ASU anthropologists are tracking cultural shifts that could spell safety for Mozambique’s coastal communities
For coastal residents of the east African country Mozambique, severe floods that endanger their health and lives are a frequent reality. Helping communities cope with extreme weather events is a challenge for locals and development agencies alike.
Taking the cultural attitudes of those served into account, however, could be the key to a better impact. That’s why Chemonics International, a global development company, tapped anthropologists from Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change to help with its five-year, USAID-funded effort called the Coastal City Adaptation Project (CCAP).
In 2014, CCAP began its mission to help neighborhoods preserve nearby mangrove forests, which protect against erosion, and encourage the construction of “climate-smart” homes and latrines, built high off the ground to prevent typhoid and cholera spread after a flood. Last December, the ASU team joined the effort by helping development workers capture the cultural attitudes surrounding these issues.
“Our goal as anthropologists is to be able to measure a shift in the acceptability or the norms of practices, such as where people are going to the bathroom and how they dispose of their trash,” said Roseanne Schuster, a postdoctoral research associate with the school’s Center for Global Health. “For example, not everyone may decide to live in a climate-smart house by the end of those five years, but hopefully they will better understand the benefits.”
“The goal is to find smarter, more cost-effective research methods that allow us to track how communities are understanding and responding to projects in real time, and improve them so they make sense at the community level.”
— Alexandra Brewis Slade, President's Professor
ASU’s Center for Global Health has been working for several years on new ways to capture cultural changes over time, applying their methods to a range of academic topics such as body image and water use. However, this is the first time the researchers have had the chance to apply them to monitoring development projects.
Now, they are able to put their ideas to the test in Mozambique by comparing the data gathered using their new methods to data gathered using traditional survey methods and focus group discussions. In this way, they hope to capture cultural norms in ways that can better inform program design.
“The goal is to find smarter, more cost-effective research methods that allow us to track how communities are understanding and responding to projects in real time, and improve them so they make sense at the community level,” said President’s Professor and fellow team member Alexandra Brewis Slade.
This goal is also at the heart of a joint initiative between the center and Chemonics, called the Global Impact Collaboratory, which aims to be a testing ground for new social research methods that are specially designed for working in low-resource communities on tight timelines.
“Development projects need to show results in a short timeframe, which doesn’t always allow space for testing radical innovations,” Brewis Slade explained. “The Global Impact Collaboratory is a special place where those innovations can take shape through the thoughtful interaction of the very best social scientists and development experts, with a focus on how people on the ground understand and relate to that effort.”