Image of a large town built on a hill.

Preventing Culture from Eating Your Strategy

| 4 Minute Read
Global Impact Collaboratory | Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning
Research and University Partnerships | Our Partnership with Arizona State University | Solutions Labs | Global Impact Collaboratory | Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning
Cultural norms can thwart the most technically sound development strategies. How can the cultural consensus model, developed by anthropologists, help to ensure that culture strengthens rather than weakens a strategy's effectiveness?

This blog post has been adapted from an article in Journal of Social Science & Medicine – Population Health.

If you’ve worked in development for long enough, at some point you’ve scratched your head about why a technically sound strategy achieved less than expected results. As the old business adage goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Sometimes proven strategies become breakfast because culture is not identified or factored into planning. Culture here means the shared knowledge, norms, beliefs, and values of a group of people. Culture can promote or thwart results from interventions in ways we never considered. Remember the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa? The technical strategy was to isolate sick people and avoid contact with their bodily fluids, especially from a person who had just died. But initially, the strategy did not factor in the populations’ strong values of family, which manifested in people caring for sick family members and washing the bodies of their dead. These norms were a significant factor in transmission of the virus, and understanding the culture was key to the curtailment.

Culture can vary widely among not just different groups of people, but also between subgroups. One of the challenges we as development practitioners face in planning interventions is understanding the cultural nuances around those interventions. Anthropologists recognized that in our accelerating world, it’s not always possible or efficient to sit in a village and observe a population for a couple of years to identify its culture. Thus, they developed the cultural consensus model (CCM) to timely identify key norms, values, and beliefs of groups. Chemonics and Arizona State University (ASU) anthropologists have partnered to form the Global Impact Collaboratory (GIC), a space for innovation that has piloted the CCM in international development projects in Haiti, Mozambique, and the West Bank and on diverse topics such as climate change, justice, and gender-based violence.

The CCM is a survey that uses convenience sampling of the target population to produce information about culture and can identify cultural variations in population subgroups. Examples of results from the CCM include determining what a culture believes are hygienic behaviors that people should or should not engage in, or identifying beliefs about birthing practices among medically trained and traditional birth attendants. The CCM is not used to measure behaviors. It is relatively quick to assemble and administer; the survey takes about 15 minutes per individual and requires about 30 respondents per topic, per population subgroup. Typically, formulating the survey involves desk research of the relevant literature from which survey questions are drafted, a focus group of the target population to review the draft questionnaire, and then the usual steps in testing the questionnaire to finalize the items. Analysis of the responses can be done in the software package UCINET or a version of the R programming language developed for the CCM.

GIC applied the CCM in three USAID projects. In the first, we examined knowledge and attitudes around promoting adaptation in coastal areas in Mozambique; in the second, we looked at a population’s beliefs about when they should use informal or formal justice mechanisms for a justice project in Haiti; and third, we examined norms and values about gender-based violence and divorce in the West Bank of Palestine.

We used three different groups of enumerators for data collection. In Mozambique, we connected with a local university and taught professors and their students about the model, then used the students as the enumerators. In Haiti, we subcontracted a local research firm; and in Palestine, we used staff from the project, interested NGOs, and government ministries. In all three places, we trained the enumerators in the methodology as well as in data collection and issued them a certificate from ASU acknowledging they had been trained in the CCM; this recognition award from a U.S.-based university was a significant motivator for the participants. By training local students and professionals in the CCM, we promoted the sustainability of its use in these locations.

By training local students and professionals in the CCM, we promoted the sustainability of its use in these locations.

The findings were useful to adapt program planning. The Mozambique project worked with two types of populations, one living on the oceanic coast and the other living on internal coasts by rivers. Part of the project was to increase the populations’ awareness of the climate issues they face, along with increasing awareness of potential mitigating solutions; the CCM’s revelation that there was a shared understanding among both populations (hundreds of miles apart) meant that the project did not need to develop distinct messages for different populations, saving funds.

In Haiti, the project identified many reasons that people avoided lawyers and courts. The CCM revealed that many citizens preferred informal justice mechanisms to formal ones for resolving conflicts, including serious crime. The project developed targeted interventions to strengthen both formal and informal mechanisms after the CCM identified the types of disputes people took to various institutions. The findings helped stakeholders identify some ways that formal justice mechanisms could leverage the advantages people recognized in informal mechanisms, such as connecting formal justice actors more directly to the communities they serve.

In the West Bank, an NGO conducted awareness campaigns to judges and to women about women’s inheritance rights under the law, but after the CCM surfaced a potential unintended consequence of male violence against women who claimed their rights, the NGO adapted its outreach efforts to men as a key population subgroup to promote their understanding and acceptance of women’s inheritance rights.

The GIC’s first article submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal was published in November 2019, in the Journal of Social Science & Medicine – Population Health’s special edition on gender equality, empowerment, and health. This article (available for free as an open-access article) provides greater detail on the methodology and its application in Palestine.

Innovative, cross-sector collaboration can accelerate the results of development projects, as does the collaboration between institutes of higher education and practitioners. The GIC has been a successful experiment in collaboration, pairing experienced academic researchers with an experienced development organization. Our use of the CCM in global development demonstrates how this low-resource approach can identify cultural complexities that can make or break the success of an activity — and keep your strategy from becoming breakfast!

Posts on the blog represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Chemonics.

About Alexandra Brewis-Slade

Alexandra Brewis-Slade is an anthropologist and President’s Professor at Arizona State University, where she founded the Center for Global Health. She is co-director of the Global Impact Collaboratory, designing social science solutions for better project monitoring in international development.

About Roseanne Schuster

Roseanne Schuster is a global health and nutrition practitioner-researcher and assistant research scientist at Arizona State University. She also serves as the director of monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) practice and innovation at the Global Impact Collaboratory, where she works to bridge perceived gaps between academics and implementing partners for innovative, community-responsive approaches to MEL.