Role of culture, the missing link to sustainable development

Updated: June 12, 2016

By Ntandoyenkosi Dumani
(Development practitioner and cultural activist)

The development of marginalised and poor communities has been a phenomenon pursued by various development partners the world over using various strategies and approaches from humanitarian aid to capacity building, needs based approaches to human rights based approaches. These approaches have been employed in addressing poverty, gender and women’s issues, children’s’ rights, youth issues, environmental issues to mention a few. The bitter confession of every development practitioner is the admission of failure to create sustainable interventions whose impact truly benefits society for a long time and solves the challenge being tackled in a sustainable way

Various reasons for the failure of very good programs with the potential of extracting communities from poverty, inequalities, maladministration, corruption and various other social, economic and political injustices have been explored. Of late, effective citizen participation in their own development has been emphasized as a way of ensuring the sustainability of interventions implemented.

This has been touted as the ‘eureka’ of sustainable development by enabling the beneficiaries of programs to be ‘owners and drivers’ of development interventions.
The difficult question which we often do not answer is, ‘what does citizen participation really mean?’ In most cases, we simply mean involving community members in the implementation of programs, monitoring and evaluation exercises and other related processes.
A more meaningful approach to effective citizen engagement would be doing so from a cultural perspective. Culture is simply defined as, ‘the way in which people in a certain society live’. This includes their belief systems, their language, their values, their norms and traditions. Ultimately, they both influence and are influenced by the thinking and behavior of that society. Culture is that aspect of a people which gives them identity, a sense of being and a sense of worth in the world. Ngugi Wa Thiongo rightly asserted that, “language carries a culture(literature and orature) and culture carries the body values with which we perceive our worth and our space in the world.” Culture carries aesthetic value which is deeply entrenched into the people’s consciousness of being and sub-consciously influences their thinking and behavior.
Culture is the ‘software’ of society; it is invisible but greatly influences the ‘hardware’. In her paper titled, ‘Seven Deadly Sins: Reflections on Donor Failings’, Nancy Birdsall observed that,

“Now development theorists are emphasizing the ‘software’ of an economy: the institutions, customs, laws and social cohesion that help to create and sustain markets.”


“Throughout the past decade, statistics, indicators and data on the cultural sector, as well as operational activities have underscored that culture can be a powerful driver for development, with community-wide social, economic and environmental impacts.”

This then means that the way in which people respond to change is greatly influenced by their culture more than other factors. The culture of targeted communities ought to be closely studied by development practitioners before they attempt to make interventions.
While development practitioners carryout situation analyses and baseline studies, these often look at the problems in society and the data on people affected or not affected by those problems. They see the community as a problem that needs to be solved. This notion is backed by statistics from findings of these studies. What usually lacks is the understanding that those statistics are a product of the way in which people live, their culture. Had it not been because of their way of life (culture) it could have been worse or better.

The situation of communities is because of their way of life which affects various dynamics both positively and negatively. This is the qualitative analysis that would probably greatly change the way in which the data and findings from various development related studies are interpreted and would greatly, (positively so) influence a change in the approaches and program designs of development practitioners.
The approach to development which views communities from a ‘half full’ and not from a ‘half empty’ perspective would yield more positive results. This is the kind of approach which does not view poor and marginalised communities as problems that need to be solved or blank slates that needs to be written. It rather acknowledges that communities have their own assets, knowledge, skills, values and systems of responding to and coping with various challenges which they face from time to time.

The assumption that communities are some ‘desperate Israelites’ that need to be saved is myopic because it means that without the intervention of the development practitioner, the people will perish from the disaster of challenge which they have resiliently faced for decades be it drought, floods, environmental degradation, gender disparities or poor service delivery. This greatly undermines the body of values, knowledge and wealth embedded in the culture of the particular society which has seen them survive decades of marginalization, poverty or natural disasters. The fact that these communities have survived the problem for a long time speaks to certain skills, knowledge, values and practices.


“Of particular relevance is the cultural sector’s contribution to the economy and poverty alleviation. Cultural heritage, cultural and creative industries, sustainable cultural tourism, and cultural infrastructure can serve as strategic tools for revenue generation, particularly in developing countries given their often-rich cultural heritage and substantial labour force.”

This, however, does not mean that the societies do not need external assistance to develop. It means that the external assistance should be brought into the society at the backdrop of their way of life, their culture, to enhance and strengthen their existing values and tap into the indigenous knowledge systems as well as create cultural ‘shock absorbers’ for those practices and norms that may appear a direct confrontation to their culture.

Some cultural practices and norms are what can be called ‘harmful’ with regards to development, human rights, environment and gender equality and may undermine the attempts to empower society and the development of communities. While the most obvious approach would be to create laws or policies to address the harmful practice, it may at times not be the solution to sustainable development.
The reflections on the failures and shortcomings of the successful implementation of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) have exposed the missing link to sustainable development – culture. Culture plays a key role in influencing the success of social change programmes because they (programs) speak directly to the need for society to change the way in which it does things, in essence, to change their way of life presumably for the better. As asserted earlier, culture projects the identity of a people and the way in which they perceive themselves. The people’s way of life is the soul of society, it is the invisible component of society which is non-existent to an outsider of the particular society and exists in the sub-conscience of the insiders of that society.

This why it is easy to see the gap between a poor household and its rich neighbor who owns a solar panel and a donkey drawn cart in a typical rural setup. You would not see the poor household relying on their neighbor to charge their phones using the solar power nor see the rich neighbor sharing his donkey drawn cart with the neighbor to fetch water seven kilometres away. You would not see the ‘rich neighbor’ relying on the poor neighbor’s son to drive the cart and fetch firewood for both families 10 Kilometres away. That is their way of life, that is their culture, sharing.

The obvious approach if it’s a humanitarian intervention is to provide aid to the ‘poor’ household and not the ‘rich’ household. Such an approach would create conflict between the two and the sharing will stop. When the development practitioner goes back later, the poor household would be poorer than it was and will no longer have any means of sustenance since the neighbor no longer shares his resources. This is an example of the destruction of social fibre and the disruption of a sustainable poverty alleviation and coping system ostensibly to empower the poorest of society.

Ntandoyenkosi Dumani is a development practitioner with experience in youth development, community development and leadership and development and is also the Secretary of the Kalanga Language and Cultural Development Association (KLCDA). He writes in his personal capacity. He can be reached at [email protected]


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