Development in the Face of Global Inequalities; Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI)

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Presentation: Cultural Entropy: How "Best" Practices Undermind Development Efforts

Best practices are essential procedures incorporated in development projects around the globe. Systematizing "what works," incorporating evidence-based design principles, and applying that knowledge to new interventions is the bread and butter of aid agencies, local and international NGOs. Best practices have received critical attention for yielding cookie cutter interventions that aren't culturally sensitive, imposing models that worked in one context but disregarding how local culture might resist or object to the intervention. In addition, best practices have received criticism because they align with the move to "audit cultures" where organizational legitimacy depends upon following procedures that are easily accounted for and measured, rather than on their actual effectiveness. Organizations have made efforts to make best practices more flexible, identifying strategies to adapt to local contexts. The AIDS campaigns I studied in Ghana customize campaigns for local audiences, and seek to maximize cultural sensitivity. Aid agencies evaluate whether public health NGOs have taken steps to ensure the intended messages resonate with the community and whether they've incorporated cultural leaders into the design process. Surprisingly, despite these attempts to make best practices better by making them more flexibly adaptable to local community needs, I find best practices actually undermine NGO's capacity to communicate the intended meaning. This happens through a process of "cultural entropy": the process through which the intended meanings and uses of culture fracture into alternative meanings, new practices, failed interactions, and blatant disregard. Institutional convergence around best practices obscures divergences that appear when best practices are put into practice. Additionally, rather than a linear process of refinement, best practices of formative research and securing buy-in often conflict, leaving designers with a “Sophie’s choice” of sorts: go with the evidence or get the support of cultural stakeholders. Campaign designers miss these disruptions because their faith that best practices produce the “best” campaigns create institutional blind spots. Cultural entropy, then, give us a new mechanism for understanding why institutional commitments to best practices in development work so often lead to unintended consequences.