Aid as a conversation between cultures

by David Week on 12 December 2010


A few days ago, I posted this statement on twitter:

“In my ideal world, aid is a conversation between cultures, on the subject of human development in both cultures.”

A few of my fellow twitterers picked up on this idea: @debelzie @BonnieKoenig @meowtree @Ethnicsupplies @warisara @idealistnyc

One exchange that stays in mind was this:

@idealistnyc Um, that wouldn’t be aid. Just a convo.

@meowtree: think it’s a metaphor 🙂

@debelzie suggested this required a bit more depth than was allowed for in 160 characters. Hence this page.

I’m going to kick things off with a short (I hope) story about the genesis of what I meant.

I’ve been thinking about this for about 20 years. The idea was born when I was in India, in 1990. A friend of mine, Howard Davis, and I went to Vellore on a pro bono basis to help a local NGO — the Centre for Development Madras (CEDMA) — to design a settlement of 150 houses for rickshaw drivers.

The rickshaw drivers, assisted by CEDMA, had obtained land from the district government. Howard and I had only a week in country, so we had to work rather fast. In consultation with the rickshaw drivers and their families (the women proved very vocal, contrary to our prior fears), we worked on site to lay out the new settlement. We worked together with Paul Moses, an India colleague, and Tom Kerr, an American architect working in India. (Tom now works with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights in Bangkok.)

On the Sunday in which we arrived in Vellore, Howard and I were sitting at lunch with Mr Nelson, the head of CEDMA, when we started talking about building technologies. The houses would be built in brick. I mentioned a technology that I was interested in at the time: rammed earth. Mr Nelson said, “Very interesting. We must try it.” I therefore offered to send him a bunch of literature when I got back to Sydney. He shook his head.

“No, no. After you leave, our minds will turn to other things, and it won’t happen. We must try it WHILE YOU ARE HERE. CEDMA needs an office. We will build it of rammed earth.”

This seems crazy to me when I first heard it… but we did a design that evening, and four days later, we were having a puja ceremony at the foundations of a small office for CEDMA, and by the time we left—at the end of the week—the walls were up to sill height.

This stunned me. We in the West are very proud of our abilities with regard to speed and efficiency. But the fact is that in Australia or the US, to go from the first idea of a building, to the initiation of construction, takes at least a year. In India, we saw inception to construction happen in FOUR DAYS. Then I started thinking: my goodness, there are things they can do in India, that we have no hope of doing in Australia. And this is just one example. What other Indian capacities might exist, superior to Western capacities, which I’m just not seeing because I’m looking through the lens of developed/underdeveloped?

This in turn, led to the idea that what we should really be talking about in development is a two-way learning between cultures.

Since then, there have many milestones in my understanding of what this means. But I won’t go on at length here, lest I clog up the conversation. (I may write parallel posts, to cope with all that!) 1 But just one more anecdote:

In the late 1990s I was working on a schools project in Vanuatu. The AusAID officer in charge invited me to regular Saturday breakfast meeting she had with the aid officers from all the embassies in that country. So I took the opportunity to ask a question which I had much in mind at the time:

“In your personal experience in aid and development, do you feel that you have given more, or received more?”

One by one we went round the table: Received more… Received more… Received more…

But there is no recognition, in our official and cultural images of “aid”, that as well as something given, there is something being received.

Enough from me for now.


@karapecknold has prepared a brilliant graphic comment, which doesn’t display in the comment box, so I’ve re-displayed it here:

I’ve volunteered to provide pro bono advice to a group of young designers starting an NGO called… [Co]Design. More on that later.


  1. See for example Crossing the Streams
  • Thank you, David, for starting this initial conversation on Twitter and moving it here and to @debelzie for suggesting it was a more in-depth and interesting conversation than 140 chars allows! My experience, similar to David’s, has been be that people who truly work cross-culturally ‘get this’: That effective, sustainable ‘aid’ has to involve two way conversation and partnerships, and that we could all share many, many stories to illustrate this. I believe the problem arises from a number of system wide constraints:

    1) Most of us in the ‘developed’ world (in ‘privileged’ environments ) are not raised to understand this initially – we need to have some type of experience that breaks us out of our nation’s parochialism (in my experience this applies to many nationalities – including ‘aid giving’ countries as diverse as the U.S., Australia and China all in which I have lived). Like you David, I have been thinking and writing about this for many years, as I suspect have many of us, and wrote about it again in my first blog post: How Relevant is Global Thinking;

    2) The aid ‘bureaucracy’ whether it is via governmental, multilateral or NGO entities, is not focused on the need for two way conversations. So some entities move in that direction (if they have inspired leadership) while others do not – it’s a very ad hoc process. In the 1990’s the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had a great program “Lessons w/o Borders” that recognized and legitimized this need for two way learning but it was somewhat short lived.

    I wonder what we can all do together to encourage more aid system wide approaches in this direction?

    • I’m fascinated by the very existence of the 1998 “Bringing Lessons Home”… and also the fact the lesson it empodies seems to have been lost.

      When you speak of “breaks us out of our nation’s parochialism”, I think of Mark Twain’s oft-quoted: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” And it’s not just us. Every nation can be ethnocentric in its own way. And there are different kinds of travel. Tourism is shallow travel (though still better than no travel.) Development is a deeper travel, where you engage with people on problems that matter to them and to you.

      And again this raises the question for me: Why are the internal “welfare” approaches so different than the external “development” approaches. I know this historical answer, so what I really mean is: let’s bring the two together.

      As to what’s the best next step: I’ll sleep on that… it’s not obvious.

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  • Hi David and Bonnie, so glad to see the conversation evolving. Thanks David for starting this conversation space. Ida Horner and I were having a similar conversation this week. Ida and I both participated in Villages In Action Conference 2010. I participated via uStream and Twitter, Ida was able to make it in person. The project started by Teddy Ruge (@tmsruge) of Project Diaspora and was held in Kikuube Village Grounds, Masindi, Uganda on 27 November 2010. Ida has created a series of blog posts dealing with the idea that the voice of villages like Kikuube was missing in conversations about development. You can read her first post here.
    It has been fascinating to see the conversation unfold in that I have met several of the presenters, first via Twitter and then in person. Others like Ida, I only know virtually, and yet the ongoing conversations that we are having is the beginning of that conversation between cultures. And it is a conversation that has been ongoing with various projects. I think that we can spend more time thinking about aid = the word and the baggage that it carries, but in the meantime, I think that conversations are needed to understand each other. The idea that citizens in Kikuube invited us to listen in and participate in their conversations is a crucial part of what we are talking about. One had to get up quite early on a Saturday in the U.S. to participate, but it was well worth it. Hopefully in future conversations even more global participants will join in. As far as next steps – we should spend some time discussing – one idea is to have a more permanent place for these conversations. There is an open source project that some friends and I are working on that might help with this, more on that later, but I agree – “development is a two-way learning between cultures”. No one culture has figured it all out yet.

    • Hi Deborah. I think that it’s important not to remain bound by the literal meaning of the word “conversation”, which is about talk, but to expand the scope of the conversation to include action. The first step might be to ask: How might we (you and your village counterparts) act together to resolve some of the problems mentioned on the BFP page you cite. They have local knowledge and power to act. However, because of poor connectivity in rural Uganda, you have access to knowledge and action that they find difficult. So:

      * one problem mentioned is access to low cost credit. That’s where microcredit might help. There is almost certainly microcredit in Uganda. Finding out where and who is only a few keystrokes away. Could you help find, introduce, even broker a solution? This would not be doing something “for” them, because a successful solution would require a three-way interaction.

      * another problem is the distant clinic. This is more complex, with two components:

      – The Government of Uganda has had successes with vaccination programs, using the school as the vaccination centre. Since vaccinations are one-off, using the distant clinic makes no sense. First step: find out what’s gone wrong here. Why is this village not benefiting from school-based vaccination programs?

      – The distant clinic is potentially lethal. Kid gets very ill; clinic too far; kid may die. And it may not be appropriate to militate for a clinic in the village in the short term, out of fairness… It may not currently be possible for all villages in Uganda to each have their own. But in places, Uganda has the next best thing: the community health worker. Why is this village missing out (or if they have one, why aren’t they effective?)

      Again, this is an opportunity to work with your counterparts to solve the problem, by providing research, introduction, brokering. And all of that, I hold, leads you into a deeper level of conversation than just talk.

  • it’s great to see the graphic – the dadamac logo holds a similar message – communication flow – equally in both directions – back and forth – round and round – not top down.

    the name itself comes from our two surnames – dada from john dada in nigeria –
    and the mac – from pamela mclean in UK –

    the top down problem is also raised in the pre-conference focus paper for ICTD2010 –

    the long title for the paper is “Moving towards ICTD2010 in dialogue: Creating a reflective space beyond the Great Divides in the ICTD community ” and it is written from an academic viewpoint – but some is for the general reader – i particularly appreciated the section on “hurray for my thingy”.

  • Given your rammed earth story, this one may interest you about technology transfer and an ecodome

    “In my ideal world, aid is a conversation between cultures, on the subject of human development in both cultures.”

    I am so pleased to read that and to find people agreeing with you.

    John Dada and I set up Dadamac
    because we saw a need for easier and more effective collaboration between “outsiders” and the grass-roots. I wrote this post about it : Dadamac – the Internet-enabled alternative to top-down development

    We have weekly UK-Nigeria online team meetings, and we can arrange similar links for other people who genuinely value two-way conversations and equal-respect, learning-from-each other collaboration.

    One of the roles of Dadamac is to be a cultural mediator, assisting cross-cultural collaboration and helping to minimise areas of cross-cultural confusion.

  • Anonymous

    Hello from Uganda-some folk within the development world do not realise that Aid or development is indeed a two way conversation. I articulated my thoughts on the matter here

    I have spent 3 years saying to an English colleague of mine that her approach to the project we are working on in SW Uganda was very top down and that is why the local community was in up in arms and for some reason this did not sink in even when there was little take up on some of the programmes. But last week during a team meeting here she actually uttered the words, “I can now see that my approach has been top-down all these years”

    and with those words she agreed to handover the water project for the locals to deal with. Our role in this particular project will simply be a supportive one.

    Villages In Action 2010 has been another eye opening conversation and you can catch up on my thoughts on that conference at


    Until we learn that without these conversations we will never know what works on the ground then we will continue to waste money and time on useless development programmes

    • I think there are two reasons that people like your colleague hang on to control.

      (1) They imagine that if it is their own project, then when it is completed they will have the satisfaction of accomplished something.

      My experience has taught me this: supporting people to meet their own needs is infinitely more satisfying.

      (2) A belief that control is necessary for results, a belief that comes out of a fundamental distrust of the counterparts.

      My experience has taught me this:

      * people know their own needs better than you do, and have a right to make the key decisions;

      * people know their own environment better than you do, and are better implementers… especially with support;

      * taking control is a very risk move, which often leads to failure: better to support; let people make their own mistakes, rather than live with yours.

      More later. I haven’t had time yet to read your links.

      • Anonymous

        There is certainly a control issue in this instance

  • I totally agree with aid as a 2-way conversation based on principle as well as end result. It’s like “child participation” – why do it? why involve children in an initiative? well….

    1) because of the principle that children have the right to participate (as do any group of ppl who are involved in an initiative – aid or otherwise) but also

    2) because if you talk and listen to children (extrapolate to any group of people) about the thing you are doing or the thing they want to do that you are supporting, and they have opportunities to shape and guide and participate in it, you simply have better outcomes. Plain and simple.

    There are initiatives that hold these principles and that work with participatory methods (eg., that involve a lot of conversation and where outsiders take a back seat or a role of sharing and learning, not leading), but you are right, it’s very hard to pull these ideas into large organizations and the media/general public is consistently told/taught that “westerners” know best and need to go and help those “underdeveloped” people.

    I think if you have any experience at all in working with any group, not just in the field of aid and development, and if you are at ALL self-reflective, you will learn very quickly that imposing your ideas on any group doesn’t work.

    I think everyone has something to learn, it’s a 2-way street. Only when we stop seeing each other as “other” and see each and respect other as equals and as humans with a variety of experiences and cultures that can support and learn from each other will the conversation be an honest one.

  • Is there copy right on the graphic? I love it!

    • Just contact Kara via twitter: @karapecknold. Maybe she could be drafted to do a variant tailored for CoDesign.

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