperils 100 Million in Poor Countries
The surge in food prices could push 100 million people into deeper poverty, World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick said at the International Monetary Fund-World Bank Spring Meetings in Washington.

Those are some of the stories from the 2008 Spring Meetings. Keep posted here for more information and stories from the 2009 Meetings

Above photo: World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick and the founding President of the Center for Global Development Nancy Birdsall at the 2008 Spring Meetings — © Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank.