Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Strength of Culture

This American Life, a podcast I listen to religiously, did a piece a couple of weeks ago on Haiti called 'Island Time'.  The show examines life post-earthquake for people on the ground, the people who've lost everything, and how these people, along with NGOs, volunteers, physicians, economic experts, are using their different areas of expertise to try to rebuild or more effectively build a stable Haiti. During the first act (that's what they call segments of the show. I think it's a throw back to the old days of radio as a storytelling medium, rather than an archaic method to get news that only Grandparents and Liberals use) they focus on the story of one woman and her mango trees (not a euphemism). This woman has a couple of mango trees on her farm, which would be extremely profitable, if she could water them regularly, harvest them and get a good crop going. 

Mangos are the top export for Haiti.  This tiny country grows enough mangos to satify all the American demand, but they're not grown on large farms, rather by individual farmers, like the woman, with only a few trees. Therefore, the exporters have to figure out a way to gather all the mangos together before they can be shipped. Americans like their mangos beautiful, pinky and green on the outside and firm to the touch. Haitians don't care if the mangos are bruised, nor what they look like on the outside, just that they're edible. So once each individual farmer picks the mangos, he or she stores them under their beds or in piles outside their homes, because they're so valuable. As you can imagine, this leads to quite a bit of bruising and marking on the skin and overexposure to the sun. Then a middle man comes, buys the mangos, and brings them to a city via donkey and cart for export. This process, developed over centuries, ultimately leaves many mangos unsuitable for export.

Exporters and NGOs have tried to work with people, give them plastic crates to store the mangos in, keep them safe, but people don't understand that this is what the crates are for. The process of picking the mangos, putting them directly into crates, and setting the crates out for exporters to pick up is so non-sensical to the farmers, that they don't do it. They end up using the crates as seats or as shelves, because using them as a vessel for mangos is ridiculous. This seems like an easily solvable problem. Just tell the farmers to use the crates. Tell them that if you do, you'll make more money. Easy.

As the story goes along, you find out that the crates were brought to the woman farming the mangos by some guy she'd never met. He was white, articulate, drove a car, and just handed out the crates. He made no explanation other than, do this, it'll decrease the bruises. But to this woman, who cares about bruises? The mangos taste good. This woman hasn't ever been away from her small village. She can't even imagine an American, much less an American grocery store where young mothers carefully examine every mango, to find the best ones to feed their children (I am not criticizing, I do this. I am extremely picky in terms of how my food looks). It just doesn't make any sense to her. In her culture, having a good mango is good enough. Because she doesn't value these things, she has a hard time conceptualizing why another person would.

I heard a similar story not too long ago at a talk I went to about using science and innovation for development.  During this talk, the speaker told a story about how scientists had engineered a new type of sweet potato which had been infused with beta-carotene for consumption in areas of sub-Saharan Africa. He said that when they first introduced the new potato, it was extremely difficult to get the people in the villages to eat it. The scientists were frustrated. They'd spent all this time and all this money to develop this new, healthier, vitamin fortified sweet potato and now the people won't eat it, even though it's good for them, and will improve their health. As it turned out, finally (FINALLY) the researchers realized that people weren't eating the potatoes because they were a different color than the traditionally grown white potato. People thought there was something wrong with them because they were a different color and tasted funny.  

Another story, not quite as dire, but with a similar theme: When Pele first came to the US to play with the New York Cosmos, after a game he looked at his feet and saw that they were green. He immediately told the manager that he quit, citing green foot fungus that he'd contracted since coming to America. He was in a panic because he said his feet were his livelihood, and since coming to America they'd gotten sick. What had actually happened was, in an effort to make the field look better, the grounds staff had painted the dirt field green, and the paint had come off on the players' feet.

The point I am trying to make, sloppily, is the importance of culture in the evolution of improvement and innovation.  Not just culture, the individuals that are part of that culture. In the first example, the woman needed to be trained on how to use the crates, taught that there are people who value the look of the mangos, not just the taste. The exporters needed to translate the desires of the customer back to the woman in a way that she would understand. She's not stupid, she just doesn't know, or have the capacity to figure it out on her own. In the second example, the scientists didn't take the culture of the villagers eating the potatoes into account. They thought that because the innovation was good, was healthier, that people would automatically be on board. But this isn't the case. People need to understand the WHY, not just that it's better. In the Pele example, again, it's a classic clash of cultures. At one point in his career, Pele played on dirt fields. Lush, green, grassy fields aren't always the norm. But in American sports, the spectacle is really important. Sometimes, it's half the fun (see: Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders).

There are also more subtle examples of culture within culture in the world around us. In the work that I do in the hospital, culture is extremely important. There's a surgery culture, a nursing culture, an ICU culture, an ER culture, etc. Some sort of patient safety innovation that works in the OR, might not work in the ER. Not just because the work that they do is different, but because the people, the culture of these areas, is different. What we're talking about here is the idea that another culture might value a particular quality that you, in your culture, find to be ridiculous, or superfluous, etc. The point is that if you want to innovate, make change, and hopefully improve life for someone else, culture is extremely important. If you want to make a lasting change, it's imperative to work with the system that people have established, not criticize it, and to innovate both from a bottom-up and top-down approach.

People are extremely important. In almost every circumstance I've encountered, the people have built a culture for a reason. They do things in a certain way for a reason. To ignore the history and context leads to instability and usually only temporary improvement.

There are two quotes that keep running through my head as I write this.
1) 90% of success is just showing up.
2) People don't care what you know until they know that you care.

1 comment:

  1. Very cool.

    I love the reference to the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Clever, my girl.

    Notice I didn't have much to say about the recipe post. :) (but I did scan it quickly)