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Are development institutions evolving towards more inclusive approaches ?

The cultural issue has been present for a long time in the writings and in the fieldwork of people like Ivan Illich, Father Henri Lebret, Ashish Nandi, Joseph Ki-Zebo, Majid Rahnema, Raimon Panikkar, Rodolfo Stavenghagen, Serge Latouche, Hassan Zaoual, Denis Goulet, Gilbert Rist, Robert Vachon, Gustavo Esteva etc., etc. Some NGOs have since a long time shown interest and made important steps forwards in that direction. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has greatly contributed to broaden the criteria of development, notably through its annual reports and, especially, its Human Development Index. Similarly, the World Labour Organisation has been stressing the importance of the “informal sector”, which itself can and should be seen as an immense reservoir of culture-based approaches to work, saving and entrepreneurship.

Some years ago, a rather exceptional World Bank paper squarely recognised the need for socio-cultural analysis. It would be interesting to enquire as to what degree this warning has been heeded :

“The penalty for not carrying out the social analysis and not incorporating social knowledge into financially induced growth programs is costly and swift. An anthropological secondary study of 57 World Bank-financed projects, which examined the association between the socio-cultural fit (or misfit) of project design and the estimated economic rate of return at project implementation (audit) time, found that attention to issues of socio-cultural compatibility paid off tangibly in economic terms. Specifically, 30 out of 57 projects were judged to have a project design compatible with traditional cultural and local socio-economic conditions, while in the other 27 projects serious socio-cultural incompatibilities were identified. The most significant finding was that the compatible set of projects had an average rate of return at audit of 18.3 percent, which was twice higher than the economic rate of return (only 8.6 percent) of the other 27 projects in the second group.”

This was approximately the time when a World Bank officer wrote a book, the title of which sounded like a programme by itself : Listen to the People (L. F. Salmen : 1997).

Culture is also about people' s religiosity

A Hindu group in Tamil Nadu started a double project, including on the one hand the installation of a sewage system in the destitute unhygienic harijan colony, and on the other hand the building of a temple to Ganesh (a Hindu deity). Western and western-inspired donors accepted the first project for financial support but considered the second as “having nothing to do with development”. Yet, such temple had to do with self-respect, and psychological and spiritual needs just as important as the material needs. This example raises avowedly difficult but nonetheless real questions as to the criteria to be handled by donors. It illustrates the fact that a secularised vision is too narrow and that materialistic, rationalistic and positivistic criteria bedevil development work and donor agencies.

People are steeped in religion, spirituality or magic. Thus, in Brazil, Candomblé deities, Catholic saints and Carnival are absent from the concerns of social activists whereas they play a key role in peoples' daily lives, concerns and value systems. Imbued with a secular comprehension of life and death, freedom, land, wealth, society and its future, development workers fail to understand the vision and perception, the expectations and attitudes of local people.

The secular approach, which originated in Western Enlightenment, has great difficulty in accepting and apprehending correctly other peoples' sacred approach to life. How can an observer coming from a “disenchanted” de-secularised and consequently profane world come to understand the deeper religious or mythical levels of meaning which give strength, flavour and orientation to the local practices of people who have retained a degree of wholeness?

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