Monday, April 16, 2012

Intercultural partnerships are complex but simple

We humans either make intercultural partnerships too complex or too simple. I've spent the last twelve years in the midst of Western partnerships with non-profits and private sector orgs in the developing world. Seven of those years I was privileged to see issues from the perspective of nationals trying to transform their own country. This perspective was mind-altering. The daily (often unintentional) pressure that many donors -- financial or otherwise -- put on recipients was clear. The outcomes are sad. For example, there's a natural tendency to stifle innovation as nationals doing great work with limited resources suddenly focus on reporting requirements or hosting Western visitors instead of assessing their programs' impact on a community.

Then there's the constant challenge of communications: how much do nationals need to tell the donor...because any explanation seems to require another explanation?! I remember a school/community center that was being built in rural India. The land purchased had major problems (there were disputed deeds, the land was prone to floods, etc.). While trying to fix the problem with government officials or logistical solutions like fill-dirt, my friends barely had energy to explain things to donors who probably just wanted the problem fixed anyway. More important, communications about meetings with authorities were likely to set off more questions, especially from Europeans worried about financial accountability or Americans trying to transfer solutions.

But at the end of the day, there are some simple principles in effective partnerships.
  • Mutual respect which includes letting the nationals hold most of the power and implement their vision. This requires hard work by Westerners to prove they really trust/value views of the nationals and giving nationals the fora to speak freely. (Note: This usually does NOT mean a Westerner asking an opinion of a national leader in a group meeting or expecting email answers!)
  • Common vision (not just goals) is crucial along with long-term commitments. Or, in certain cases, a series of short-term commitments to test and evaluate different approaches while moving forward together.
  • Awareness of complementary strengths/weaknesses are important. If both partners have the same strengths or don't recognize the strengths of the other, the partnership might work but will be inefficient.
  • Excellent communications -- and clear expectations about frequency and type of communications -- are essential.
  • Perhaps most important is mutual vulnerability. It is a type of accountability but more relational-based and very rare.

I've found the recently articulated concept of "collective impact" as discussed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (original article and more pragmatic follow-up) to be helpful...however, it doesn't specifically address intercultural partnerships. Isolated pieces in the Harvard Business Review touch on culture (e.g. usually in context of virtual teams), but don't propose an overall methodology. And an overarching strategy is crucial since it is the key to many development and aid failures, missionary groups who damaged societies, or corporates that destroyed cultures.

After closely watching many types of international partnerships and reading widely, I've learned a lot. Although I certainly have more questions than answers, these are my thoughts at this point. I'm sure I'll blog on this again in the future and may even change my opinions, but the bottom line for me is clear. As Westerners, we must make sure our motives are not of a white savior. And we must also acknowledge it isn't as simple as a memo of understanding or finding people who want to change the world in the same way we do. But we should not make intercultural collaboration so complex that we're paralyzed by fear.