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Cultural implications of foreign development assistance to Africa

20 December 2008 at 00:43 | 1286 views

[Sustainability and Benefits]
Vancouver Rotary Club
Nov. 18 2008
Presentation by Dr. Godwin 0. Eni
International Health Consultant

Africa is faced with very significant human development challenges, especially in the Sub‑ Sahara region. The efforts of Sub-Saharan governments to meet the basic needs of their people and to ensure access to essential services are hindered by a variety of factors such as the lack of adequate resources, corruption, stifling poverty, oppressive climatic changes, and in large measure, the absence of organized or coordinated approach to problem-solving.

One avenue for alleviating many of these conditions is international assistance from foreign governments and voluntary organizations mostly from developed countries. The Rotary Club, as a charitable organization, has been consistent in channeling assistance to different parts of the developing world. A good example is manifested by the ongoing Congo project initiated by the Vancouver Rotary Club.

The challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa are considerable. For example, 41% of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa lived on less than one dollar a day.
1 in 5 or 20% of children die before the age of 5 years.
1 in 22 or 265,000 women in SSA died during pregnancy or childbirth in 2005.
61% of over 15 year olds were literate in 2005.
Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in SSA is $746
56% of the population has access to safe and clean water.
25.8 Million adults and children are living with HIV.
Average Life Expectancy is 47 years.

Billions of dollars have been spent in various parts of Africa to address development issues. The reality is that not much improvement has been realized in communities. Rather, many Sub-Saharan countries have continued to fall behind or remain static on several measures of development. Two decades ago, the World Health Organization promoted the slogan: Health for All by 2000". It is now 2008 and many Sub-Saharan countries continue to experience the same level of health status before the WHO initiative. What therefore are the reasons for such a situation? After all, European colonialism ended several decades ago. The benevolence and activities of voluntary and non-profit organizations have increased, replacing in large measure, the work of missionaries and religious groups. Some have argued that climatic changes, such as the expansion of the Sahara desert and deforestation may be primarily responsible for the lack of developmental progress.

Others have proposed a theory that says that incremental development is a result of the metamorphosis of societies from subsistence living and pre-industrialization to industrialization to modern development. Regardless of the choice of reason, the fact is that Sub-Saharan Africa has failed to achieve visible development despite all the "good will" and international resources that come through the region. My experience in 19 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia informs me that it is not so much a question of resource input and international good will, but a question of sustainability of projects and measurable benefits to the people.

How therefore can development assistance be sustained in order to achieve longer-term benefit to the people?
A Path to the Benefits and Sustainability of Development Programs in Sub-Saharan Africa

In 2004, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) argued that "respecting cultural diversity and building more inclusive societies are vital parts of human development." This is as much a question of politics as economics. Human development is primarily about allowing people to lead the kind of life they choose-and providing them with the tools and opportunities to make those choices.

"Accommodating people’s growing demands for their inclusion in society, for respect of their ethnicity, religion, and language, takes more than democracy and equitable growth. Also needed are multicultural policies that recognize differences, champion diversity and promote cultural freedoms, so that all people can choose to speak their language, practice their religion, and participate in shaping their culture-so that all people can choose to be who they are."9 The notion that cultural differences necessarily lead to social, economic and political conflict no longer holds according to UNDP. Rather, UNDP offers some specific ideas on what it means in practice to build and manage culture and identity and in a manner consistent with fundamental principles of human development. The UNDP Report provides the following suggestions for adopting policies that recognize cultural differences while respecting diversity and building societies that are more inclusive.

Cultural liberty is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity is important in leading a full life; Cultural liberty allows people to live the lives they value without being excluded from other choices important to them such as education, health or job opportunities; Several emerging models of multicultural democracy provide effective mechanisms for power sharing between culturally diverse groups; Power sharing arrangements have broadly proven to he critical in resolving tensions; and Multicultural policies that recognize differences between groups are needed to address injustices historically rooted and socially entrenched.

How To
Development projects tend not to achieve long-term sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa in the absence of a "sense of local or cultural ownership". In Burkina Faso, a Canadian funded health centre was allowed to deteriorate as a rest house for farm animals because, according to the village Chief, the French Canadian NGO [CECI] wanted to build something for the village communities. "We will take care of it if they bring the money". [Also, note the associated Dependency Syndrome].

In Malawi, a Community Health Centre built by Canada to serve the "Chit ikula" group of villages as a primary health and maternity centre was severely underutilized. During a one-month evaluation service, only 2 babies were delivered at the centre by the young nurse. The traditional midwife, who lived only a short distance away, delivered 26 babies in the same period in her hut. The reason was that the nurse was too young to deliver babies of mothers as old as her own mother or older because "she had not read the book of life".

In Cote d’Ivoire, a village community listened attentively as an NGO worker held a community discussion on water pollution from the river and urged participants not to drink from that river. An elder muttered some utterance in the local language causing a wave of laughter from the villagers. Upon enquiry and much later in the day, the utterance was interpreted to the NGO worker as follows: "If the river causes sickness and kills our people, how come we are not all dead by now? Our ancestors drank from the river and gave us life".

Frustrated with the advice and plans from a consultant regarding the treatment of dysentery with oral rehydration, and the need to immunize children, a village chief muttered under his breadth: "Why is it that nobody asks us how we have been treating diseases over the ages? They only tell us what works for them."

At a United Nations conference in Botswana, several "European experts" lectured on the need to educate mothers about the dangers associated with female circumcision. Outside the conference, a senior bureaucrat from Zimbabwe commented that the exercise was a waste of time because they did not take the time to educate themselves about the role of culture. Pressed for further explanation, she noted that "it is the aunt and not the mother who makes the decision and sometimes carries out the circumcision". The examples illustrate the need to be well informed about the cultural context in which a project is proposed and implemented and the deliberate process for understanding factors that would promote sustainability and benefit. The key questions are:

What aspects of culture are generalizable to the Sub-Saharan Africa Region?
What cultural traits are specific to an area for project development?
Who are the change agents in that culture?
How should I make contact without disrespecting the culture?
How can I create ownership of the project without compromising project objectives?

Sub-Saharan Africans are very symbolic and they attach meaning to body language and gestures without verbalizing intentions. There is considerable respect and difference for age, parents and authority in the African society regardless of level of education. A project that is promoted by a young, enthusiastic. westernized member of the society cannot be sustained without elderly ownership and input.

These are some of the factors that could mediate the good intention of project implementation. The process for eliciting ownership, working within cultural tenets and achieving sustainability is complex and outside the realm of this brief presentation. Perhaps we can expand on some of the issues through discussion and your input.
Thank you.

Source: Afri-Can magazine (