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Shifting our cultural profile
by Fernando Soares

Professional effectiveness in another culture demands extensive commitment to participating in
the host community.

The 1970s and 1980s saw a sharp rise in the number of Europeans and North Americans working for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in disaster-prone countries around the world. During the same period, the personnel from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) remained mainly Swiss. However, the political and operational complexities of the 1990s made a solid case for opening international humanitarian work to every nationality.

The world of today requires a fresh approach, one that blends diversity of thought and perception. Shifting the cultural profile of the Federation and the ICRC in the field will certainly increase the probabilities for innovative and sustainable solutions to collective problems.

Imagine a Federation delegation headed by a Belgian, with a Ugandan relief monitor, a Japanese finance officer, a Sudanese organizational development officer, a health team with delegates from Finland, Malawi, Greece and Sweden, led by a coordinator from Myanmar. This scenario may appear unreal, but this was the profile of the Federation delegation in Afghanistan until their recent evacuation due to the current conflict. Now imagine an Armenian administrator, a Kenyan cooperation delegate, a relief delegate from Georgia and an economic security coordinator from New Zealand. We would be describing part of the ICRC delegation in Eritrea.

Diversity within a team creates fertile ground for shifting perceptions but it can also create differences that lead to potential cultural tensions. Often, heated arguments occur among colleagues who come from every corner of the world. Disagreements and misunderstandings stem from different cultural norms that impact perception and communication.

"Communication problems happen but they provide us with the opportunity to understand each other and move beyond our differences," says Roy Venegas, a Costa Rican delegate in Papua New Guinea, on his fourth mission with the Federation. He believes that by overcoming their cultural barriers inside the office, delegates become more open to accept and to work with differences of style and opinion in their host communities.

International Recruitment Handbook

In 1981, the General Assembly approved the guidelines for National Society recruitment and training of personnel for international assignments. This initiative became the embryo for today's fast-growing regional delegate recruitment and training programme, launched in 1998. In 2000, the publication of the International Recruitment Handbook, developed to assist National Societies and Federation delegations to assess and recruit candidates for field positions, helped to make the concept of working as a Federation more real. The handbook, developed during training and consultation sessions with National Societies all over the world, explains and demystifies the recruitment process of the Federation. It is published in English, French, Spanish and Arabic and has been distributed to all National Societies. It provides standards related to the selection of international staff focusing on professional and personal competencies, including their inter-cultural effectiveness. "The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is investing in quality procedures and drawing resources from its whole membership base," says Ewa Eriksson, co-author of the book. The system outlined in the handbook is fully endorsed by all National Societies wishing to offer candidates for delegate training and Federation missions.



Familiarity is the key to better understanding

An increasing number of newly recruited delegates originate from National Societies of countries where the Federation and the ICRC have been operating for many years. When national staff join international missions outside their home country, they possess a realistic understanding of working with host communities and bring fresh ideas and innovative approaches to deal with challenging situations. "The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina taught me about life, how it feels to depend on humanitarian aid, how it feels to be approached by foreigners. In Bosnia, we respected foreigners who came to our country and started learning our language. It showed respect for our culture," says 35-year-old Indira Kulenovic, the Federation's reporting delegate in Bangladesh. Indira was recruited almost two years ago and has been reporting on Federation operations in South Asia since then. She remembers Bosnia and understands the importance of her interactions as a foreigner in a host country. "Remembering Bosnia, I am now the foreigner in Dhaka. I take Bengali lessons and will continue to do so until I think I have learnt enough to integrate fully in the community where I now live and work."

Professional effectiveness in a foreign environment demands commitment to participating in the new culture. It is just as effective to deploy delegates from within the same region because familiarity is a bridge among cultures. Latin American delegations and National Societies have practised this for many years. Their regional staff exchange pre-dates regional recruitment and training efforts of both the Federation and the ICRC.

The long-term benefits of a wider exchange of staff are not exclusive to the two international bodies. In fact, the benefits extend to National Societies. By sending delegates on international missions, National Societies learn more about the complexities of international humanitarian operations. The experience gained abroad by a delegate can be shared with home colleagues afterwards. The North Korean Red Cross clearly saw the advantages of such an exchange of staff. In 1995, after a major flood operation undertaken by the Federation and the North Korean Red Cross, the National Society took a key step to broaden the cooperation between the two institutions by sending its deputy secretary general as a Federation delegate to Georgia in 1999. Almost three years later, Choe Chang Hun is now on his second mission, this time as head of delegation in Armenia. Between his missions, Choe returns to North Korea to share his experiences.
The Federation and the ICRC encourage seconded staff to return to their respective National Societies after a mission's completion. This is to ensure that the knowledge gained is shared and put to use to improve the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent locally.

The way ahead

Many National Societies have adopted a policy of regional recruitment and training. Nonetheless, it is still necessary to expand these efforts. Funding remains a challenge, and both the Federation and the ICRC will continue to assist National Societies to develop the necessary base for their financial and human resources. In the meantime, the continued commitment of donors is the lifeline for ensuring the participation of talented professionals from every continent.

As a result of collective recruitment and training initiatives, 85 nationalities now represent the Federation in the field. This increased diversity proves the Federation's commitment to make the best use of its unique advantage: the global network of committed, talented staff and volunteers.

"With more Africans, Hispanics, Asians and Arabs mixing with the people from Europe and North America, those who have never known what the Movement is are now easily coming forward with an interest to learn more about it," says Lorna Lusambili, a Kenyan delegate who is the administrator for the Federation's field office in earthquake-stricken Gujarat, India. Lorna highlights that she was well trained by her foreign colleagues in the Nairobi regional delegation, where she worked for many years as a local staff member.
She believes that a larger mix of nationalities is more reflective of the Federation's international nature.


Fernando Soares
Fernando Soares is reporting officer at the Federation secretariat in Geneva.

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