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by guest contributor Chenayi Kumuterera, Zimbabwe

There is always need for aid workers to build cultural competencies when they enter another culture. While development efforts must naturally focus on the beneficiaries, development workers should view the communities they serve as partners — not as recipients. When people see themselves as beneficiaries, they wait to receive and accept whatever is brought.

Here are four ways in which appreciation of culture can lead to success for development projects.

1. Respect

Respect is shown by listening to the needs and priorities of communities. Do not go to a community with your existing goals in the hope of driving people to endorse those goals. Genuine engagement will identify the needs of the community and their immediate priorities. When you listen to people, they will discuss their needs, what they are prepared to do, and how they can address their challenges.

2. Think Improvement Rather than Change

Development work is not about changing people; rather it is about complimenting people and supporting them. No community enjoys living in poverty. This means every community wishes to improve its situation, though the residents may lack resources. Every community has its dreams and aspirations — and it usually has solutions but lacks resources for implementation.

3. History matters

Cultural structures must be respected and honored if development is to be effective. Once relationships and partnerships are built and solid with community leaders, development work will always be easy to implement. Impact will be easy because people will know they are respected and treated as partners in development.

Many development projects fail because they did not graft the local culture into their projects — and maybe even failed to study the culture. Development efforts that respect the cultural context and that advance a human-centered approach are more effective and more likely to yield sustainable, inclusive and equitable outcomes.

Development projects with a strong cultural dimension are more likely to have a strong impact, particularly in sectors such as social inclusion, gender equality, health, and education. Fragile or conflict-affected countries offer potential scope for this type of intervention.

4. How is the money spent?

Often financial support sent to fund development does not reach the grassroots level where it’s needed to implement change. Development agencies end up spending more money financing structures than real projects and do not train communities sufficiently. This can lead to a problem as the direct implementation of the projects may fall to the development agency’s staff. Communities can better implement their development projects if they are approached as partners.

Development efforts should strengthen communities by supporting cohesive, inclusive institutions and improved social and economic well-being. Promoting social and economic well-being through organizational development, empowers organizations on the ground beyond the initial funding period.

Embracing local culture can enhance governance, economic development, sustainability and social cohesion. Quantitative and qualitative metrics are key to this idea. However, these cannot simply lead to the economization of culture but must demonstrate the value of culture to development programs and the cultural value created by these programs.

 Chenayi Kumuterera, Zimbabwe