Getting culture wrong is why development programmes fail


A couple of years ago I had the opportunity of a field visit to a project that our organisation implemented in Karamoja. During the visit I attempted to buy off of the Karimojong leaders their fantastic necklaces of beads that they wore. I was unable to buy the necklaces for they were priceless. Money could not buy them. For the owners the necklaces meant more than money can buy. The labour of love with which each bead was acquired and put together to make the necklace and the symbolic value of the necklaces is what the ladies considered wealth. Not the monetary value that I attached to the necklaces. Many an outsider will be quick to judge and qualify these Karimojong ladies as non-innovative, unable to see and to cease an opportunity to make a quick buck; their culture is a barrier to progress we are likely to conclude. I dare say, we, the judgmental outsiders, are the problem for we often miss the point and end up non-the-wiser.

Indeed, the reason for failure of development programmes is likely our obsession with outside help. Help of the kind which comes in form of technical support – foreign external consultants with the ‘we-know-what-is-good-for-you’ attitude. Government officials, for example, are keen to be seen as open to being ‘helped’ by outsiders; particularly, in the eyes of ‘development partners’. They seek ‘outside help’ from consultants to ‘help’ pinpoint what problems Uganda is facing and how Uganda can go about solving the problems.

Moreover, there is no consultant who literally does not have two hands. For the consultant, it is always a win-win situation. She comes into your organisation, listens, repeats to you what you have told her, and presents to you multiple scenarios, prefixed with “on-one-hand” blah, blah and “on-the-other-hand” blah, blah. For each problem the consultant gives you at least two hands (“on-one-hand” and “on-the-other-hand”). Whoever hired the consultant still has the duty of digesting all the consultant’s findings and then making a decision of which literal hand to adopt.

Considering that in most cases the consultant will be paid for saying a version of what we have been saying all the while, it is fascinating how the consultant’s ‘new’ ideas are elevated as absolute truth. It would be less costly if government took time to listen to our voices, we the people of Uganda. Internal listening can be facilitated by effective internal Country communication systems, which should include regular face-face-meetings within and between officials of government departments; between government officials and politicians; between government officials and ordinary persons.

If internal listening were taking place, we would not have ended up with the immoral tax regime that the government has instituted for farmers. Now members of parliament (MPs) are fighting the executive after the budget has been made and not before the budget was made. The budget was made by a consultant it would appear. Or is it the case that the executive did not listen to the MPs when the budget was being made? By the time the fights are over, a chunk of the implementation timeframe for the budget will have passed and inevitably there will be failed government programmes.

It is the norm that consultants will present their findings in the most general and in extremely vague terms that could be interpreted either way. The heavy reliance on external consultants as originators of policies is detrimental for Uganda. As with the budget 2014/2015, the time that the government shall spend on building internal consensus on and a common understanding of what the policies actually mean, what activities are appropriate, and how success should be measured is a valuable resource wasted. It is much easier and cheaper to assume that the people of Uganda with their existential experience know better.

Certainly, government will never be able to make popular policies that are embraced by Ugandans at the grassroots, if it does not listen to its people. Whatever brilliant ‘new’ ideas that are advanced from whatever hand of the consultant, unless the government listens to Ugandans, the success of implementing those ideas will only be achieved through an uphill struggle at best, and probably never. This seems to be the case with the budget 2014/2015. On the one hand, it will increase tax revenue; while on the other hand it will further impoverish the majority of Ugandans.

The author is one of the founding Kigo Thinkers.

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