Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Development - Cultural Sensitivity Needed!

When we were in Central Asia an advisor from the EU was posted there to advise on how to run a butcher's shop. Pretty soon a small shop appeared in the corner of the market, next to all the women's clothes shops and so on, and diagonally opposite the main butcher's area in the market where you could buy huge hunks of meat for a few thousand Manat (a few dollars). The new butcher's shop had little cuts of meat, chops and son on, with plastic signs stuck into them, just like you'd see in Dewhurst's here at home. Within six months of the EU advisor leaving, there were about half as many cuts of meat on display. Within twelve months the shop had shut down.

What lesson can we learn from this? That we need to observe the local culture, and listen carefully to folk as to what they want, before we try to 'improve' things. What we see as an improvement (no messy hacking up of carcasses in front of the customer) may seem like a retrograde step to the local people (small bits of meat they don't have a name for, costing more). This is true of any change we try to introduce. If it is top-down, initiated by Westerners, it is almost bound to fail. If it is bottom-up, initiated by the indegenious people, and owned by them, it will almost certainly succeed. This means we have to let go a bit when we sponsor projects overseas. All too often we have our own agendas, and tie funding to those agendas. Instead we should be finding out what they want, and helping them achieve it. I remember one story from Africa, where the village elders were asked what they most needed to improve their village. A well for clean water? A better road to the market? No, they wanted a football pitch. The next-door village had one, and they were feeling left out. The next-door village could host football games, they couldn't. This meant their prestige was lowered. The football pitch was constructed, the village self-esteem improved, and pretty soon they were working on a well (with outside help) and whatever else was needed to improve their lives at a practical level. Let's talk, let's listen, let's learn!

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