Why Development Aid Projects Must First Factor Local Culture

Devon Reeser


Development projects for the world’s poorest are on the agenda of hundreds of international NGOs, government organizations, and UN outfits. The UN Millennium Project to eradicate poverty and all of its pitfalls calls for GNP commitment from developed countries of .7% — that is $165 billion from the US alone.[i]

What happens with all that money, though, and is it effective? The answer is that it goes to seemingly well designed projects, but no, it generally is ineffective. In Africa, by far the poorest continent, 3 out of 4 development projects fail.[ii] Poor governance, cronyism, aid being used as a political ploy, and the lack of real accountability are all contributors that failure. But one other critical contribution is the culture within specific geographical locations.

Here are three ways that local culture leads to failure of aid projects – and what we can learn about tailoring development projects toward local customs and culture from those failures.

Considering What People Value

In Turkana, a remote village in northwestern Kenya, a Norwegian development agency wanted to help the poor nomadic cattle farmers suffering from changes to their environment and hence livelihoods by developing an underutilized lake “teeming” with fish.[iii] They installed a $22 million fish processing factory in the 1980s and trained the cattlemen as fishers and factory workers. The factory now sits unused, never having contributed to local economic growth.

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Why? In the Turkana culture, fishing is looked down upon, whereas owning cattle is a sign of prestige and wealth. People within the culture do not value fish or fishing; it is not a means to make a respectable living. Development projects should look at what a local culture values to determine whether or not its project idea will be successful. In this case, the development workers should have known that people did not value fish enough to create a new market. They might have focused on means of exploiting and expanding cattle productivity, or a project in that vein that looked for advantages to making cattle herding more lucrative as opposed to introducing a new market.

In the Turkana culture, owning livestock is a sign of wealth.  Photo: EC/ECHO/Malini Morzaria, CC BY-SA 2.0
In the Turkana culture, owning livestock is a sign of wealth. Photo: EC/ECHO/Malini Morzaria, CC BY-SA 2.0

Mothers Know Best

UNICEF evaluated a $60 million US project toward eradicating malnutrition in Bangladesh. They found, that after 5 years of the program, complete with a health center as well as distribution of nutrient rich foods for children, there was no impact on malnutrition.[iv]

Why? Mothers didn’t understand how to administer the food, nor how to monitor growth and health of their children. One of the measurement tools was growth charts, for example, and most of the mothers did not understand how to use them. Food programs need to focus on mothers and training them to understand health within a cultural context. They also should integrate food from the local culture as opposed to Western baby formulas, cereals, and other unsustainable processed products. If mothers don’t understand the food, they won’t give it to their children.

Cultural Perceptions of Water

Lack of access to clean, fresh water, is possibly the greatest threat to already vulnerable poor people all over the world and a core issue toward economic development. A Give Well report (2013), however, found that efforts to sanitize (with chlorine, filtration, etc.) water in developing countries are largely unsuccessful and issues like diarrhea perpetuate,[v] plaguing 1.1 billion people and causing 4% of all global deaths according to WHO.

Why? Even if water is treated at the meta-level, by a city supplier, for example, it can become re-contaminated at the household level. People store water in contaminated containers, they don’t understand basic hygiene, and, most likely, they have cultural perceptions of water and maybe even disease in general that make them wary of treated water or ignorant of its benefits. A comprehensive Johns Hopkins study (2010) on the social and cultural implications for using treated water found dozens of cultural reasons why people rejected it.[vi]

In both Latin America and Asia, for example, people think that hot and cold temperature imbalances cause illness, not water. Also, many cultures perceive water as already clean – it is what they use to wash themselves, all of their things, etc. Hence, a perception of it as dirty, if it does not look so, is difficult to take. A study in Kenya even revealed that people were not using treated water because of a widespread cultural perception that it causes infertility – fertility is associated with water in many traditional cultures. Water projects need comprehensive education initiatives on all levels of societies to be successful, and most only provide pipes, pumps, and chemicals.

Billions of dollars of development aid funding are going to waste all over the world for mainly one reason – a failure to account for local beliefs, customs and culture while planning and implementing projects. Whether the project is water sanitation, nutrition awareness, or local economic development, local culture needs to be the first factor.


[i] Millennium Project. 2006. The 0.7% Target: An In-Depth Look. http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/press/07.htm.

[ii] Tost, Daniel. 4 Nov. 2013. German Diplomat: Three of Four Development Projects in Africa Fail. EurActiv. http://www.euractiv.com/development-policy/german-diplomat-development-proj-interview-519027

[iii] Cocks, Tim. 4 Apr. 2006. Kenya’s Turkana Learn from Failed Fish Project. International Business Times. http://www.ibtimes.com/kenyas-turkana-learns-failed-fish-project-194573

[iv] Hossain,S.M., Arabella Duffield, and Anna Taylor. 2005. An Evaluation of the Impact of a US$60 Million Nutrition Programme in Bangladesh. Health, Policy and Planning 20(1). http://heapol.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/1/35.full.pdf

[v] Give Well. 2013. Water Quality Interventions. http://www.givewell.org/international/technical/programs/water-quality

[vi] Figueroa, Maria Elena and D. Lawrence Kincaid. 2010. Social, Cultural, and Behavioral Correlates of Household Water and Storage. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communications Programs. http://ccp.jhu.edu/wp-content/uploads/Household-Water-Treatment-and-Storage-2010.pdf

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Devon Reeser