The Role of Culture in Development: The Bebali Foundation’s Culture-Ecology-Livelihoods Learning System (CELLS)

How do you facilitate profitable, scalable and sustainable business development for indigenous producers that aligns with their customary values and uplifts their cultural identity? Or put another way, since introducing market-based initiatives to indigenous communities brings together the conflicting value systems of the global market and the indigenous community, how do you develop livelihood opportunities while seeking to maintain cultural integrity? The answer to these questions is not to avoid economic development as most communities are already engaged in the cash economy and the global market. Rather, the economic development requires a careful balancing of the profit motivated, growth-oriented values of business with the custom-bound, cyclic-natural-systems orientation of indigenous culture.

Most enterprise development that we have seen in indigenous communities across Indonesia focusses on teaching the indigenous community how to operate in the market, with the support organization learning about the local culture as far as is necessary to this end. As the communities we work with have told us, this kind of engagement is often experienced as an imposition of non-indigenous values and thus meets resistance that undermines the success of livelihoods initiatives. Conversely, we have seen that crafts initiatives narrowly focused on cultural issues often fail to appreciate the values and practices of the markets they are attempting to sell into, and therefore often fail in their enterprises.

There is a gap therefore between these two approaches. Organizations that are able to face both ways — both towards the market and towards the traditional culture — are few and far between. The current work of the Bebali Foundation is intended to participate in bridging this gap.

While cultural sensitivity has always been a core value in the work of both Threads of Life and the Bebali Foundation, it is only recently that our thinking has turned towards cultural issues as a focus of our day-to-day work. Among the most powerful drivers of cultural change in indigenous communities are the implicit assumptions of a market-oriented development process. Where improved market access is a widely promoted good, the unintended consequences for culture and ecology go largely unquestioned, even by grassroots organizations and social enterprises involved in the livelihoods aspects of community development. A significant reason for such failings is that there are few non-academic mechanisms for an organization or its staff to explore these connections.

We have seen many examples of marketing interventions that focus on helping indigenous artisans maintain the techniques and materials of a tradition. Such interventions may employ customary motifs, though they often adapt or extract these designs from their traditional products without considering the cultural consequences of doing this. There may be an explicit or implicit assumption that maintaining the skill sets and motifs is enough to sustain cultural expression (indeed, this was Threads of Life’s initial explicit assumption in 1998), but there is rarely any examination of either the connections between a craft product and its customary uses, rituals, trade patterns and underlying meanings, or the impact of changing a craft product upon the same. A further common assumption is that using traditional materials is automatically sustainable, but this assumption is made without having any way to document the impact of increased levels of resource use on local plant populations.

Enterprise initiatives working on cultural arts and crafts development with indigenous communities therefore face a challenge: they need to build livelihood opportunities without undermining the culture from which the craft springs or without degrading the environment within which the raw materials are found.

Furthermore, they need to do this without any integrated tools that could help them understand the linkages between culture, ecology and livelihoods, and that are appropriate to the skills sets of their field staff. Few organizations therefore attempt to seriously address these three issues simultaneously and the result is often unintended consequences from livelihood initiatives for the culture or the environment, which in turn undermine the long-term viability of the livelihoods work.

Since 2015, the Bebali Foundation has been developing the Culture-Ecology-Livelihoods Learning System (CELLS) to combine three of our existing database systems (a cultural knowledge database, an herbarium and plant use database, and a retail inventory database) with field research practices and office data processing workflows.

The key to establishing CELLS as a knowledge recording and sharing platform has been to build it to the educational standard and align it with the cultural values of an organization’s field staff and the communities they serve. Such a platform will help staff and their organizations understand the cultures of their partner communities more deeply, and therefore work more effectively in partnership with these communities and act more appropriately towards their culture; it will help them better understand local raw material plant populations and facilitate more sustainable production; and it will help them market more powerfully to their urban customers and advocate more compellingly to the wider world.

Use of the CELLS platform will structure the way that what has been learned by individual staff members can inform institutional practice and memory (and reduce interviewee fatigue amongst indigenous partners). It will stimulate an organization to develop a series of questions about the links between culture, ecology and livelihoods: both detailed questions that are provoked by the fields in the databases and answered through research in partner communities, and high-level questions that are provoked by the structure of the data model to expose the connections that turn data into understanding and applicable knowledge. CELLS will record the results of research into these questions in text fields formatted as blogs that record diverse points-of-view and changes over time, and the process of using CELLS will teach these data and stories to the staff of an organization, whose abilities to explain the data and retell the stories then bring credibility and sensitivity to their field work and added value to their marketing.