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

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