Monday, July 08, 2013
The fine line between culture and stagnation
A foreigner rightly needs to come into a new country prepared to respect the culture of the place. The world doesn’t need any more people who show up dragging all their developed-world baggage behind them and expecting everything to be just like it is back home.
But just because something is part of the culture doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. We’ve all worked in places – or perhaps grown up in families – where the culture was a problem and needed to be changed. That’s true in Honduras, too, but it’s much more challenging for me as a cultural outsider to identify what’s a “negative” and what’s just different from what I’m used to.
The workplace, for instance. Part of the culture, at least here in Copan Ruinas, is to have long lunch hours and many more social encounters over the course of the day than would ever be tolerated in a Canadian work environment. The manager in me thinks a lot of time gets wasted as a result of that, but I’ve also come to see that socializing and family time are such a part of Honduran life that you can’t really judge those long, chatty coffee breaks by the same standards I use to define workplace efficiency.
So we’ll chalk that one up to cultural differences, and I’ll just have to adapt. But there are other work practices that I think are actually holding the organization back: Disorganized and pointless meetings; poor hiring practices; a manana mentality that jams up project flow; no processes for identifying and resolving problems within the team; a rigid hierarchy that stops grassroots creativity and innovation. They are problems common to my particular office, the organization overall and – from what I’ve seen – many other Honduran workplaces.
Just to be clear, my role here in Honduras as a Cuso International volunteer is to help a small Honduran NGO get better at communications. Full stop. I have not been sent here to analyse the organization and report back on their management practices.
But being a manager changes your perspective forever, and I can’t stop myself from seeing the problems. More and more I’m looking for opportunities to talk to my co-workers about such things – practices that would reduce frustration, staff turnover, and general office malaise, strategies for moving the organization toward better salaries and longer-term contracts for more stability.
Sometimes I fear I’m fomenting rebellion and pushing my own cultural values as “better.” But ultimately, I think I’m right. Unless Honduras wants to be a developing country forever, it’s going to need to adapt its work culture to follow the lead of developed countries in creating efficient, effective workplaces that can hold their own in a global market. And that includes little NGOs, too, because trying to get your hands on scarce international development dollars is a competitive business.
Then there’s education. For all kinds of reasons, education is not a cultural priority in Honduras. Partly it’s because nothing about getting an education is easy here – it’s expensive, logistically difficult, often unavailable, a low priority for a hungry family, and notoriously poor quality to boot. But I suspect it’s also because parents who have had little formal schooling themselves simply can’t understand the importance of a good education.
On the one hand, Hondurans have all sorts of life skills and abilities that have developed in the absence of formal education. Most of them have no choice but to get down to the business of life at age 12 or even younger, while Canadians will often be in their mid-20s or even their 30s before they finish up school and enter the workplace permanently. As a result, most of the young Hondurans I’ve met are much more responsible and competent than people of the same age back in Canada, and the whole country is unbelievably resilient.
On the other, the undervaluing of education (and the underfunding of it) is a cultural practice that has to go if Honduras ever hopes to get past this crushing poverty and endless lurching from one crisis to another. It’s not just about knowing how to read, write and work with numbers, it’s about all the things that a good general education gets you: an informed world view; exposure to new ways of doing things and different ways of thinking; an appreciation and desire for a functional society and how one goes about creating that.I could go on. Tortillas, beans and Coca-Cola: Endearing cultural practice or nutritional suicide? Children essentially raising themselves: A living example of that maxim about how it takes a village to raise a child, or bad parenting? Indifference and neglect of animals: The hallmark of a culture where domestic animals exist for work rather than pleasure, or just plain cruelty?
You get the gist. I need to adapt, but so does Honduras. “It is a bad plan that admits of no modification," said Syrian writer Publilius Syrus way back in the 1st century. (Never heard of him, but his quote suits my argument.) Here’s to cultural diversity, and to knowing when it’s getting in your way.