A Biocultural Approach to Development

Ganga Aarti ceremony in Rishikesh, India. photo: Jamie Beck

It is a natural assumption that international development programs lead to direct improvements in lives around the world. Decreasing rates of under-five mortality from malaria? Absolutely. Improving lives in the wake of unimaginable destruction from natural disasters? Without question. It was under these obvious assumptions that I worked for years on various development programs as part of a large government agency. However, I quickly realized that this dominant model of development – one that often takes a Western approach to what progress looks like and applies it to people in all parts of the world regardless of their own values – does not fare so well in empowering cultures, languages or local solutions. With time I saw clearly that in addition to building health clinics, schools, and green revolutions, I was in some cases unknowingly contributing to the creation of a Western monoculture and the destruction of beautifully diverse cultures and languages that hold immeasurable value.

What I learned and experienced through that work led me to believe that deep and fundamental change is needed to this Western led and strictly structured development paradigm. Along with many others, I now call for a new approach to international development that breaks with Western tradition to embrace local tradition: one that empowers local people to drive their own progress; one in which diverse approaches, practices and ideas are heard, embraced and celebrated.

These two models of development– the dominant Western approach and this new, sustainable one that values biological and cultural diversity – are reconcilable. The old model is rooted in indisputable good will, far reach, and well-researched methodology, but desperately needs to be reframed into one that allows the development conversation to be defined and led by those to whom it is most critically relevant.

The Dominant Development Paradigm

It is widely agreed that there are three primary aspects to the traditional development model that together create a three-legged stool upon which a healthy society rests: environment, society and economy[i]. Undeniably, this dominant approach has made great strides in creating opportunity and improving lives – indeed for the ‘recipients’ of the aid, but also for the development industry and those who work within it. Through working within that approach, I was given the invaluable opportunity to learn from some of the most brilliant, creative, and driven local and indigenous peoples from India to Tanzania. Deeply impressed by the vast storehouses of ideas, practice and knowledge that these communities held, I realized that more often than not, the solutions to their own development needs already existed within their respective communities.

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