Narratives and their impact on inequality

Abu Ahmad, 70 years old. Abu Ahmad selling juice in the streets of Amman on a hot summer day to provide for his family.

Abu Ahmad, 70 years old, is selling juice in the streets of Amman on a hot summer day to provide for his family. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Blog by Diana Kallas , Senior Inequality Policy Advisor - Oxfam in MENA
Published: 2nd December 2021

How often have you felt the frustration of trying to explain in vain to someone that an idea they’re embracing is flawed because it’s based on a false or biased premise? For instance, why is it taken for granted that a person is “successful” because they are a self-made millionaire? Why is it generally accepted that someone isn’t a success if they’re simply doing their best, living an ordinary life and managing to keep their houseplant alive?  Why is an average life considered “average” in the first place? Who decides what is a success, what is a failure, and why it matters?

What is the narrative?

At a policy debate level, similar questions come up. Who came to decide that achieving economic growth is more important than ensuring basic rights and reducing inequality? Who sets these indicators, and when and how did those indicators become an uncontested norm that frames the policy debate? Why do economic experts often feel they need to provide a disclaimer such as “not that I am a communist, but…” before they suggest a tax on wealth or real estate gains? Why is the public sector considered to be inherently bad at doing business in many regions of the world?

These types of questions help us understand what dominant narratives are, how they are shaped, and how they affect our lives. Dominant narratives set a storytelling framework – a ‘regime of truth’ – that determines what kind of discourse is accepted as true, and who can be an accepted authority figure on that truth. Critically, they are an instrument of power. Narratives help promote ideologies that favour the interest of elites, allowing them to then impact the political process by ensuring their ideas are widely accepted as legitimate and are received by the public with very little resistance.

Recently I dove into narratives researching the report The Magic Potion of Austerity and Poverty Alleviation: Narratives of political capture and inequality in the Middle East and North Africa. The idea behind this report was to study the role of dominant narratives in promoting an austerity-driven neoliberal ideology that is causing high levels of inequality in the MENA region, and is often supported by the economic discourse and financial assistance programs of the IMF. This narrative generally supports reducing the size of the public sector, promoting private-sector-led economic growth, and looking at poverty as a necessary byproduct of economic recovery.

By exploring how dominant narratives are shaped and what they consist of, the aim was to provide a toolkit for change actors – activists, change movements, civil society organizations, influencers, alternative media – to help them work on shifting the narrative towards a new social contract.

Who owns the narrative?

This subject cannot be studied separately from the issue of political capture, which is the main driver of inequality in the MENA region and elsewhere. Political capture is the abusive influence over public policies by a network of political and business elites, to favor their interests at the expense of the public good. Beyond their control over resources, extractive elites also control knowledge and cultural production, through schools, universities, research and, of course, the media. (See Oxfam’s report The Capture Phenomenon: Unmasking Power, Guidelines for the analysis of public policy capture and its effect on inequality).

It is important to look at the political economy of narratives. For instance, we can’t look at how dominant narratives are amplified by mainstream media without looking at who owns the media in the first place, and how media financing affects the political and economic content on TV or newspapers. Nor can we look at the impact of narratives on the policy process without examining how free and able civil society are to produce new narratives, or how many wealthy business people are in government or parliament.

When storytelling is so intangible, the challenge is to pin down the frameworks that shape public discourse and expose the mechanisms through which dominant narratives both serve and result from political capture. How do you prove that a story, a myth, or a widespread cultural belief, can be so powerful that it can influence the outcome of public policies?

The research shows striking similarities in the economic models that prevailed in five MENA countries that were examined, as well as the underlying discourse around public debt, austerity, taxation, trade policies, economic growth, and the role of private sector in job creation, and finally how poverty alleviation was considered the only option rather than aiming towards universal social protection.

This discourse is powerful both because it prevails in mainstream media and cultural institutions and because it relies on myths and beliefs that have become ingrained in the collective psyche. It’s time for this narrative to be contested. With the right tools, change movements can start to shift the narrative and tell a new story.