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Celebrating the uncelebrated

In the run up to the International Day for Sharing Life Stories, Siobhan Warrington calls for people's own experiences to underpin development work.

Chan Bibi, a 70-year-old mother from Pakistan, was resettled by the Tarbela dam in 1976. At the end of a long session, she told her interviewer: "We are thankful to you that you have heard our story. We were waiting for a long time for someone to listen to us."

Everyone has a story to share; everyone is an expert in their own lives. But how do we access the stories and voices of the most marginalised people in a respectful and empowering way? As we approach 16 May – the first International Day for Sharing Life Stories – this question remains central to the work of the development community.

In looking for a suitable date the organisers chose the 96th birthday of American broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel, who regards his lifetime's work as "celebrating the uncelebrated".

This is the heart of oral history, recording the voices of those hidden from history and public debate. In the context of international development the silent voices are those of the poor and marginalised. And these are the real experts in development: only people who are chronically poor know the daily pressures and challenges of living in poverty; only the displaced can truly describe the impact of internal displacement; and only those who are HIV positive can articulate the experience of stigma associated with their status.

By providing people with an opportunity to share their stories, Panos London seeks to address a central aspect of poverty: the lack of voice.

After supporting the collection of 1,300 life stories through 37 projects worldwide, we know it is possible – in fact, essential – to go beyond the barrier of illiteracy and beyond the most common dialects. To reach areas that are not connected by road and to delve deeper than the top spokespeople of a community. By doing so, our approach of oral testimony accesses the experiences of those men and women who are resolutely getting on with their lives amidst environmental change, displacement, conflict and chronic poverty.

For the narrator, the opportunity to tell their own story in the way they wish, rather than being interpreted by others, and the acknowledgement of their wisdom and experience by someone who understands or even shares their situation, are both significant factors in building self-esteem.

An oral testimony project is also an empowering experience for a community. For the indigenous San in Southern Africa, it was a much needed opportunity to address their misrepresentation by others, and the catalyst for a larger regional community-based oral-history project that culminated in their own book, Voices of the San.

By using an open-ended, one-to-one approach and training local interviewers of the same culture and mother tongue, we reach communities and individuals within them who otherwise risk being excluded. Other participatory research and communication tools have the power to reach these groups, but they're often collective in nature and focus on a particular development "sector" – health, for example. This can limit the breadth and depth of these accounts and the insights that arise out of a more open-ended approach.

Oral testimonies challenge our assumptions about development and help identify new areas for development programming. Life stories from men and women displaced in Georgia by civil war revealed that the chance to mourn and carry out burial practices properly is of utmost importance in regaining a sense of normality. Yet this is currently not being addressed by any of the humanitarian agencies providing assistance to the internally displaced.

For both the interviewer and the wider audience, taking the time to listen to, or read in-depth personal accounts can provide new insights and understanding of development issues. Recent testimonies with rural and urban poor communities in Pakistan, Zambia and Kenya show the importance of human relationships, both supportive and oppressive, in breaking or maintaining the cycle of poverty. And that many people are just too poor, or too preoccupied with daily survival to participate in community development activities.

Of course oral testimony is not without its ethical, political and practical challenges and tensions. Yet these problems are part and parcel of any meaningful participatory work with communities. Who gets to speak and whose voice is heard will always be political.

Poor and marginalised people want the space to describe their experience of the world and they want to be heard. As practitioners, we need to develop new ways to increase the value of oral testimony for everyone involved – the narrators, interviewers and audiences. But one thing is certain oral testimony will always enrich a development activity. Just as oral history has re-written history, the stories and voices of the poor should re-write development.

Siobhan Warrington is head of our oral testimony programme.

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