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17.S: Reflections and Questions

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  • What, then, do socio-cultural anthropologists do? There is no single answer to this question. There are, however, skills that anthropologists acquire that unveil unique ways of seeing and listening that can be applied to many different settings. Some anthropologists use these skills to facilitate the creation of policies that are more inclusive and multicultural, some engage with poorly understood subcultures, and others enhance the effectiveness of marketing of consumer goods. This chapter illustrates how I used the anthropological way of seeing to contextualize development actions, actors, and the people for whom the “development” was being done and explores the ethical challenges faced by anthropologists when working in the international development sector and within non-governmental organizations.

    In general, I have found that many people working in international development organizations have not yet recognized the value of asking people why they do what they do. From the anthropologist’s point of view, understanding why a practice occurs is not merely an act of inquiry; it is also a means of demonstrating respect for people and their knowledge and taking time to listen, learn, and see. The typical approach of development practitioners implicitly and explicitly conveys a lack of respect for the culture, values, and ideas of the people the projects seek to support.

    The respect inherent to the anthropologist’s view is based on cultural relativity, which guides the inquiry process. Judgment is withheld to understand the relative context of the practices in question. Far too frequently staff of development organizations judge based on their assumptions and do not see value in investigating further. That limited vision is a barrier to their success. It is essential, in seeing like an anthropologist, to be willing to understand other people’s perspectives and respect their ideas. As an anthropologist, I am not required to believe in Gumzanjela. However, my training and education prepare me to understand and to begin to see the world from a perspective founded in that belief. My ability and willingness to see reality from perspectives other than my own are essential skills—the ability to see what some people do not see and hear what some people do not hear. Anthropology can connect the activities of international development efforts to cultural values so they work together instead of against each other. The identification of the comprehensive belief system in which the food taboos were embedded, for example, opened up new avenues for practical, culturally respectful solutions to the problem of poor nutrition for women and children.

    The story of the development organization’s efforts is purposely left unfinished. Did the community resist? Did the organization change its activities? Was a different learning and inquiry-based culture supported within the organization? Did belief in Gumzanjela continue? Did the organization succeed in changing specific behaviors? How did the community navigate the external pressure? Did individuals mostly succumb to the project’s advocacy or did they find ways to deflect, redirect, and mislead the external advocates? As I hope this chapter has conveyed, people’s responses to efforts to change them are complex. Anthropologists play an important role by extending an organization’s vision so that its programs and activities can better align with the realities of the people for whom they are designed and implemented.


    The international development professionals described in this chapter were determined to eliminate the food taboos associated with the “law of Gumzanjela,” but Cochrane points out that these rules were part of a larger belief system. Are there situations in which it is acceptable to try to alter a group’s cultural values in order to promote changes in health, nutrition, or women’s rights? Or, do you think it is inappropriate for outsiders to demand change? Do you think it is possible to achieve goals, such as improved nutrition, without pressuring groups to change their values and beliefs?

    Cochrane provides several examples of situations in which anthropological perspectives and methods led to the discovery of important information about local communities that development professionals did not have. However, the lack of knowledge about local cultures that characterizes many development projects is not caused simply by a lack of anthropological expertise. What other factors mentioned in this chapter contribute to a mismatch between the needs of local people and the goals of international development projects?


    Cultural imperialism: attempts to impose unequal and unfair relationships between members of different societies.

    Food taboos: cultural rules against the preparation and/or consumption of certain foods.

    Harmful traditional practices: behaviors that are viewed as ordinary and acceptable by members of a local community, but appear to be destructive or even criminal to outsiders.


    Logan Cochrane is a Vanier Scholar at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan). For the last twelve years he has worked overseas, including in Afghanistan, Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda. Logan has worked as a consultant with clients that have included Management Sciences for Health, Save the Children, The Liaison Office, UNICEF and UNAIDS.


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    1. See Logan Cochrane and Y. Tamiru, “Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program: Power, Politics and Practice,” Journal of International Development 28 no. 5 (2016):649-665.

    2. I cannot claim to be the first to write about “seeing like an anthropologist;” others have done so, including Lock (2013), though with slightly different objectives.

    3. Those who have called on international development practitioners to reform their activities include Robert Chambers (2012), Paul Farmer (2001), and Duncan Green (2012). A more radical critique suggesting that the provision of aid causes greater impoverishment can be found in Arturo Escobar (1994) and Ivan Illich (1997). Dambisa Moyo (2009) has called for an end to international development projects.

    4. Those interested in an anthropological perspective of the views of other development actors can read McGovern’s (2011) article on the works of Collier.

    5. I use the term outsiders to refer to those external to the communities, either as non-members or as those not living within or near that particular location, and am not referring only to international staff.

    6. NCTPE, National Committee on Traditional Practices of Ethiopia, 2003

    7. The project proposal and reports mentioned in this chapter are internal organizational reports not available to the public. The purpose of the reports is to inform programming, which differs from academic research articles that are made available to the public (although not always open access). While these practices appear quite different, there are some similarities: organizations publish publicly available reports on their work based on the totality of the data collected, but these reports do not include all of the information that they have. Similarly, not all data collected by academic researchers is made available to the public nor is it all published, rather a selection of that data is published in academic article and books.

    8. Eugen Weber, 1976, Peasants into Frenchman: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford University Press: Stanford University Press, x.

    9. Leviticus 11:7–8: “And the pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean for you. You shall not eat any of their flesh and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.” Quran 2:173: “He [God] has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine and that which has been dedicated to other than God.”

    10. Cochrane and Tamiru, “Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program.”