Cultural competency

cultural safety

Evaluators may come across situations where they have to work in a cultural context other than their own. It is essential that this work is carried out safely.

Culture is the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another and shapes the behaviour, world view, everyday practices and ways of living of its members. Without recognizing the influence of culture on human thought and behaviour, evaluators may arrive at conclusions that are fundamentally flawed and may cause harm to the community in question due to the influence of their own cultural attitudes, customs and beliefs.  

The American Evaluation Association’s Cultural Competence Statement states that, "to ensure recognition, accurate interpretation, and respect for diversity, evaluators should ensure that the members of the evaluation team collectively demonstrate cultural competence." (AEA, 2011)

Cultural competence is not the acquisition of certain skills or knowledge but an attitude towards culture. A culturally competent evaluator is one who is ready to engage with various sections of communities to be open to and embrace cultural and contextual dimensions important to the evaluation. Critical self-reflection and reflexivity is the first building block towards accomplishing cultural competence as it is not only the cultural context of the evaluee that needs consideration but the values, beliefs and culture of the evaluators are also important. Culturally competent evaluators not only respect the cultures represented in the evaluation but recognize their own ‘culturally-based assumptions’; take into account the  ‘differing world view of evaluation stakeholders and target communities’ and select culturally appropriate and participatory evaluation methods and strategies (AEA 2011; SenGupta, Hopson & Thompson-Robinson, 2004).

SenGupta, Hopson, and Thompson-Robinson (2004) describe cultural competence in evaluation as: "a systematic, responsive inquiry that is actively cognizant, understanding, and appreciative of the cultural context in which the evaluation takes place; that frames and articulates the epistemology of the evaluative endeavour; that employs culturally and contextually appropriate methodology; and that uses stakeholder-generated, interpretive means to arrive at the results and further use of the findings" (p.13)

The increasing understanding of the importance of cultural competence has resulted in the ‘Statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation’ by the AEA in 2011. This is a manifestation of increasing emphasises on acknowledging cultural diversity and its importance for ethical and high-quality evaluation practice. Following are included as the essential practice for cultural competence in AEA’s statement.

  • Acknowledge the complexity of cultural identity
  • Recognize the dynamics of power
  • Recognize and eliminate bias in language
  • Employ culturally appropriate methods

Cultural Safety

The Australian Evaluation Society uses the term 'cultural safety' in preference to 'cultural competence' for the following reasons with reference to evaluations involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

  1. "Cultural safety was developed in a First Nations context, initially in Aotearoa/New Zealand and then adopted and adapted within the Australian context. In contrast, cultural competence was developed in a cross-cultural context in the USA (Cross et al. 1989). While there are some shared experiences in relation to racism, there are distinct differences between the impact, experiences and outcomes of colonisation for Australian First Nations people compared with Australians from diverse cultural backgrounds who have arrived since colonisation.
  2. The term cultural competence implies that full competence in a culture other than your own can be achieved. This is an ambitious and unlikely outcome that sends a misleading message. As explained by CATSINaM (2014): There is a variation of opinion amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians about the utility and appropriateness of the term cultural competence. It is not always considered a realistic goal for non-Indigenous people to become culturally competent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, particularly as there is such diversity amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Further, due to the significant interruption to cultural practices and knowledges caused by colonisation, some aspects have been lost for some or many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nation groups. Thus, aspiring to cultural competence within their own Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander cultures can be challenging for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. (p. 12)
  3. While a non-Indigenous person may be competent in a skill and can perform it competently in a cultural context other than their own, they may not do this in a manner that is experienced as culturally safe by Australian First Nations people involved.
  4. The presence or absence of cultural safety is determined by Australian First Nations people in situ (CATSINaM 2017b; Walker, Schultz & Sonn 2014), not by the non-Indigenous practitioner or a standard set by an external body, even though standards can provide valuable guidance on what contributes to cultural safety. What may be experienced as culturally safe in one context may not necessarily be culturally safe in another context. In summary, Aotearoa/New Zealand based academics Curtis et al. (2019) state a critical distinction between cultural competence and cultural safety that is equally relevant in the Australian context and the field of evaluation for Australian First Nations people: Health practitioners, healthcare organisations and health systems need to be engaged in working towards cultural safety and critical consciousness. To do this, they must be prepared to critique the ‘taken for granted’ power structures and be prepared to challenge their own culture and cultural systems, rather than prioritise becoming ‘competent’ in the cultures of others. (p. 1)" (Gollan & Stacey, 2021, pp. 7-8)


The article by Joan LaFrance (2004) discusses the critical importance of understanding culture and context when conducting evaluations.

American Evaluation Association (AEA). (2011). American Evaluation Association Public Statement on Cultural Competence in Evaluation. Fairhaven, MA: Author. Accessed on 21 July, 2011 Retrieved from

American Evaluation Association (AEA) (2004). Guiding Principles for Evaluation. American Evaluation Association. Accessed on 21 July, 2011 Retrieved from

Gollan, S & Stacey, K (2021). Australian Evaluation Society First Nations Cultural Safety Framework, Australian Evaluation Society, Melbourne.

LaFrance, J (2004). Culturally competent evaluation in Indian Country. New Directions for Evaluation. Issue 102, pages 39–50

SenGupta, S, Hopson, R & Thompson-Robinson, M (2004) Cultural Competence in Evaluation: An Overview.  New Directions in Evaluation. (102) 5-19 Retrieved from

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