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Cultural awareness day

by Naz Biggs - Boingboing blogger

Iceburg

Our exciting project is well under way! Early this year we received funding from The Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), working alongside colleagues in South Africa. We wanted to understand how drought impacts young people's mental health and wellbeing. Our team will be focusing on the municipality of Govan Mbeki. Although we knew the new knowledge and learning this key innovative project would bring to all involved, we were mindful of the many challenges that were ahead.  As some of our team had never worked in a South African context before, we knew one challenge we would definitely face would be regarding cultural differences. Rahim Hassanali, a member of our virtual advisory group, works for the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and suggested that it would be beneficial to have a cultural awareness day before some of the UK team members go to South Africa. Rahim’s experience is grounded in working with young people to have a positive change in international development. He was keen to get involved in the project as it highlights and aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals, and champions the goal 17: ‘partnership for the goals’.

The Cultural Awareness session was an opportunity to have an open discussion about some of the issues that come up around cultural awareness. The session was facilitated by young person Naz Biggs (also an advisor) who is an Associate Trainer for Raleigh International. Raleigh International is a sustainability charity that sends UK volunteers abroad to work on various projects based on water sanitation and hygiene or livelihoods. 

Many important insights came from the cultural awareness day, and gave team members the chance to share ideas, discuss and challenge some of the issues raised. We quickly realised that in some cases, it is important to know and understand our own goals for research projects and be mindful of ways to mitigate cultural insensitivities. We watched a thought provoking video by Ernesto Sirolli that highlighted the importance of listening to others, when working in international development. He argues that western cultures need to overcome the extractive relationship of ‘I am getting something from you or you are getting something from me’. You can watch Ernesto Sirolli's TEDx talk on their website.

Professor Stephen Bottoms explained that one way to reduce ‘power relationships’ that can form in some situations is by having a neutral topic that both parties can learn from. In this case two groups collaborate to talk about this neutral topic in an equal environment. In this case ‘drought’ is a neutral topic that brings new insights as we exchange knowledge. This project is championing the equality message as we are all asking questions regarding drought and collectively trying to find answers. You can check out what we’ve been up to on Twitter #res2drought.

As we discussed other general issues around cultural awareness we spoke about how Jerome Hanley (1999), among others described culture to be like an iceberg. A lot of what makes up culture are things that we often cannot see or are below the surface. We then spoke about how we could apply this model to our own selves writing our own personal iceberg. How could some of the things that make up the biggest part of ourselves make up our own personalities? How could we possibly do the same with culture?

Cultural awareness

Naz introduced the PEST analysis model.  PEST is an acronym for Political, Economic, Social and Technological. This tool is typically used in the business sector to assess four external factors that could impact a specific project, new venture or the organisation in anyway. Naz suggested that this is also a good tool that can support team members who have never worked in a country before, gather some information about the context they are going into. A PEST analysis can help determine how these four factors could affect the performance, activities and impact of your project. We discussed a PEST analysis that had been done by Naz for South Africa and shared how some factors could impact the project. For example, there are over 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. We have to be aware that English could be some of the participants’ and team members’ third or fourth language. We really ought to learn a few words in a few relevant languages.

We realised during the cultural awareness day and through reflection of the day that it would have been beneficial to have more input from South African colleagues to have a more specific look at the South African context, and thought this could be a suggestion for next time. We did seek support from Mosna, the Project Manager of Patterns of Resilience, however, and felt maybe next time our cultural awareness session could be co-produced with a South African colleague.