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Narratives

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.


So Software Has Eaten the World: What Does It Mean for Human Rights, Security & Governance?
Human Rights Watch
In 2011, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen famously wrote the startling essay, Why Software is Eating the World, in which he described how emerging companies built on software were swallowing up whole industries and disrupting previously dominant brand name corporations. Andreessen was prescient and almost giddy, in anticipating the dramatic, technological and economic shift through which software companies would take over large swaths of the global economy. What he did not anticipate was the extent to which software would also eat up the realms of governance, security and human rights. Digital technology has disrupted multiple dimensions of governance related to national security, including protection of human rights.

Digital Globalization and the Developing World
Project Syndicate
Globalization is entering a new era, defined not only by cross-border flows of goods and capital, but also, and increasingly, by flows of data and information. This shift would seem to favor the advanced economies, whose industries are at the frontier in employing digital technologies in their products and operations. Will developing countries be left behind? For decades, vying for the world’s low-cost manufacturing business seemed to be the most promising way for low-income countries to climb the development ladder. Global trade in goods rose from 13.8% of world GDP in 1985 ($2 trillion) to 26.6% of GDP ($16 trillion) in 2007. Propelled by demand and outsourcing from advanced economies, emerging markets won a growing share of the soaring trade in goods; by 2014, they accounted for more than half of global trade flows. Since the Great Recession, however, growth in global merchandise trade has stalled, mainly owing to anemic demand in the world’s major economies and plummeting commodity prices. But deeper structural changes are also playing a role.

What The Martian teaches us about the value of a statistical life

David Evans's picture

This weekend, the movie The Martian opens. It’s based on a book by Andy Weir, the most exciting one I’ve read this year. In the very near future, a mechanical engineer and botanist turned astronaut named Mark Watney gets marooned on Mars, with little hope that he can survive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. The narrative proceeds on two paths, with Mark showing amazing resourcefulness to extend his survival on a barren planet, and the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) at home, scrambling to come up with a plan to save him.

The Martian | Official Trailer


At one point, Mark ponders a big question: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” (He gives an answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.)
 

The Martian, bookThroughout the book, I pondered the same question. The researchers at GiveWell.org estimate that you can save a life through a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net for $3,340. A program of community health promoters in East Africa is estimated to save a child’s life for $4,400. By those estimates, instead of saving Mark Watney (and let’s assume that it cost just $100 million), NASA could have saved almost 30,000 people with mosquito nets or almost 23,000 children through community health promoters.

Beyond the requirements of a thrilling piece of science fiction, why would we make that choice?

Median impact narratives: Who, why, and how

Heather Lanthorn's picture

​​Storytelling is essential to persuasion. But how do we decide which stories to tell? Heather Lanthorn reviews median impact narratives and explains why they are more than just window dressing.

Way back in January, an interesting conversation took place on the Development Impact blog; I am just catching up on the conversation. The conversation featured a 7 January guest post by Bruce Wydick, who advocated the idea of “median impact narratives,” and subsequent commentary.

In short, Bruce recognizes that even when solid quantitative causal evidence exists,

“A good narrative soundly beats even the best data.  Economists and scientists of all ilks need to digest what for many is an unpleasant fact:  In the battle for hearts and minds of human beings, narrative will consistently outperform data in its ability to influence human thinking and motivate human action.”

Bruce further points out (to take a bit of liberty with his words) that, sadly, Stalin was right about at least one thing (to paraphrase): a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic. And people do rather better with making sense of and feeling empathy for a single victim (or success) than for a large number of statistical people and their myriad outcomes (e.g.). This leads Bruce to an important question: how to choose which individuals to highlight? What Bruce’s post gets around to (and as he confirmed with me in a follow-up email, thank you!) is really a question about sampling for qualitative research and placing (and valuing) anecdotes within the context of the study sample and population.

A Storied Approach to Capacity Development

Sheila Jagannathan's picture

Engaging individuals to share their knowledge and learning on development challenges and solutions with the wider community is a core value of  the WBG’s Open Learning Campus.  In this context the story is often a powerful learning tool.  This idea is not a new one; in fact, stories have been a universal form of knowledge transfer for over 100,000 years as a way of connecting people and creating a common perspective on social, economic, political and cultural issues that they care about.

However, the above statements apply only to effective storytelling, which requires sustained  engagement with the community, and adequate influence over the learning and knowledge accretion process of the community. Research has shown that information alone—even critically valuable information—without the context, relevance, and engagement provided by effective story structure—is markedly ineffective in changing core attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (in influencing).

#1 from 2014: Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not

Heather Lanthorn's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2014.
This post was originally posted on January 23, 2014

 

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).

In this post, I try to make the case that there are important potential distinctions between anecdotes and stories/narratives that are too often overlooked when discussing qualitative data, focusing on representativeness and the counterfactual. Second, I suggest that just because many researchers do not collect or analyse qualitative work rigorously does not mean it cannot (or should not) be done this way. Third, I make a few remarks about numbers.

Impact as Narrative: Guest post by Bruce Wydick

There is arguably little that makes development economists sharpen their fangs as the use of tear-jerking, heart-warming, credit-card-mobilizing anecdotes by development NGOs to support impact claims.   Recently in an informal conversation about NGO websites at a recent conference, Paul Niehaus half-jokingly suggested that a good use of graduate research assistant time might be a compilation of the top 25 most egregious “impact” webpages, based purely on narratives of outliers by (well-meaning) non-profits.  If nothing else, it would serve as an excellent tool for teaching undergraduates about

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).

Outlaw, Sheriff, Posse...Showdown

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In countless movies about America's wild, wild west- - think about the many classic westerns you've seen -- the story follows a familiar pattern. There is a town known as, say, Tombstone where law-abiding citizens go about their daily lives. Outlaws ride into town. They steal, pillage, plunder, kill and maim. Then they ride out of town -- hard. The sheriff, furious, gathers a body of armed citizens on horseback. They are known as the posse. The posse rides out of town, determined to catch the outlaws. It is a hunt. The posse hunts down the outlaws, and there is a showdown. The bad guys are killed or unceremoniously hanged. Justice is deemed served. The sheriff and his posse ride back into town as the music picks up. Citizens welcome them joyously. They are heroes. The moral order is restored, and all is well.

Since the unceremonious dispatching of Osama bin Laden and the huge, visceral reactions to the event by the citizens of the United States - also known as 'a fist pump' moment -- I have been thinking about all my favorite wild, wild west movies. The modern posse is, of course, no longer a group of citizens, but Navy SEALS with superlative skills. And the modern outlaw is a terrorist from another tribe but one able to kill thousands. And the sheriff? Well, who would have believed who the modern sheriff turns out to be!