Delivering Services in Multicultural Societies

Alexandre Marc


How can service delivery policies be designed and implemented so as to recognise and support cultural diversity? This book finds that long-term investment and strategies are needed. Basic principles include the importance of bottom-up and participatory approaches, deep institutional change, and ongoing policy adaptation. Poorly planned and under-resourced interventions can increase social exclusion. Governments should be prepared to meet the additional requirements of capacity building and institutional development.

As societies have become more culturally diverse, governments are paying greater attention to the management of cultural diversity. The best way to nurture cultural diversity at the local level, while preserving cohesion and equity, is still open to debate. Theory suggests that recognising and acknowledging cultural diversity will help to achieve cohesion and equity, whereas not doing so will do the reverse.

Early evidence indicates that the majority of efforts to design and implement policies that support cultural diversity have had positive societal effects. However, the poor execution and planning of such policies have contributed to the exclusion of some social groups.

Countries are increasingly approving international treaties aimed at recognising cultural diversity and are actively encouraging the concept in their constitutions and legal frameworks. Transforming these frameworks into policies and programmes for basic service delivery has been problematic, however.

  • Making and implementing policies that recognise cultural diversity spans multiple sectors and requires multiple programmes.
  • It would be relatively simple to pilot programmes addressing cultural diversity in service delivery at the local level. Yet these would not be effective without a clear policy and legislative framework at the national level.
  • Policies for cultural diversity are generally better implemented with some degree of decentralisation. But without a strong push from central government, decentralisation is unlikely to sufficiently support cultural diversity. Policies also need to take socioeconomic conditions into account.
  • Policies and programmes that support cultural diversity directly affect societal norms, values and local power structures. Stakeholder participation is therefore essential.
  • The design process involves balancing individual human rights with collective cultural rights. It is important to understand: how collective and individual aspirations will interact when institutions or practices from a specific culture are integrated into service delivery; and how different systems that express a society’s cultural diversity will work together.
  • The costs of multicultural programmes can be substantial, but tend to decrease over time.
  • Information is limited on how policies and programmes that support cultural diversity have affected communities. Cost-effective analysis is vital, but challenging.

World situations are too complex and varied to establish a detailed universal framework for taking cultural diversity into account when delivering services. However, certain basic rules seem to apply:

  • Policies that support cultural diversity should not be pursued from the top down only. They require a bottom-up approach as well. Governments should not dictate multicultural policies, but should foster an environment in which local and majority cultures can interact peacefully and productively.
  • Policies cannot be driven solely by elites. Intended beneficiaries, especially the poor, need to understand how these policies seek to improve their day-to-day lives.
  • Cultural diversity cannot be solely a matter of law and its implementation; deep institutional changes are also required.
  • Like any institutional reform, recognising a minority culture is a process that must be managed over time. Cultures adapt and change, and policies need to be flexible to allow for adaptations to be made along the way.


Marc, A., 2009, 'Delivering Services in Multicultural Societies', World Bank, Washington, D.C.