Why culture matters for international development Part 1

Deborah Rhodes is an independent consultant in international aid and development specialising in cross-cultural contexts.  In this two-part post, she discusses why culture matters for international development.  In this post she suggests a different lens might reveal different understandings about the nature of development changes.

Sparkle lens

We all know the power of looking at something through a different lens. Polarised sunglasses can make a cloudy sky seem like a Sistine Chapel painting. Similarly, using a strengths-based lens or approach can generate motivation towards otherwise unimaginable positive changes. This blog considers contemporary change development processes and the work of aid practitioners through the lens of different cultural values.

There is a great deal of literature in the organisational change and management disciplines[1] about differences in cultural values between groups and countries. Hofstede defines culture as ‘the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.’ Recognising critical links between core cultural values of a group in a particular context and the norms and behaviour of individuals, communities and organisations within that context, helps to explain why countries do not all look the same and why different groups do not change along similar trajectories. Values are the core beliefs that influence norms and behaviour in different cultures.  Implications of values for the way societies and organisations exist, function and change have also been widely discussed in other disciplines but not to a great extent in aid and development literature. This is a missing perspective.

The dynamic nature of values and behaviour over time and the interplay of cultural values with social and political movements has significant implications for aid and development work, particularly that related to leadership and social change. Deepening understanding of cultural value differences will help to inform the likely effectiveness of processes initiated or supported from one cultural context which aim to make changes in other cultural contexts. At minimum, such an understanding is critical for determining what success looks like from different value perspectives, but preferably it should also inform the selection of priorities, approaches and partners.  We need to understand our own values (including the values which drive us to think we can bring about change) and also how they are manifested in our aid and development policies, perspectives and practices. We also need to understand how to engage with the values of others.

Geert Hofstede’s innovative research in the 1970s[2] identified four dimensions of values along which one could ‘plot’ different cultures and thus compare them.  While it may be questionable to plot countries along these dimensions in numerical terms[3], the fundamental value differences he identified help to explain a great deal about why cultural groups behave so differently from each other. He initially identified four dimensions:

  • power distance (ranging from low to high);
  • individualism and collectivism;
  • task orientation vs relationship orientation (he called this masculine vs feminine at first but it was the 1970s!);
  • and uncertainty avoidance (low to high)[4].

The massive global study of leadership, organisations and culture led by Robert House[5] (known as the GLOBE Study) added a number of other dimensions, which arguably are variations on the same themes. Details of the dimensions are available from both the original sources and are contextualized in the aid and development world in my two recent books.

Examples of the manifestations of these differences include:

  • Cultures which have strong hierarchical values tend to have leaders who hold onto power for extended periods, are expected to make authoritative decisions for the well-being of their group and show symbols of power. In these contexts, only those perceived to be wise and experienced are likely to hold leadership so there is an absence of younger, less experienced or in many cases, female leaders. In such contexts, transactional approaches to leadership are likely to prevail: any changes that occur are incremental and slow. Alternatively, some kind of dramatic revolutionary process (e.g. those which overturned hierarchical systems in Russia, France and the Arab world) may be required for values to change significantly. Generally in high hierarchy contexts, bottom-up changes are less likely to ‘stick’ even if they succeed in the short-term. This clearly has implications for projects such as those aimed at changing the nature and quality of leadership practice and those aimed at bringing about transformational change.
  • In cultures where collectivist values reign, individuals are unlikely to stick their necks out to challenge the status quo, if members of their group might lose face or the group’s well-being appears to be threatened. Individuals from donor countries who turn up and say or imply they are there to change the world, be innovative or make a difference are likely to be seen as pretty crazy and lacking in capacity to understand group dynamics and achieve harmonious relationships within groups.  While such approaches are valued and respected in individualist cultures, we need to be very clear that this is simply a manifestation of individualist values, not the ‘right’ way, the ‘best’ way or the ‘only’ way to achieve development. Countries such as South Korea and Singapore have, relatively speaking, achieved economic development without losing fundamentally collectivist values.
  • Cultural value differences related to uncertainty avoidance are especially critical for development agendas. Hofstede and others have found that cultures at one end of this dimension tend to be comfortable with ambiguity and consider change and innovation to be positive.  In this context, people and organisations are well used to re-structuring, trials, pilots and new ways of working: leaders are assessed on their achievement of major changes.  In contrast, cultures which are high on uncertainty avoidance give value to the status quo and are driven by the need for certainty. This perhaps largely reflects the idea that if one has a greater sense of what is likely to happen tomorrow or next season, then one can more likely manage or survive.  Experimental aid projects threaten this sense of well-being.

Western donor countries are generally low on hierarchy, are individualistic, task oriented and likely to be low on uncertainty avoidance. Innovation funding and leadership development programs which emphasise transformational change are perfect examples of such values.  In contrast, the majority of developing countries in the Pacific for example, are more likely to value hierarchical decision-making, collectivism, relationship orientation and certainty, stability and the status quo over innovation and ambiguity. Of course, generalisations are by nature general, so it is always important to seek clarification on dominant values underpinning every context and test assumptions: asking people about their cultural values is not as hard as it seems and there is usually research material to help inform these conversations.

Part 2 of this post will consider some implications of this understanding for development cooperation. Stay tuned!


Deborah Rhodes, June 2015


[1] Eg. Hofstede 1980 and 2005: Gesteland 2005; House et al. 2004

[2] Hofstede, G. 1980 Culture’s consequences: international differences in work-related values, SAGE

[3] His current website continues to use quantitative approaches to ranking countries (see http://www.geert-hofstede.com)

[4] Hofstede added two other dimensions since: short-term vs long-term orientation and indulgence vs restraint.

[5] House, R et al (editors) 2004 Culture, Leadership and Organisations: the GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, Sage

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