Editor’s Note: The following is an edited commentary from the District 5320 website.

George Cooper

By George Cooper, Rotarian

International Service projects in the many lands Rotarians attempt to help can easily backfire if the culture of a particular area is ignored or not understood.

I first learned this when a friend of mine, who belonged to AA, had traveled with a group from his church to help a church in another land with the needs of their community. My friend learned that one problem within the community was alcoholism, so he decided that he would like to start an AA Group in the church but the church immediately shut the door on his plan. Why? Because the church had banned anyone becoming a member of that church if they drank alcohol. It was as simple as a difference in the culture of his U. S. church and the culture of the church in the land of his visit even though they were of the same denomination.

This issue was highlighted in an article in the July 2015 issue of The Rotarian written by frequent contributor Warren Kalbacker. He points out that “a project can go awry for many reasons. Emotional reactions, poor communication, and lack of knowledge can all hinder judgement. Cultural differences might scuttle a painstakingly designed education program. For example if parents feel it’s less important for their children to attend school than to help with the harvest.”

Kalbacker writes further:

“How can you talk about malaria prevention when someone has no food security? How can you address the nutritional needs of children when parents go hungry? The key in entering a community is looking at all the issues-health, food, security and the environment. We need everybody’s expertise if we’re going to be helpful in the life of the community.

Donors sometimes implement programs without talking to the intended beneficiary. We need to rethink that. We need to help them develop assets that they value.”

In another example he says:

“If you see women carrying water three hours a day, you may want to fix the problem by developing a new well. But maybe the women did not wish to change because the men in the village no longer had to depend on the women to bring water. The new well eliminated the community of women. There social structure was no longer recognized.”

The above examples stress how easy it is to be carried away with your emotions, neglecting to ask some common sense questions with the upshot that your project might simply backfire!