Sustainability Patterns

Cultural and Environmental Awareness

Cultural and Environmental Awareness


Learn as much as you can about the cultural and environmental factors of an area selected for development.

Nepal SEEDS was founded in 1998 by trekking guide KP Kafle. He has inspired a group of his friends to support a non-profit organization that provides funding for projects at the most basic grass-roots level. Nepal SEEDS uses a collaborative partnership approach to assisting needy communities in Nepal. They adopt a low-key approach to providing assistance to needy communities in Nepal. Their basic principle is to deliver cost-efficient, grass-roots projects that foster indigenous knowledge through culturally appropriate health care, environmental, and educational projects. They eschew the top-down, “we the foreigners know what is best for you” attitude that has long characterized major development organizations, preferring to allow villagers to propose projects to the Board of Directors. Contrary to views that often characterize larger development organizations, the Nepal SEEDS Board of Directors recognizes that, as foreigners, they are not well equipped to know what is best for the communities they serve.
Through a dialogue they arrive at solutions that are economically feasible, sustainable, and sensitive to local cultural concerns. Their strategy has proven successful. Nepal SEEDS provides funding, material assistance, and professional advice; villagers provide land, labor, and local materials. Nepal SEEDS also provides training at both the individual and community levels so that villagers are able to maintain projects in their absence. By bestowing ownership, recipients reciprocate by making commitments to sustain their projects, and use their initiative to develop innovative solutions when problems arise. Much of their success is contingent on the personal relationships and rapport that they have cultivated with people in the project areas. Familiarity between directors and project recipients is a formula for success; mutual trust derives from a proven track record of accountability on both sides.

Your organization has decided to provide development assistance to a specific part of the world. As an organization, you have identified Organizational Cornerstones well enough to see that the development assistance you wish to provide fits your goals and capabilities.

Well-meaning programs can fail, because they fail to recognize conditions that exist in the community.

Development effort is a complex undertaking. Hundreds of things can go wrong, and often do. The literature is full of cases where programs failed or produced poor results because of a lack of understanding about the program area.

In Afghanistan, a project failed to convince farmers to castrate their bulls even though the farmers knew it would make their animals easier to handle. The problem was that castration of younger animals also inhibited the growth of the hump on which the animals’ yokes rested. Had program leaders been aware of the problem, they might have saved the project by, for example, introducing a different yoke.

Production of pyrethrum in Kenya dropped because of a major effort designed to boost production by organizing village men into marketing co-ops. Project organizers did not realize that village women, who grew most of the crop, would cut production once their profits were diverted to the men’s cooperatives.

In Bolivia, one program introduced a productive variety of corn that was hard to grind and turned out to be best suited for making bootleg alcohol—a fact that escaped the attention of program leaders, but not of the villagers.

In many cultures, people are not accustomed to participating freely in meetings. Even when they are, they often hold back information that reflects negatively on themselves or others. They also tend to withhold opinions that do not agree with those of other villagers, especially when the other villagers hold positions of authority or power.


Become aware of cultural and environmental factors that affect the community well before a project begins. Involve the community. Listen; learn.

Technology for the developing world has to keep in mind the picture of the people to be helped. What are their daily problems? How can the device, appliance, technique, or service help them find solutions to these problems? The answers to these questions will help create products and services that can truly revolutionize their world.

Becoming aware of cultural and environmental factors that affect an area is much more than just study. You get the best information by developing personal relationships with the locals.

It might seem more efficient to gather the entire community together for a meeting, since meetings have advantages over conversations in that they seem to save time over individual conversations and allow people to bounce ideas off each other and discuss agreements. However, research shows that brainstorming is not productive in developing countries or in the developed world in organizations that have been advocating this practice for years.[1] Elicit constant feedback one-on-one from the villagers. Probably no amount of professional information gathering in Afghanistan would have made the connection between castration and the shape of an ox yoke. Nor is it likely that any multidisciplinary team of development specialists would have predicted that the corn varieties introduced into Bolivia would be used for making bootleg alcohol. However, after the projects had started, Afghan farmers could easily have said why they refused to castrate their animals and Bolivian farmers knew soon after the first harvest of the new corn that a lot of it would be going into whiskey.

Local details matter. It’s impossible to second-guess the people. The incredible array of problems that arise will not be avoided through increasingly sophisticated, complex, and expensive multidisciplinary analyses. Rather, we can most easily and frequently avoid them by maintaining a system of honest and on-going two-way communication with those in the local community.

Living among the villagers is an important way to learn about cultural and environmental factors that affect a program. The closer the program leaders come to living as the villagers do, the better the result will be. It is only when you can come to speak the villagers’ vocabulary, understand their priorities, and identify with their feelings and wants that they will come to trust you and you will get the understanding that will help you be truly effective.

Realize that you can’t know everything about a situation and that at some point you need to start doing something. Learn as you go along in order to change.

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As you apply this pattern and continue to learn about the area, your project is more likely to be successful. Start with Early Wins. After some initial success, new insights will emerge to help understand even better ways to understand the area. While it is impossible to learn so much that you never make a blunder, on-going learning about an area and its culture make it less likely that you will make an obvious or very serious mistake. Realize that in any culture, the people may not actually want what is best for them. Also, what people say they want may not actually be what they want.

As an outsider, you probably will never understand an area to the same extent as someone who has grown up in the area or has lived there for a long time, but if you listen to the individual voices of the community during a project and have a willingness to change and adapt, then a program that may otherwise have failed might be modified into one that can succeed.

Start to use Constructive Participation, since locals have intimate knowledge of the area. As village leaders move into decision making roles, they can help the program increase the likelihood of success in the area.

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work with the Grameen Bank and the microcredit innovation. When Grameen Bank started working with Groupe Danone (known as Dannon in the U.S.) a French food-products multinational corporation, the management at Danone wanted to apply their old business model. Muhammad Yunus was insistent. “We will start with one mini-factory. If the factory is small and produces food that is sold to the people who live nearby, they will think of it as their factory. If it is successful, we can expand.” In the rest of the world, Danone yogurt is produced in large quantities. Large shipments are delivered in refrigerated trucks to special air-conditioned warehouses, from which the yogurt is finally taken to supermarkets and grocery stores. At every step, refrigeration is used to keep the product cool and maintain the live cultures in a dormant state. In Bangladesh, maintaining this kind of refrigeration regime from factory to consumer would be impossible. Most rural Bangladeshis are off the utility grid, and many shops and stores in village markets don’t have electric power. The local distribution system in Bangladesh would have to emphasize a quick turnaround from factory to consumer, with yogurt leaving the production line in the morning and ending up in children’s stomachs within 48 hours. Danone was concerned at first about setting up a series of small plants. They thought it would make yogurt production costly and inefficient, but in the initial experiment, they learned that small could be just as efficient as big.

Prostitutes in Sonagachi, the red light district of Calcutta, India, are a world unto themselves. Social norms about female sexual behavior in India are such that prostitution carries even a larger stigma in India than elsewhere. Cut off from the wider world, prostitutes have their own subculture with an elite of madams and pimps. As in any subculture, its members strive for status. The AIDS epidemic in India and the role of prostitutes in spreading AIDS caused increased concern about risky behaviors. Dr. Smarajit Jana, head of the All India Institute for Hygiene and Public Health, tried an experiment in 1992. He and his team learned about the sub-culture of the prostitutes and worked with it to fight AIDS. They formed a mutually respectful relationship with the madams, pimps, prostitutes, and clients. They noted the class system within Sonagachi. By trial and error, with feedback from the prostitutes, Dr. Jana and his team found a strategy for fighting AIDS. They trained a small group of twelve prostitutes to educate the others about the dangers of AIDS and the need to use condoms. These educators wore green medical coats when they were engaged in their public health work, which gave them greater status in Sonagachi. Condom use in Sonagachi increased dramatically. By 1999, HIV incidence in Sonagachi was only 6%, compared to 50% in other red-light-districts in India.

In the 1990s, agriculture development workers in Bangladesh were dismayed that small-acreage farmers were applying only a tiny fraction of the fertilizer that their rice crops needed, even though they could triple what they had invested in fertilizer from the increased rice yields. Development workers complained about the irrational and superstitious behavior of small-acreage farmers, and set up extension programs and farmer-training programs. But the farmers continued to apply only a fraction of the fertilizer that their rice needed to thrive. Finally, someone asked some farmers why they were using so little fertilizer. The farmers replied, “Every 10 years or so, there is a major flood during the monsoon season that carries away all the fertilizer we apply. So we only apply the amount of fertilizer we can afford to lose in a 10-year flood.” Suddenly it became clear that the farmers were excellent, rational decision makers and that it was the agriculture experts who had a lot to learn. With very good reason, subsistence farmers care much more about the risk of losing their farm than they do about possibly tripling their income in a particular year.

After a great deal of success in Bangladesh with one irrigation invention, the treadle pump, many people now ask me if they could use treadle pumps to help farmers in other countries. “How deep is the water table in your village?” I ask, because a treadle pump won’t lift water more than about 27 feet. “I don’t know” is the most common answer.“Tie a rock on the end of a piece of string, go to the nearest well, and measure how deep the water table is,” I say. “Or go to the government ministry of water resources—they likely have maps with that kind of information.” The fact is you can’t make practical plans unless you gather a lot of details about each specific village context. What kind of high-value crops you can grow depends on the type of soil and the climate. The price of fruits and vegetables is usually highest at the time of year when it’s most difficult to grow them, so it’s important to know why these crops are difficult to grow at that time of year and what can be done to overcome the difficulty.[2]

[1]Sawyer, K., Group Genius, Basic Books, 2007.

[2]Polak, P.,12 Steps to Practical Problem Solving,” World Ark, March/April 2008, 30-35.

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