When cultures diverge

October 23, 2012 | Breanna, DVM, Canadian Urban Institute, Ethiopia

I am in Ethiopia for three months doing an internship for Canadian Urban Institute (CUI). CUI is a Toronto-based NGO specializing in urban planning activities in Toronto and in countries abroad. In Addis, they are implementing an Eco-City project with the government that is designed to strengthen a “made-in-Ethiopia” model of decentralized urban planning for economic growth and development. Their activities focus on skill building and knowledge transfer in areas that will improve social conditions in environmentally sustainable ways.

This is my third time abroad through the University of Ottawa. I participated in a field research course in Kenya and a development exchange in Bangladesh. Hence, my revelations on this internship have yet to be as revolutionary as the first two experiences. With each journey abroad, I learn more about the realities of development and gain a clearer grasp on the perceptions, challenges, and relationships that shape the nature and outcomes of development practice.

In class, we learn about development interventions—best practices, common mistakes, and the interconnected issues. There is a less discussion on culture. When abroad, I realize that culture—religion, traditions, and values—is the forgotten factor in foreign development projects.

Ethiopians say “enbela” which means let’s share and eat together. I am reminded that North America is a very individualistic society compared to other parts of the world that are more community-oriented. One of my colleagues summed this idea up well, “we share everything in this country—poverty, HIV, perfume…not like your country. You live alone, you eat alone, you live for yourself”.

In Addis Ababa, I am living in a compound filled with high-density condominiums. These compounds are increasingly found in developing country cities. Slums or low-income areas are replaced with compounds that maximize on the number of residences in a smaller land area. Aid organizations are keen to advocate for this type of urban development because in many developed countries it is the rational way to make use of limited space. However, in many cases, this upgrade is not favoured by locals. I now understand why. In my building all the condo front doors open to long outdoor balconies. Almost every home other than mine keeps their door open all day. All the families sit outside their doors in the narrow hallway with their children, playing music and cooking on little charcoal burners; the stairwells are lined with drying grains and vegetables. Many people are not accustomed to this segregated type of living. They prefer to be in open communal spaces interacting with their neighbours and family members. It is a concept that I would never have conceived of as a Westerner. It is one of many concepts that I continually adopt into my cultural literacy as I am evaluating the quality of development projects. Undoubtedly throughout the internship through my observations and interactions more of these cultural divergences will be revealed.

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