The Grandmother Project: Change through Culture

“A house without a grandmother is like a road that goes nowhere.” –Senegalese proverb

The Grandmother Project (GMP) sees culture as a unique and dynamic tool for improving communities.  This promising practice has collaborated with World Vision to implement programs engaging a long-standing community resource: grandmothers.  By identifying grandmother leaders, providing them with tools and training, and strengthening intergenerational relationships, GMP works to improve educational opportunities for children, create inclusive nutrition and health programs, and encourage sustainable development.

Find out more in the following Q&A with Judiann Aubel, founder of the Grandmother Project and a specialist in community development, health, and education.

1. Can you tell us about the GMP’s approach to community change? What sets this model apart from other approaches?

GMP’s model for promoting change at the community level differs from most approaches in two fundamental ways.

First, GMP’s approach is based on a systems view of communities and of community change.  Most development programs working with issues affecting women and children target only women and children, the groups at risk, in a linear fashion.  GMP understands that women and children are embedded in family and community systems, and various categories of people influence their attitudes and actions. Therefore, interventions to bring about change in their lives must involve all the actors in the social environment of which women and children are a part.  In GMP’s model, for example, a program to promote the health/nutrition of newborns would involve young mothers, but also the senior women who play both an advisory and a support role for them.  GMP knows that while a systems approach involving key actors in a social setting and not just women with young children is more complex, it is also much more effective in promoting sustained change.

Second, most programs dealing with issues concerning women and children use directive communication methods to “dictate” to communities what they should and should not do.  In GMP’s model, the communication and education methods used do not involve message dissemination; rather, they elicit dialogue and facilitate problem solving among community members in order to produce community driven decisions and action.  The group adult education methods used by GMP not only allow them to acquire new knowledge, but also help them to develop analytical thinking and problem solving skills to face other issues in the future.

The combination of these features of the GMP model in community interventions contributes to catalyzing community-wide dialogue and collective decision making that can lead to lasting changes in community norms. At the same time the approach builds social cohesion and resilience of community groups to take action together now and in the future.  All of these components ensure sustained results in the community that will outlive the life of the project.

2. Do you think that culture is viewed as an obstacle or asset in international development programs?  What are common or current misperceptions about this issue?

GMP believes that development programs should build on the roles, values, and systems that exist in communities, rather than focusing solely on the innovations that they seek to promote.  Especially in non-western societies, culturally determined roles, norms, and values are extremely important to community members.  When programs either ignore culture or are critical of it their impact may be limited due to the fact that they create excessive conflict, or clash, between old and new.

Most development programs do not build on existing cultural systems.  In many cases, programs dealing with the health and well-being of children and women (e.g. maternal and child health, early childhood education), for example, ignore culture and implicitly assume that “motherhood”, “childhood” or “adolescence” are universals.  In other cases, “culture” and “tradition” are viewed in a negative light; as obstacles to promoting positive change for communities.  In both cases, this creates a tension between “cultural systems” and “proposed change”.

3. How is “change through culture” a high impact model?

GMP’s culturally grounded model is very much influenced by insights from community psychology on how change can best be brought about within community systems.  By utilizing the grandmothers as an entry point into the community, GMP is able to facilitate the identification and development of community led initiatives.  Our model capitalizes on cultural assets, namely the roles, leadership, relationships, and knowledge of community values and organizations that constitute assets for promoting change within systems.  Some have referred to these assets as “cultural capital”. Our unique “change through culture” approach catalyzes positive community-driven change by strengthening communication between generations and between sexes.

In 14 communities in Senegal with very high teen pregnancy rates in which we used our model to strengthen relationships between adolescent girls and their culturally-designated advisors, the grandmothers, most communities report decreases in teen pregnancies, though it is quite difficult to quantify this change.  In Mali, GMP worked with Helen Keller International to promote prenatal visits for pregnant women. When comparing baseline and endline data it was found that where a grandmother-inclusive approach was used the average number of prenatal visits was significantly greater than where health education activities were carried out only with pregnant women.  All of these are examples of the fact that grandmothers are an abundant but underutilized cultural asset that can increase the impact of programs for women and children.

GMP actively conducts action research projects in Velingara to help us develop innovative community approaches in numerous development areas (health, education, empower of girls and women).  GMP is constantly documenting and evaluating its experiences in the communities with which we collaborate and continually disseminates methodologies and lessons learned from all our projects.