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
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 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
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 is reporting officer at the Federation secretariat
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