Isolating the Root Cause; Culture vs. Structure



It seems like a lot of our conversations make root cause analysis like this simple picture- all these issues are related, but the strongest ones, or causal ones have lines leading to the next. We can see that the issues that have the most causal effects are poverty and unfair trading, and I want to segment some of the issues above into two major issues that will be related to root cause analysis. By asking ourselves if the problem/cause is cultural or structural, we can begin to approach the problem with a type of solution in mind.

Cultural Issues

Culture issues are thinks related to customs, practices, or traditions within a society that perpetuate problems- for example, the concept of a culture of poverty, often exemplified in  inner-city areas. My sister is working for Teach For America right now, and she has contemporary stories of black kids berating their black friends when they score high, saying, “What, you think you’re white or something?” The current culture in her city where black kids have historically scored lower creates pressure on current students to be aware of when they’re breaking trends- meaning that unfortunately there’s sometimes negative backlash for performing well. This is just an example, but this can be extended to other issues; women’s rights, sanitation, higher education are all categories that are going to feel heavy cultural influences.


Structural problems often concern laws, policy, and economic opportunities that are designed to favor a certain race, gender, or party. I’ll draw an example contrasting cultural and structural problems. If someone would like to trade their good freely with other neighbors but their husbands think it’s embarrassing for them to enter business and therefore stop them, that’s probably a cultural problem. If it’s illegal for women, or people from a certain race to enter the market, that’s a structural problem.


So if we can find a structural problem, then we can enact policy or programs, new laws and economic opportunities that allow people enter markets and do things they want to do, but are held back by resources. Great examples would be One Acre Fund (farmers didn’t have the resources or know-how to for effective agricultural practices) or Kiva (online lending- entrepreneurs around the world are willing to get to work, but lack the capital because of geographic distance.) I think that Grameen Bank targets many culture aspects, as they often have to figure out how to help the family of the women deal with women handling money, gaining education, etc.

Unfortunately, most real problems are going to be a mix, and therefore the solutions. So root cause analysis doesn’t have to figure out all the problems or influencing factors, just the largest. Therefore, I believe that the most effective solutions are going to be structural solutions that adapt to each culture, because they’re adaptable and scale-able.