A narrative for change: how can racism in storytelling impact development?


This IIED Debates event explored the dimensions of racism in development sector narratives and identify lasting solutions.

Last updated 21 October 2022
Woman in a demonstration holds a sign that reads "Everybody vs racism"

Image: IIED conducted an internal review to better understand whether and how dimensions of racism play out in the narratives that it writes and publishes (Photo: Arthur Edelmans, via Unsplash)

For many years the aid and development sectors have been criticised for perpetuating racial stereotypes and bias in storytelling. Some organisations are beginning to acknowledge and address the dimensions of racism that pervade development narratives. However, more is needed to explore challenges and solutions and to understand if our storytelling has long-lasting impacts on our ability to deliver change.

This IIED Debates event brought together storytellers and development sector representatives to consider their role in creating and deconstructing racist narratives. They discussed what type of impact they are having on our collective ability to identify lasting solutions for people that experience extreme poverty.

Reflecting on a recent study that explored race and racism in development narratives, the panel shared their experience of colonial and racist language, framings and storytelling in development. Speakers explored what different organisations are doing to create and deconstruct racist narratives, what is happening in the donor ecosystem that we can learn from, and what role the donor community can play in challenging racist narratives.

About the speakers

Gabriela Flores Zavala (moderator) is a senior strategic engagement and communications professional with over 20 years of experience in sustainable development and humanitarian assistance organisations, programmes and initiatives.

Marie-Elena John is a Caribbean writer whose novel, Unburnable, was published in 2006. She is an Africanist, development and women’s rights specialist, currently serving as the senior racial justice lead at UN Women.

Natalie Lartey is advocacy and engagement manager in IIED's Communications group. She is leading IIED's work to address racism in internal discourses, and external narratives about sustainable development.

Joan Okitoi-Heisig is a freelance communicator and a part-time writer interested in telling the stories of women of colour in #Globaldev and how they are reclaiming their space in a sector rife with racial injustice.

Sheela Patel is the founder and director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) India, which is based in Mumbai, and works in partnership with the National Slum Dweller Federation and Mahila Milan.

Event coverage

Watch a full recording of the event below or on IIED's YouTube channel, where individual links to the start of each speaker are also provided.

About IIED Debates

This event was part of the IIED Debates series. Through the convening of expert speakers and external stakeholders, IIED brings together an international community to discuss critical issues.

IIED Debates encompass both physical and digital events, including critical themes, breakfast debriefs and webinars. These events are public and are hosted regularly throughout the year online and when possible in our London and Edinburgh offices.

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Juliette Tunstall ([email protected]) is IIED's internal engagement and external events officer