Traditional tribal culture clashes with democratic initiatives

By Sylvie Charland

Best practices in managing natural resources show that when community members are not only informed of the decisions affecting them, but also participate in the decision-making process, results are optimized. So what do you do when this concept of collaborative decision-making is contrary to the workings of the community it’s designed to support?

In remote, rural West Africa, for example, companies from democratic first-world nations often fail to realize that the governing bodies are not the controlling entities. The true “authorities” are the tribal societies beneath the surface and, even within those societies, leaders don’t necessarily have the confidence and support of the population. Also, the exclusion of certain segments of the population –women, the extremely poor, the physically and mentally ill, aboriginals, and marginal or outsider ethnicities – can be inherent in the way tribal societies operate.Women dancing_Guinea

Social structures are often based on family units, so the household leader and tribal leader are often the same person. Add deeply ingrained biases going back countless generations and the result can be an extremely segmented society that doesn’t foster democratic decision-making and where it’s expected that traditional leaders will be motivated by personal gain and the interests of their clan. Managing natural resources is linked to the distribution of power in the community, so traditional leaders will sometimes try to manipulate a company’s environmental and social responsibility processes to reinforce their personal authority.

Such segmentary societies are especially apt to unite behind self-serving schemes when they feel they are losing influence over their traditional way of life. Preventing social change and maintaining the social status quo can be their overriding goals, and any process that runs contrary to the traditional way of doing things met with resistance.

Consequently, community consultations require careful management and facilitation. Although thematic discussions or “parleys” may be the preferred way of addressing issues at the community level, they don’t necessarily foster frank exchanges and collaborative decision-making. If the traditional leader is present, others will generally defer to his, or her, opinion and refrain from questioning his views and those of his entourage for fear of offending.

An obvious solution to these challenges might seem to be to circumvent the traditional leaders and communicate directly with the constituents, but holding important discussions without involving traditional leaders would be a serious breach of cultural protocol and would almost certainly be perceived as overtly undermining the leader’s authority.

So how exactly can a company communicate beyond local authorities and village chiefs without damaging relationships in the process? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Harness the strengths of traditional media. Drama, dance, song and story telling are popular and culturally acceptable means of self-expression. By role-playing and temporarily assuming a different persona or by de-personalizing an issue, people can express their points of view more freely without fear of embarrassment or reprimand. When combined with mass media such as radio, video and the Internet, the messages become all the more accessible and powerful.
  • Use existing community access points. Village bulletin boards, public water wells, marketplaces, places of worship, soccer fields and schools are public information channels that community members can access easily and of their own free will.
  • Use accessible language. Using text-heavy print material and academic jargon is a subtle way for administrative authorities and the intellectual elite to exclude certain segments of the population. By disseminating material consisting primarily (or even exclusively) of photos and illustrations, companies can reach people of all walks of life.
  • Connect with civil society groups. Well-established NGOs and special interest organizations frequently have a direct line to hard-to-reach segments of the population and are already integrated into the community. There are often opportunities for a company to work strategically with these groups to reach common goals.

While these approaches can help projects manage their relationships with stakeholders and fulfill obligations mandated by international standards and best practices, there’s a larger philosophical and ethical aspect to all of this: these principles and strategies are designed to inculcate western values of individualism, social equality and participative decision-making. Do we have the prerogative to democratize knowledge, decisions and roles that may have been the exclusive preserve of a few individuals as part of a centuries-old way of doing things? Food for thought for another day.

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