Culturally Competent Needs Assessment By an “Outsider”

What does it take for an outsider to do a community needs assessment in cultural contexts that are deeply entrenched in traditions and norms? I have been reflecting on the work of Betty LaDuke, who facilitated ‘needs assessment workshops through art’ in two communities in Rwanda and Zimbabwe in 2006.

Betty LaDuke is a renowned artist who has gained an international reputation for her murals, paintings, and sketches. She is also known to be an effective culturally competent facilitator of art.

At each site she worked with a local evaluator who helped to facilitate the process. As one of the local facilitators and an evaluator myself, I wanted to observe and learn the art of needs assessment through art. Hence, my role was to assess, evaluate and learn the effectiveness of needs assessment through art in multicultural settings.

The Zimbabwe community happened to be my birthplace. Though different geographically and language wise, both communities are rural based and remote. Both are composed of indigenous people steeped in the traditions of ancient art, sculpture, and music. The group in Zimbabwe was situated in the remotest part of the country, and rarely exposed to outsiders. Hence, the whole village wanted to come. In both groups none of the women could read and write. The few men who were literate had attained only an education level equivalent to a third or fourth grade.

—“the spiritual presence of our ancestors has been honored,” the headman’s wife later whispered to a nearby healer.

What Worked and Lessons Learned

Observed Facilitator’s Competence My Impressions and Reflections
Cross-Cultural Skill

  • The ability to understand the villages’ cultural values and the importance of those values to their lives shaped the success of both workshops.
  • The ability to reach across cultural barriers
  • Ability to involve the entire person, including the heart, mind, body, and spirit
During the group process, though deeply involved in her sketching, the evaluator became entranced as she roved among the groups, and watched the people create their own vision.

As an observer who had known most of these people since childhood – the silences were as powerful as the interactions

Conscious of the Methodology of Choice in a Cross -Cultural Setting

  • Use of a dialogical method to break down the barriers between facilitator, women, men and children within the same societal group.
The approaches used allowed participants in both settings to

  • Focus on issues in the people’s daily lives.
  • Promote participants’ control of the process and actions
  • Respect the community’ histories, language and and cultures
Ability to Empower and encourage Women to Use drawings to advocate for their Needs

  • The drawings depicted deleterious effects of gender disparities from women and the children.
  • With some instruction, illiterate men and women, many of whom had never held a pencil, eagerly drew. The facilitator’s authenticity, empathy, and capacity to respond to the needs of women who were illiterate made it easier for the women participants to express their visions in drawings.

Due to high levels of illiteracy among women, the facilitator encouraged formation of several group circles which worked together to express their ideas through art.

During plenary session, as the drawings were shared, deeply entrenched issues about gender roles and the need for education for women and children were openly discussed.

  • Usually these issues are taboo in an open forum, however, it seems women connected with their own power and, in turn, felt empowered to speak out.
Ability to Recognize Gender Disparities and Power Relations

  • While the facilitator used methodology that encourages participation, she also recognized gender disparities and how they shape power relationships. Use of art to assess needs led to expression of entrenched gender feelings, but also hopes for the education of their children
  • A group of a few men expresses the issues of gender disparities in their drawing. This brought a productive discussion during plenary session.
Illiterate village women, men, and children shared intimate details of their journeys through life – the suffering, joys, and dreams for the future.

  • Individual and group space allowed men to understand the depth of gender dynamics in the village.
Diverse Team: Inclusion of insiders as part of the evaluation team

  • Importance of ‘intentional’ building of indigenous” cultural competence
  • In both workshops the facilitator asked a local person indigenous to the community to lead and take meaningful roles in facilitation.
  • As an outsider, Betty recognized the role of the two local facilitators as the faces that help to create validity and credibility to the process
Both facilitators in the two communities were surprised with some of the underlying issues which they had taken for granted.

  • A great demonstrated efforts to let a local person help to facilitate and not only to learn from the facilitator, but also to provide back up and sense-making of the language concepts, and metaphors.
  • The participants seemed content to have the two local facilitators who helped to validate the interpretation of the data during feedback.
Embracing Language as it Influence evaluation barriersSeeking for deeper level interpretation and appreciating language as a source and an extension of personal identity and culture.

During plenary session the older participants used proverbs and metaphors to express their findings. The facilitator sought for greater clarity, which helped the workshop to understand delicate and sensitive issues. The use of proverbs and its time consuming process allowed the workshop to unearth underlying values and needs of both women and men.

Tapping into how people use language to express themselves created space for open dialogue. The participants felt honored and behaved like there were on equal footing with the evaluator.

  • A true space for learning and social change.
  • The space allowed the outsider to respect the “OTHER” and became the Learner
Creation of an environment for intimate sharing

  • The facilitator allowed people to “be” in their own space and encouraged them to draw freely from their imaginations.
After the drawings, everyone was eager to share. It was the first time that women gathered, not to listen to men talk about community politics or some self serving interests, but to share from the heart and soul about what matters most-the livelihoods of their families.The village drawings reflected hope and resilience, a stark contrast to the social and political conditions of both two villages. I learned that, despite no running water or electricity, people in my village have the willpower to survive and to create a better future of their children.


This process was enriched by having local evaluators work with an outsider to conduct the needs assessments. Local evaluators not only have the knowledge of ‘inner cultural dynamics’ but are also able to interpret and make sense of the metaphors which helps to build clarity, ownership and validity over the evaluation data.

the process of drawing and digging deep brought layers of silence out and energized us to share.” (One woman later reflected)

Thanks to Betty LaDuke for teaming up with local staff and allowing them to be the face and validity of the process. When I met Betty, she reminded me of Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan poet, author and Catholic priest who spoke about the right of all to experience culture, the arts, and knowledge in order to create a true democracy.

“Culture within any given society depends on the capacity of the members of that society to develop their potential. If the members of a society are not given this opportunity, there can be no democratization of culture. There can be no culture, no democracy.” (Cardenal 231)

How can evaluation as a discipline be encouraged to take steps to ensure cultural competence as an integral part of education, training and practice, and to increase research and scholarship on culturally competent practice among evaluation professionals?

Related posts:

Nan Wehipeihana Working across the cultural divide in evaluation

Jane Davidson Culture – insiders’ and outsiders’ insights – and genuine evaluation

9 comments to Culturally Competent Needs Assessment By an “Outsider”

  • k fisher

    I am somewhat confused by the ways cultural competencies and issues for evaluative practice are addressed in evaluation. This post exemplifies some of these issues and I’m hoping someone can clarify a point for me.

    It’s not clear to me whether, or to what extent, evaluative practice is considered an inescapably cultural-socio-historically situated set of practices itself or a set of practices that aspire to (if not achieve) neutrality in a trans-historical/cultural way of engaging. If it is the former it would fit with more Foucauldian orientations to power and knowledge while the latter I believe would be more consistent with Habermassian approaches.

    It seems to me this would have some important implications for understanding and practicing evaluation. Is culturally competent evaluative practice regarded as:
    1) necessarily political and situated;
    2) transcending cultures via neutral facilitation/adjudication; and/or
    3) tapping into global norms-values and reason?

  • David Earle

    I think this is a very generally useful post. One of my reflections from the AES confernce is we should be taking more notice of emerging good practice in development evaluation and apply it across other evaluation contexts.

    My view is the evaluator role is an ‘outsider’ role – in that it requires a perspective and set of values to be applied which are not necessarilly those of the participants. Therefore, this kind of reflection and dialogue-based approach is valuable across a range of situations (even where the evaluator has shared values and experiences with the participants).

    K Fisher raises some good questions. I would agree that the act of evaluation is situated in culture, society and history. And while you could find examples of evaluative thinking within all cultures and situations – they are not by any means based on the same values, norms and processes.

    So my answer is that an evaluation project is a cultural practice in itself, with its own history, politics and situation. And it is also a highly political act in that the purpose of an evaluation is, at the very least, to inform decisions that will affect power. So a culturally competent evaluator first needs to understand the cultural context of the project, as well as his/her own cultural values and beliefs.

  • Jane Davidson

    I found this a very powerful example too, with applicability across a wide range of contexts.

    Evaluators almost always work in communities and cultures where the natural language of communication is different from that in the evaluator’s specialist universe. The same is true whether we’re in the Boardroom (in a ‘management culture’), the streets, or deep among (as we say here) the ‘flax roots’.

    In order to get authentic responses from the people we interact with, the evaluation team needs to ‘speak their language’ – whatever that means in the context. And, as Tererai points out in her example, find a form of expression that puts the informants on an equal footing, that doesn’t erect an artificial barrier to participating, and that taps into the ways in which people normally make sense in that context.

    Tererai’s example actually goes beyond that, creating an opportunity for conversations that wouldn’t normally happen, driven by those who wouldn’t normally get the airtime as speakers rather than listeners. That’s as much about the innovative strategies used to engage people in real conversations as it is about the choice of who does it – what mix of people has the credibility to pull something like this off.

    The other theme that resonated with me was using meaningful inclusion as facilitators as a way of leaving something behind in the community, not just taking knowledge and know-how away for someone else’s benefit.

    For me, it’s a great reminder to think outside the box and look for opportunities to blend evaluation skill sets with those that are not normally considered evaluative (e.g., art). Not because it makes a dry-looking task much more interesting, but because authentic engagement is critical for validity, whether in needs assessment or evaluation.

  • Patricia Rogers

    Two things really strike me about this example. One is the importance of the outsider and the insiders working together. There have been some fruitless debates about whether insider or outsider evaluation is better. This reinforces the view that the best option is often a combination of both.

    The other is the value of creating a process which is not simply collecting data from people, and then going away to wonder what they meant, but being able to explore meaning and sense-making with them, not only explaining it but also gathering increasingly rich data.

    For other references on culturally responsive evaluation, check out Rodney Hopson’s post on the AEA 365 blog

  • As a potential client of evaluations for my Rebecca Plants healthy lifestyle programs in schools, I was drawn in to the process Tererai described by the observed facilitator competency, “Ability to involve the entire person, including the heart, mind, body, and spirit.” Wow! In the world of gathering data, my impressions of which tend to be emotionless (probably because of my corporate past!), I LOVE that the evaluator competency was not only observed, but it sounds like it was appreciated in the form of expression and participation. Thank you for sharing the observations and impact.

  • Michael Patton

    Thanks for sharing this rich example,Tererai. What strikes me is the qualities displayed of skillful facilitation. Evaluation often involves facilitation. Cross-cultural interactions are heavily dependent on the quality and authenticity — and dare I say — genuineness — of facilitation. This is a good example of the challenges evaluators face when not just observing or being part of facilitation by others, but doing the facilitating.

  • Marilyn Scott

    I feel Tererai’s example shows an excellent way to cross cultural, literacy and language barriers and get to the heart of the situation. Working with local people, as an integral part of the evaluation team, can help ensure a project and the evaluation of that project have value within the cultural context.
    There are so many nuances in local cultures and often the subtleties in the language dialects would not be picked up by an outsider, even if they were well versed in the overall culture and language. There is also a trust factor involved. As an outsider you can face a wall of silence, avoidance of issues, answers that are fragmented, incomplete or vague. Working as a team with local people allows for trust to build more quickly and evaluation to be more accurate.

  • Renee Mungas

    As someone deeply interested in the role of arts in healing/community development/economic development, I appreciated this reflection on the use of the creative process in conducting needs assessments. I think it’s an exciting time when artists and scientists begin to partner to effect social change, as these are two disciplines that inherently support one another and foster greater innovation. While there is much about the role of arts in evaluation/research practices that seems intuitive, it’s always nice to confirm those theories with best practices from the field. Thank you sharing your perspective, Tererai. If anyone is interested, there is a great resource on the use of art in research practice, titled “Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice” by Patricia Leavy.

    “Art condenses the experience we all have as human beings, and, by forming it, makes it significant.” – Trevor Bell

  • Rosalee Sinn

    A very helpful review. Art levels the playing field. In a way as the participants use art to describe their feelings, art becomes written communication. The art definitely transcends cultures and erases boundaries. There is a greater transparency with the use of art in evaluations than just using words. In a verbal dialogue it would seldom be said “everyone was eager to share”.

    I would have liked a clearer statement regarding the goal of the evaluation.

    I hope readers will also check the web for the art and the books by Betty LaDuke. Her art is communication at an unusual depth of feelings and facts. She is an amazingly gifted and unique artist.

    Rosalee Sinn