Part 2: Working with International Organizations: Cultural Competencies

Cultural Competencies and Working With International Organizaitons

In Part 1 of Working with International Organizations I shared how to improve effectiveness in this work by learning the culture of an organization, the culture of the people in an organization, the culture(s) of the country, and how culture, language, and situation impact our work as development professionals.

Questions to Guide Cultural Competency and Considerations

  1.   Is power open to challenge or are employees expected to comply?  Are the people you are working with conditioned to work one way or the other?
  2.   Is uncertainty to be avoided or expected? Think about how comfortable you are in an unstructured situation and how this might affect others. To “normalize” uncertainty of a group or organization, I use scenarios and/or scenario planning.
  3.   Is individualism an issue? Is it ‘me’ or ‘we’? A loose connection with one another conveys individualism while others maintain a traditional loyalty to immediate family, clan, and more. Understanding this is core to the ability to adapt and will provide insight into
  4.   Is gender an issue?  Gender issues often cause the most concern for us. I follow a few simple rules:
  • I suggest women have a large scarf available. You are not necessarily expected to cover (unless visiting a mosque) but it is attractive and when loosely wrapped around your head and shoulders, signals your respect.  The first meeting, dress conservatively. You will learn when and how you can loosen up.
  • As a general rule, I keep my hands to myself until I know the “rules” of the culture!
  • I have seen people assume that because a woman is “covered” with a scarf, hijab, or other that she understands less, speaks less English, etc. This is NOT a safe assumption.
  • Men and women may separate to socialize.
  • On occasion, because my expertise was desired, I have been treated as an “honorary man” or perhaps “gender neutral.”
  • If you are meeting with a Board of Directors and Executive Director, who are all male, ask if they have a “women’s committee” and might you meet with them as well?

What is a Cultural Informant?

A Cultural Informant can be any individual who is proficient in the community language and culture and are fluent in English (or another language which you are fluent). They do not need to have experience in the organization’s work or mission.

Where do you find a Cultural Informant?

I would start asking among colleagues, the community, the organization (as long your informant is not part of the team).

Working with an Interpreter – Good and bad.

  • Where do you find an Interpreter?
  • I would start asking among colleagues (shout out for #GrantChat)
  • Professional interpreters are available in the US and other locations
    • Knowing the language is not enough, the Interpreter is ideally a native speaker.
    • Certain words do not directly translate.
    • Meet with your interpreter and discuss how different words will be phrased.
    • DO NOT allow the interpreter to add information, without asking you first.
    • DO NOT allow the interpreter to take over your meeting.

EXAMPLE, the best spontaneous interpreter ever: Working in Ghana during a secondment from the Department of State to teach pre-departure orientation and training of trainers with refugees in the US Refugee Program. I was assigned a group from Togo that spoke only French (and native dialects) and although I read/write in French, my ability to teach in the language was not up to par. One of the “students”, very tall young man, volunteered to help. We gave the students a 15-minute break while we went over certain words and phrases. It helped that the questions from the group came straight to me (I understand French) and he translated my response. After an absolutely joyful teaching experience, I asked his background/profession. He had a Ph.D. and taught university level Physics and English.

You may find yourself working with an organization formed by an ethnic minority (here or abroad).  You need to understand the culture of the organization and the dominant culture. In the US, there a number of organizations founded by refugees (or other members of a diaspora). Once called Mutual Assistance Associations (MAA), these organizations are more often referred to Ethnic Community Based Organizations (ECBO). They come in all sizes and levels of sophistication and success.

All start-ups have a learning curve. Be cognizant that you might, in working with an ECBO, that you are dealing with more than another culture – you may be dealing with people who have survived trauma, torture, and a forced (and often unwilling) flight from their home. I have found that conversations and meetings will often drift to individual situations. I ask if we can “park” the individual issue, and I will remain after the meeting to talk.

All organizations go through stages of growth and learning. International organization are the same. Everything encountered in the organization down the street will be encountered in an international organization.

Resources for Working with International Organizations

Here are a few (hopefully) helpful resources. There are many more. If you have some favorites, please share them in the comments section and we will add them to our lists.

The Resource Alliance: The Global Network for Fundraising, Resource Mobilisation and Philanthropy
The Guardian: Global Development Professionals Network
InterAction: A United Voice for Global Change
Centre for Intercultural Learning, Country Reports
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Ruth McLean Dawson has consulted with and worked in nonprofit organizations in the United States, Southeast Asia, Middle East, Central America, South America and Africa. A significant part of her work has been with refugees, immigrants and survivors of torture, genocide, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing. She has also worked with organizations providing services including case management, foster care and adoption, direct social services, mental health, health and wellness, housing, legal assistance, and environmental education and advocacy. Ruth has extensive experience working with nonprofits at local, regional, national, and international levels – direct service, management, and development – and spent several years at the Foundation Center. She has a MSc. Degree in Risk, Crisis, and Disaster Management and is currently working as a Nonprofit Coach and Consultant focused on organizational sustainability – planning, quality, and fundraising.

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