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Summary of the Talk  "Without borders: Cultures learning to cooperate"

On April 30, 2024, in the third session of the series of talks “A Cooperar que El Mundo se va a Acabar”, we explore the potential of collaboration between different cultures in the search for a more sustainable and equitable world. Under the title “Without Borders: Cultures Learning to Cooperate”, we will immerse ourselves in a journey through the Americas, Europe and Africa, where diverse geographies and particular cultures converge to find commonalities and lessons that transcend borders.

How can international cooperation projects effectively adapt to the different cultural perspectives and specific needs of the beneficiary communities to ensure their long-term success and sustainability?

In this talk we were joined by Natalia Naranjo, Founder of the Red de Mujeres y Sostenibilidad, expert in International Cooperation, Isabela Linares, journalist on international development issues, for SID, Strategies for International Development and María Cantó, international development professional with experience in various organizations and regions.

Collaboration between cultures

Effective collaboration between different cultures is a fundamental pillar of successful international cooperation projects. Cultural diversity is an inherent feature of global society, and recognizing and valuing these differences is essential to promoting meaningful and equitable collaborative relationships.

First, a multidisciplinary approach involves the participation of experts from diverse fields, such as anthropologists, sociologists, economists, environmentalists and other relevant professionals, which allows problems to be addressed from multiple angles and more comprehensive solutions to be developed and adapted to the specific needs of each cultural context.

In addition, a deep understanding of the beneficiary populations is crucial to designing and implementing successful cooperation projects, thus understanding not only the cultural practices, beliefs and values of local communities, but also recognizing their unique needs, aspirations and challenges. Without this knowledge, projects run the risk of being ineffective, unsustainable or even detrimental to the communities they are supposed to benefit.

A clear example of the dangers of ignoring local culture is the fish processing plant project at Lake Turkana, Kenya. Funded by the Norwegian government, this project, designed in 1971, was intended to provide employment for local people by fishing and processing fish for export, however, the Turkana are nomadic people with no tradition of fishing or fish consumption so, although the plant was completed, it only operated for a few days before closing. The high cost of operating the freezers and the demand for clean water in the desert proved unsustainable, clearly illustrating how a lack of cultural understanding can lead to the failure of international cooperation projects.

What about the imposition of the West?

The discussion delved into the influence of Europe and, increasingly, Asia, as major donors in development projects, and how these influences shape the ways in which challenges are addressed through specific interventions. This aspect reveals how donors' cultural practices and perspectives directly affect the way international cooperation projects are designed and implemented, and how these influences translate into the cultural transformation of recipient communities.

Maria Cantó shared an anecdote that illustrates the influence of donors, in this case, on Rwandan culture over the past decades. In this story, there was evidence of a significant change in the eating habits of Rwandans, who traditionally consumed food with their hands, an ingrained practice that symbolizes respect for food in African culture. However, with the massive presence of humanitarian aid from the West at the turn of the century, a gradual change in this tradition was observed, with some Rwandans adopting the use of Western cutlery for eating.

This change in eating habits reflects the influence of Western humanitarian aid on the local culture, which has introduced new food practices and customs to the Rwandan population.

In addition, with the recent increase in humanitarian aid from China, another change has been observed, with some Rwandans incorporating the use of chopsticks into their way of eating. This phenomenon exemplifies how external humanitarian interventions can influence the cultural traditions and customs of host communities, altering fundamental aspects of their identity and way of life.

“How do we turn it around? Hearing other voices, the invisible discourse. Listening to other alternatives", Naranjo

On the other hand, Isabela Linares  highlighted the importance of showing interest in other cultures, asking questions and adapting to their customs, stressing that this approach not only facilitates better understanding, but also fosters deeper and more respectful relationships between different communities.

Linares illustrated his point with an example of a project he worked on: “They need a road, but do they have anything to use it with? It is critical to consider not only infrastructure, but also productive spaces and how to protect them, as well as ensuring that communities can get ahead.” This project highlighted the need for a holistic approach, taking into account not only the construction of the infrastructure, but the utility of the infrastructure, sustainable development and the long-term wellbeing of local communities.

Natalia Naranjo emphasized that the needs sometimes imposed by modernity require rethinking the whole system from another point of view, because everything we do has a Eurocentric influence. “How do we turn it around? Hear other voices, the invisible discourse. Listen to other alternatives,” he said.

Using the example of Canadian expertise and the needs of organizations in Colombia, Naranjo explained that it is essential to consider the skills of the person who will provide technical assistance. From this, individuals and volunteers are selected to support the local organization through interviews and a matching process between the local need and the expertise of the technical assistant. “The organizations know their needs. The expert is a guide for them to achieve something,” he said, highlighting the importance of the accompaniment processes.

Link to the talk:

Thank you very much for joining us in this series of talks!

Juliana, Paola & Maria

This talk was organized by Boicot al Plástico y Way To Zero Waste. 

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