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An oral testimony interview in Sudan's desert region

Panos London amplifies the voices and builds the capacities of poor and marginalised people to be included in the debates and decision making that affect their lives.

A key feature of poverty is exclusion and lack of voice. Most people living in poverty have their own perspectives on its causes, effects and possible solutions, but these are rarely heard or acted on by decision makers. For development to be effective it must be informed by those experiencing poverty on a daily basis.

We use a range of approaches, including oral testimony, digital storytelling and participatory video, to enable individuals and communities to record and communicate their first-hand experiences of poverty and exclusion. They gain skills and opportunities to reflect on their situation, address challenges, share their knowledge and perspectives, and make their voices heard by authorities and service providers.

We advocate for national and international policy to respond to and be informed by the experiences, needs and aspirations of poor girls and women, boys and men, the young and elderly, in all of their diversity.

Oral Testimony

Much of our voice work centres around our experience of oral testimony in the development context, which Panos London pioneered in the early 1990s.

Oral testimonies are vivid, personal accounts that draw on a person’s direct memories and experiences. They challenge the generalisations of development literature, increase our understanding of development problems, and enlighten planners and policymakers about the realities of how their actions impact them, or, too often, miss them out and fail them.

Oral testimony does not rely on consensus; rather it celebrates the diversity and –at times -contradictions between individuals’ experiences and perspectives. The one-to-one nature of oral testimony allows even the ‘quietest’ members of a community to participate – it does not rely on people having the confidence to speak up at a public event.

The result is a set of powerful first-hand accounts which show the human reality of development. These direct voices can be used in multiple ways to raise awareness and encourage action, such as community radio, exhibitions and policy documents.

We train and support local civil society organisations to run community-based oral testimony projects with their constituents, who are marginalised by the intersecting dynamics of poverty, such as illiteracy, age, gender, disability, caste, religion and ethnic identity. By training local people, interviewing can be done in their own language, in relaxed settings, and between people who share aspects of each other’s backgrounds, which, in itself, can help tackle exclusion.

How is it different?

The use of participatory communication tools is widespread, and there is an increasing use of voices in the communication of development issues. Our oral testimony methodology is unique in combining the following principles:

  • Taking a locally-rooted capacity-building approach
  • Adopting methods and principles from oral history, notably ethics, documentation and archiving that ensure respect and ethical and rigorous safeguarding of people’s stories
  • Focusing on the individual
  • Producing high quality outputs based on the testimonies for awareness-raising and advocacy

What have we achieved?

The publication of Listening for a Change in 1991 paved the way for Panos London by identifying the value of oral history in the context of development. We have since worked on several international thematic projects, including recording and sharing the stories of women in conflict-affected settings; women and men living in mountain areas and populations coping with resettlement, desertification and tackling poverty reduction.

Through these projects we have worked with more than 50 partners in 30 countries, generating more than 1200 testimonies to date. We have also supported local and national information activities based on the testimonies, as well as produced a range of material – print, radio and online – for international audiences.

We widely promote our oral testimony methodology by offering support and consultancy activities to other organisations.

Key resources

For a PDF of our training manual Giving Voice click here Giving Voice (English)

Read about one of our current projects:
Khanyisile Mlotsa and Thabsile Nzima listen back to their practice interview during the oral testimony workshop in Swaziland - Siobhan Warrington | Panos London

Give stigma the index finger

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