Culture and Development: a perspective from Afghanistan

Peter Coleridge

"The process of development must be committed to changing attitudes, not to changing culture."

Changing attitudes about disability can be an important step on the road to a deeper understanding about more general development processes. The issues presented here are lessons learnt from the Comprehensive Disabled Afghan Programme's (CDAP) Community Based Rehabilitation programme which works with Pushtun communities. The article reflects the author's opinion and the views of his Afghan colleagues.

The CDAP started working in 1995 to address the needs of disabled people in Afghanistan, which has had two decades of war. The programme has developed into a national CBR initiative operating in thirteen provinces of the country employing one foreign programme manager, 400 paid staff both male and female and several hundred volunteers, all of whom are Afghan. Each CBR worker covers a population of 15-30,000 and travels long distances in an extreme climate on roads which hardly exist. CDAP works with about 25,000 disabled people annually.

Issues of culture, ethnicity and religion can appear as obstacles to development for outsiders. Often the obstacles are the attitudes of the same outsiders to the values of the communities with whom they work. For instance, gender relations in Muslim society is the point where values clash most obviously with 'foreign' values. It is normal in the West to portray Afghan culture as oppressive of women. In particular, the veil is perceived as a symbol of oppression, rather than as an essential part of a Pushtun woman's public identity. Similarly, women's non-participation in work in the public domain is seen as respectful, not oppressive, of women. It also protects them from harassment. But most Afghan men and many Afghan women perceive this as ensuring respect for women. Pushtun women do not accept that being a woman is in itself a 'disability'. These issues are not applicable all over Afghanistan, therefore, it is difficult to say that the situation of women and culture is identical throughout the country. For instance, in the northern Uzbek City of Mazar, women attend a co-ed university dressed in western clothes, unveiled. There is no room here for generalisations.

"Development is closely connected to the idea of empowerment, which means having a belief in our own intrinsic worth and the self-confidence and self-esteem that flow from that."

Development is about the process of change which must start with the person or group who are the subject of development. Nobody can develop somebody else, though others can create a favourable or unfavourable climate for our development. We can all either enable or disable each other's development by our attitude towards each other.

Language differences can be the cause of cultural misunderstanding. For example, at a CDAP seminar on cultural values, the word 'empowerment' was seen by Afghans as inappropriate. It was rejected by all the participants on the grounds that power in Afghanistan means power over somebody else. It is not regarded as win-win, only as win-lose. One can only be empowered at the expense of another. The group favoured the word 'enablement' instead (unintentionally endorsing the title of EENET).

In the CDAP programme the team learnt that a process of development must be committed to changing attitudes, not to changing culture. The difficulty is that each person's cultural background conditions their understanding. Changing attitudes is not something that most humans do spontaneously. Consequently, some outside trigger is required. Seeing development as the creation of self-sufficient communities who do not need outside influence is unrealistic and flawed. We all need external stimuli to enable us to grow and develop. Ideally, a person working in their own cultural context is in a better position to challenge attitudes than outsiders.

For more details contact: Peter Coleridge . CDAP . PO Box 740 . Peshawar . Pakistan

"Changing attitudes is not something that most humans do spontaneously - an outside trigger is required"

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