Culture and its influence on NGO project design and implementation


“Project staff do not need to work against culture. In fact, project staff should consider culture a strategic element to drive change.”

By Eric Warui and Philipp Marbach

An NGO project should generate change within a particular target community. However, cultural disparities can often hinder this change from taking place.

The ideas, customs and social practices of a particular group or society form culture. Culture describes a people group’s way of life. It can vary based on geographical regions and ethnicity, even within a population.

Cultural norms influence people’s behaviour. In this context, cultural norms are what society deems as “acceptable” behaviour.

Development practitioners often face challenges when navigating cultural norms. Practitioners that do not take the time to understand them will likely face avoidable challenges. That is why project staff must adapt their plans to fit the local culture. It is best practice for this to occur before the NGO project begins.


How can culture impact an NGO project?


Project managers need to possess a thorough knowledge of the society and cultures in which they are working. Doing so will ensure their projects respond to the needs of target communities.

Project staff do not need to work against culture. In fact, project staff should consider culture a strategic element to drive change. Staff can harness the dynamic force of culture to drive sustainable change.

Understanding and using culture as an advantage is critical to success. Ignoring and blindly going against it is a recipe for disaster. Culture has an immense effect on development projects, even before they begin. The following three examples illustrate a few potential challenges that culture can pose.


Example one – Gender roles and expectations within culture 


Many African societies are very patriarchal. In some communities, elders lead the community and make decisions. They are often male. Consulting these elders on project design will garner community support for the project before it begins.

In such contexts, project staff must consider how other community members interpret their interactions with women. In some cultures, men do not view women as suitable candidates for consultation. Doing so may upset the community elders who play a critical role in project success.

Navigating these tensions is often complex. On one hand, project staff need to respect the local culture. On the other hand, it is important to consult women before embarking on development projects. Doing so will ensure the project does not result in any unintended negative consequences for them. Development projects often impact women differently from men – it’s important to understand how this might play out in a particular community.

The best way for staff to navigate these tensions is highly context-specific. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. We recommend collaborating with local women’s organisations operating in the region. Such organisations may have experiences to share from which project staff can learn.


Example two – Religion and culture


The role religion plays in a particular culture is something a project manager should consider. Religion is often deeply ingrained into the culture of a community, to a point where it is hard to untangle where the influence of the religion ends and culture begins. Therefore, acceptable social behaviours are dictated by the teachings and interpretations of their respective holy books. This has a strong effect on people’s behaviour and their roles in society.

In countries where culture and religion are closely intertwined, sections of the local community may push back against projects aimed at female or LGBTQ+ empowerment. They may view such projects as clashing with their culture or religious values.


Example three – Subtle cultural differences 


While gender roles and the treatment of same-sex relationships are clear examples, other impacts of culture may be more subtle and harder to detect. In some cultures voicing criticism and challenging someone else’s opinion in a public space is considered acceptable, even when directed at a superior. In other cultures, directly challenging a superior is deemed unacceptable. Cultures focused on collectivism tend to value harmony over the voicing of opinions.

These subtle nuances matter during stakeholder consultations, interviews and in the design of feedback response mechanisms. Therefore, staff should engineer community-focused activities with these cultural nuances in mind.


How to adapt NGO project design to accommodate the effects of culture


At Arqaam we suggest adhering to the ‘do-no-harm’ principle. This means that organisations should strive to minimise any unintentional harm they may cause through their provision of aid or services.

We also suggest you ask the following questions when considering local culture in relation to your project:


1) What is known about the culture in which the project takes place?


Educate yourself on the local context and “stand on the shoulders of giants” whenever possible. Chances are other programmes are operating in the same or similar area and have learned valuable lessons and insights that can be useful to you.

Practitioners should not fall into the trap of believing all members of a culture or religion practise them in the same way, or abide by the same rules of social interaction. Particular social, political and economic circumstances shape religion and culture. As a result, different communities practising the same religion may practise that religion differently.


2) How does the organisation incorporate local staff’s feedback?


Locally-recruited staff are typically aware of the cultural dynamics within the project area. Foreign staff will not have the same insight. Local staff are a vital resource. They provide valuable insights that should play a key role in shaping the project and mode of implementation.


3) What factors can stifle the project? Can they be turned into an advantage?


Staff should consider how a project may impact the target community and society more broadly. This is a good harm-minimisation starting point. For instance, communities in a highly patriarchal culture may push back against projects that aim to empower women economically. As women are generally “time poor” due to many expected (unpaid) household and caring activities, husbands may prevent them from devoting time to the project. Staff must address this factor if the project is to have any success.


4) What have we learned so far through monitoring and evaluation?


Make the NGO project an iterative learning process. Good monitoring and evaluation can help project managers spot issues and roadblocks early in the project cycle. Therefore, the insights gained from the last project phase, or the current one, should always be reflected in the design and implementation of the next one.


NGO projects and culture


Culture shapes the formation and evolution of values, including economic behaviour, political participation and social solidarity. That’s why culture also needs to inform project design and implementation. Project planners should always consider this to avoid culture-blind programme designs.

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