Intercultural collaboration

The capacity to communicate and to interact effectively with people from other social and cultural backgrounds plays a crucial role in determining the success or failure of any project in international cooperation.

This is especially true in humanitarian action, development cooperation, promotion of human rights and peacebuilding, where diverse stakeholders are involved. For people working in international cooperation (IC) intercultural communication competence paves the way for better acceptance by host communities. This capacity is also an important risk-reducing factor, especially when working in fragile states or in highly volatile contexts, where security issues are a daily concern.

Misunderstandings lead to frustrations

When we interact with people from other cultural and social backgrounds, we often feel uncomfortable or puzzled by unexpected reactions. Misunderstandings happen more frequently than between people who share a common cultural heritage and similar communication styles. Team members and even more so managers should address these issues properly in order to avoid growing frustrations and maintaining a positive working atmosphere within the team.

Not knowing codes and taboos

Outsiders and foreigners rarely feel bound by the limitations imposed by local cultural codes. They are unaware of the myriad of subtle social and emotional relations and are not hindered by any taboos. The inability to notice the underlying complexity of a host country leads to proposing simple, swift and supposedly efficient (in their eyes) solutions to a problem. At home, it would be impossible to act in such a rash manner.

Beware of blind spots

One might expect that people working in IC projects have a natural talent to communicate across cultures. However, research has shown that, despite good intentions in this regard, IC specialists have a number of blind spots that prevent them from establishing a respectful dialogue with their interlocutors as equals.

The pressure to act quickly and be visible in the media helps to preserve a top-down access to people in need of humanitarian aid, whereby powerful, efficient and mostly Western organisations are shown as rescuing countries that appear to be disorganised, less efficient and often corrupt, especially in times of crisis.

…the model of intervention for humanitarian organizations generally remains that of the unilateral deployment of Western expertise to support the victims of the ‘South’. Besides the public intentions to strengthen partnerships, organizations are still struggling to change their practice in this area.

Vincent Bernard (International Review of the Red Cross Number 884, 2011)

Acting in an emergency mode prevents humanitarian workers from listening carefully to those they want to help. People working in development and cooperation projects also tend to believe, often unconsciously, that their mission is to emancipate and enlighten their beneficiaries.

The asymmetry between them in terms of social status and economic power is a further hurdle, which makes reciprocal relationships almost impossible. Besides, those who are motivated to support others rarely question enough what effect their work has on themselves and what really motivates them.

Time and patience

Communicating effectively with people from other social and cultural backgrounds is time consuming. It requires regular and sustained contact, and participants who have a clear understanding of their own cultural identity and their own values.

Perhaps there is a natural, collective tendency among Western people to favour action, rather than letting things emerge. Wanting to achieve goals, being efficient and proactive leads to forgetting the «softer» approach of accompanying people until things evolve. If local values, needs and ways of doing things are neglected, aid workers fall into the trap of hectic activism!

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