A Biocultural Approach to Development

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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

Quinoa farmer in Altiplano, Bolivia. photo credit: Jamie Beck

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.

This leads to the central question of why international development practitioners often assume that they know the needs and solutions of local communities better than the community members themselves.  Traditional healers in Africa, for example, are rarely consulted on their treatment of ailments using medicinal plants; yet their ancient practices would provide important insights that might be incorporated into the design of health projects.  Failure to take local insights into account has dire consequences.   I spoke with a farmer in Bolivia, for example, who mourned the loss of his sacred coca crop in order to plant quinoa, a much more desirable crop to his Western donors.  A local leader in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh similarly told me of the slow destruction of his language and culture from a recent influx of “international development” money.  These conversations, along with the work of inspirational leaders such as Dr. Luisa Maffi[ii], helped me come to the powerful realization that development is only sustainable and respectful when it embraces cultural and biological diversity.

A New Paradigm: A Biocultural Approach to Development

Offering at Dakshinkali Temple, Nepal. photo credit: Jamie Beck

We have an opportunity to reframe the international development conversation to one that lifts the voices of local and indigenous people and their cultures and creates a more resilient and beautifully diverse world: a biocultural approach to development.  Indeed we must break down the constraining structures that define development in strict, measurable terms over impossibly short periods of time that cannot account for unique needs and long-term relationships.  Rather, the new approach must encompass the “highly complex series of interactions between and among virtually all aspects of existence: from the physical to the human; from the psychological to the economic; from the political and social to the cultural.”[iii]

Thus, the outdated three-legged stool model must include a critical fourth leg– culture.[iv]  The fourth leg encompasses important elements that give a community its strength, resilience and unique qualities: traditional knowledge, language, artistic expression, and the unique and inextricable link to its environment.  The addition of this element of culture also makes the critical empowerment of a community to drive its own development outcomes inherent in the development equation.

We can either continue to work at furthering a Western-centric model, watching as cultures, languages and indigenous knowledge continue to fade; or we can create a new model, ask ourselves the tough questions about the real impact we want to have, the lasting legacies we wish to leave, and make some big changes to the traditional development model. The safeguarding of biological and cultural diversity needs to be deeply integrated and central to this new development paradigm.  In bringing the voices of local people into this conversation, we will create a diverse and integrated approach to improving lives that is in line with and led by people in their unique environments, strengthening a world brimming with diversity.





[i] Birdsall, Nancy (2008): Righting the Three Legged Stool: Why Global Development Matters for Americans and What the Next President Should Do About It, Center for Global Development, 2008.

[ii]Maffi, Luisa: Linguistic, Cultural and Biological Diversity.  Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 599-617

[iii]Dichter, Thomas (2003):  Despite Good Intentions.  University of Massachusetts Press.

[iv] Maffi, Luisa (2007): Biocultural Diversity and Sustainability.  The Sage Handbook on Environment and Society: 267-278.

Jamie Beck served in the international development field for 7 years. Her experiences in working with and learning from local people and communities have made her a deep believer in the importance of biological and cultural diversity. She is currently working as an independent consultant focused on integrating local and indigenous voices into mainstream approaches.

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