1. In Tajikistan, where I currently live, and in Central Asia in general, married women wear scarves on their heads. So do unmarried women older than about 25. It’s not a religious thing at all. It’s just what women do. Visitors often come to Tajikistan for a week and leave thinking that it’s a deeply religious country because of all the women wearing hijab. If you either a) asked someone or b) knew enough about Islam to know what a hijab has to cover, you wouldn’t make that mistake. But people don’t know, and they don’t ask. They walk around, they make assumptions, they go home and share their misinformation.
2. In order to graduate from my alma mater, Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, you have to be proficient in a foreign language. My roommate and I both chose French. In the weeks leading up to our proficiency exams, we spoke French to each other at all times to practice. Once, I heard someone comment as we walked by, “That’s why I love Georgetown – the constant exposure to other cultures.”
That’s my convoluted way of saying we get things wrong all the time. Sometimes our science is bad, sometimes we haven’t bridged the culture gap as securely as we’d like, sometimes we’ve made so many compromises that we ended up somewhere we don’t belong. Some of that we can prevent. Both of my examples above could be prevented through spending more time and doing more research.
We can’t prevent all of it. As long as our programs are designed and run by human beings rather than infallible robots, mistakes will happen.
We do, however, need a resilient system to catch our mistakes and a corporate culture that lets us make changes when we realize we’ve screwed up. We can catch our mistakes through monitoring and evaluation. That means not just collecting data, but looking at it, thinking about what it means, and using that meaning to guide program decisions. And we can keep our errors to a minimum by cultivating an atmosphere where people are encouraged to admit their mistakes. If you maternal and child health director realizes that the patient education classes aren’t doing anything, she needs to be free to re-design the curriculum or cancel the activity and spend the money on childbirth kits.