5.2.4. Informal Rules Observed


In many cultures, and for various historical reasons, proverbs exist which discourage individuals from standing out from the crowd: e.g., “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut” or "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." For example, a Thai word meaning great, smart or clever can be used both positively and negatively. Being “too great” means to succeed too openly, without sufficient humility. In northern regions, this has been observed to drive successful individual entrepreneurs toward cooperative or group-based enterprises as a mechanism to secure against appearing too successful—which may inhibit individuals from operating more effectively and growing their business.[1] Similarly, in parts of Africa, community norms dictate that individuals share any surplus cash income with other members of their extended family. On the other hand, an Acacia value chain project implemented by World Vision Australia in Niger found that fear of failure and public embarrassment often discouraged people from taking up new business opportunities; the cultural environment provided strong incentives to maintain the status quo. Maintenance of the social fabric that the community relies on as a means to absorb and diffuse risk is seen as more important than saving and investing in enterprise activities.

In Liberia, strong resistance to standing out from the crowd through learning or innovation, for example by trying out new methods of crop production, seems to be linked to the impact of the recent civil war. During the conflict, educated people were often sidelined or even targeted for persecution. It was considered safer to keep a low profile.[2] Likewise in the Quechua culture of Peru, the introduction of any new practice (e.g., in farming) is a collective community-driven process during which innovators must maintain a humble and patient position of encouraging the new practice but without asserting its value until its utility is validated by the wider group of peers.[3] The belief that "getting ahead" and doing better than one's neighbor must be that neighbor's expense has been reported in various countries, and the fear of being ostracized or targeted for reprisals, seems to be common especially in communities that have suffered recent conflicts, such as northern Uganda or Liberia.[4]

Tensions Between Social and Commercial Values

Social institutions create structures and norms that people may value a great deal, such as kinship, social status, family honor, community solidarity or religious conformity. Inevitably these ‘social’ values sometimes come into conflict with the ‘commercial’ values that inspire enterprise investment, growth and value chain competitiveness in western capitalist economies. The way that people manage the trade-offs between social and commercial values is strongly influenced by local informal rules and norms.

Famously, in many pastoralist communities in Africa, the value of a herd has more to do with the number of head of cattle than the commercial value of the meat they represent. In Zambia, for example, cattle are used to bind families together creating a broader social network that deals more effectively with risks. Cattle are a means to exchange and accumulate social capital, giving families more prestige as lynchpins in the social fabric of their community. Understanding this led NCBA/CLUSA to focus on evolving a two-herd system that allows farmers to develop commercial management and increase incomes without damaging an important coping mechanism.[5]

These trade-offs between social and commercial values have been observed in a completely different context—in the ‘suki’ system of personalized business relationships in the Philippines, which serves to compensate for lack of trust in formal contracts, and draws its strength from Filipino cultural traditions of quasi-kinship and reciprocity. Suki relationships can be strained when one party adopts more conventional market-based behavior (e.g., a processor starts enforcing penalties for late deliveries, or a buyer informs suppliers that they cannot treat their suki differently from other business partners). The abrupt re-entry of one party into the realm governed by market norms is perceived as a personal betrayal.[6]

Another example comes from Niger, where World Vision Australia found that a darker porridge resulting from a particular variety of pest-resistant sorghum carried a negative stigma. White or lighter-colored porridges are preferred, as darker porridge is seen as "poor people's food." This stigma is so strong that the local name for this porridge is roughly translated as "after dark," implying that it is only eaten after dark, when visitors would not notice the difference. Hence, farmers--even those who were regularly hungry--would choose not to grow this variety of sorghum at all, or if they did, it would be eaten only after dark.


  1. David Sturza, EcoVentures International, in the E-Consultation: The Impacts of Social Norms on Value Chain Performance, April 27-29 2010.
  2. ACDI/VOCA in State of the Field in Youth Enterprise, Employment and Livelihoods Development.
  3. Lucho Osorio-Cortes, Practical Action, in the E-Consultation: The Impacts of Social Norms on Value Chain Performance, April 27-29 2010.
  4. E-Consultation: The Impacts of Social Norms on Value Chain Performance, April 27-29 2010.
  5. Bear, M., Field, M., “Managing a Process of Change: Useful Framework for Implementers of Making Markets Work for the Poor Programming,” Enterprise Development and Microfinance (an international journal Vol 19, Number 2, June 2008.
  6. E-Consultation: The Impacts of Social Norms on Value Chain Performance, April 27-29 2010.