The Oxford Dictionary recently added “Mx” to their lexicon. Are you familiar with what it means?


Transgender symbol image ©ParaDox, used under Wikimedia Commons license

Growing up in the USA in the 1950s, as I did, it was “clearly understood” that there were two genders: boys and girls. So it never crossed my mind until I was much older that perhaps the binary world of gender was not so binary. And if one allows—even intellectually—for that possibility, you can begin to see how difficult daily life can be for transgender people, individuals who do not identify with the gender to which they were assigned at birth.

The more one thinks about it, the more complex being transgender becomes. Take a seemingly simple thing like filling out a standardized form: what do you do if you aren’t Miss, Mrs., Ms., or Mr.? This is the dilemma that opens Jacob Tobia’s recent piece in The Guardian, which I highly recommend. He writes of the difficulties of not having a gender-neutral option available in so many daily situations. As I read his article, I began to realize the privilege given to “cisgendered” individuals—those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Tobia writes:

Growing up, I assumed that the only way to have a gender-neutral title would be if I got a PhD and could make everyone call me “Dr”. For most of my life, I didn’t realize that there was another way out of the “Mr/Ms” dichotomy. That changed when, in my junior year of college, a favorite professor of mine introduced me to an artist named Justin Vivian Bond who used a gender-neutral term that I had never heard of before: “Mx.”

What?! Yup, that’s not a typo: the word is “Mx.” When I read this article, I thought everyone else must already know about it, since it is now included in “A title used before a person’s surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female.”

Judging by the reaction of the few people I have mentioned it to, this term is not in universal usage, at least not in my tiny little corner of the world. However, it seems a great addition to the English language for those who do not self-identify with binary gender assignments.

“…on 28 August 2015…That day, – created by the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary – added Mx to the dictionary. Seemingly overnight, Mx went from an underground, somewhat obscure term, to an official part of the English language.”

Want to learn more about the challenges of being transgender? Watch this video with Jazz Jennings, a transgender youth. Want to learn how to be an ally to transgender people? Here are a few tips from Basic Rights Oregon. Want to understand some of the values that transgender individuals tend to share? Check out Cultural Detective LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), now part of Cultural Detective Online.

Great Press Response to CD’s New Book!

JoeLurie600Cultural Detective is the proud publisher of a wonderful new book chock-full of stories of intercultural interaction from around the world—a book that contains loads of proverbs and insights to current events as well: Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures, authored by Joe Lurie.

Response from the press to the new book has been swift and highly positive.

  1. The first article came from the National Peace Corps Association. Joe has a fellowship endowed in his honor, one designed to enable returned Peace Corps volunteers to obtain their PhDs. Isn’t that terrific? So they used our book to encourage people to apply and further their education! Read more about Joe, the book and the fellowship in this terrific article.
  2. University of California Berkeley profiled Perception and Deception in a public affairs news release, Former I-House director explores cross-cultural encounters in new book.
  3. Perception and Deception was also showcased recently in Psychology Today, in an article entitled, Do You Perceive Things the Way They Really Are?

Joe has been doing quite a few readings, and one that is open to the public is coming up on Tuesday, December 8, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He is an incredible storyteller, and it’s sure to be a lively audience, so don’t miss the opportunity!

Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures is available in print or ebook versions, via your local bookseller or amazon. Be sure to get your copy today! The book makes a wonderful gift.

What Will They Think of Me?


The International Improv Conference in Mannheim Germany June 2015

We are pleased to share with you today a guest blog post by Patricia Comolet; bio follows the post.

What is one of the main challenges of going into a new cultural situation? Of course—dealing with the unknown—and, often, the self-doubt that it can trigger:

OMG do I need to take off my shoes here? But I have a hole in my sock! What will they think of me?

In other situations, it could be defensive self-assertion that might be triggered:

It is clear that this situation requires someone here to take charge. As the new COO it is my job to step up to that challenge. I need to show that I know what I’m doing or what will they think of me?

Underneath the stress of adapting to an unknown situation or culture can be the insidious fear of judgment.

“Improv” is the art of improvisational theatre, and I find that building an “Improv mindset” is a unique way to prepare for a new office, new city, new country, and /or new culture. It offers a different and vibrant way to deal with the underlying question: What will they think of me?

Why is this so? In the world of Improv, the notion of judgment, with time and practice, fades. Instead, we learn a serendipitous mindset of responding, to the best of our ability, to whatever is presented. I believe that I can manage whatever shows up if I adapt some essential guidelines gained through Improv.

Through Improv exercises we can learn to give ourselves this initial moment to pause and open up to where we are and with whom we are interacting.

Want to try it? Get a partner who is open to learning.

  • Begin by simply looking at your partner to assess his/her current state. What’s going on for him/her? Take the time to assess the environment. What is happening around you? (Developing observational skills and emotional intelligence are two very fundamental intercultural competences, pivotal for any Cultural Detective.)
  • Then comes the basic improv approach: Yes, and. You respond to what has been proposed with a “yes, and.” However, this is not your run-of-the-mill “yes, I hear your thoughts, and here is my idea.” Rather, this is a most distinctive and committed “Yes, and I could add this to your thoughts.” Improv involves an upward spiraling “yes, and” with each participant focused on what they can add to the original proposition. You’ll find the “yes and” in the Cultural Detective list of A Dozen Best Practices for Enhancing Intercultural Excellence.

The magic happens in the process. Allowing ourselves to let go of our own approach or perspective long enough to hear and work with someone else’s provides the time and space necessary to really connect with others. The process builds bridges across divides.

It requires focused intention to step into the other person’s idea/culture/mindset, but once there, like Alice through the Looking Glass, there is a sort of wonder at what is possible. I found, in my improv training, a simmering excitement as I was caught up in the possibilities I could come up with—once I acknowledged the other’s vision of things.

By working with this technique we build acceptance and openness to new ideas. (More intercultural competences being honed here, right?)

Facts, feelings, and intentions are the raw material we have to work with. In the theatre, as in the world of cultural differences, it is the interpretations we assign to what we see and feel that trigger emotions within us. It is those emotions that influence our interpretations. By raising awareness of the power of the interpretations we unconsciously apply to unfamiliar situations, we can open a whole new way to experience what is going on around us. Improv provides a framework for considering other possible interpretations.

In the theatre, as in the world of cultural differences, it is the interpretations we assign to what we see and feel that trigger emotions within us.

Another valuable idea coming from the world of Improv is the simple notion of “make the other one look good.” No matter what is tossed at us during an Improv session, the spirit is to take what is and build on it positively, with the intention of making the other look good. Again, Cultural Detective’s “positive intent” parallels the philosophy of Improv.

Imagine what strength we would gain if we would approach new situations with the idea that it is up to us to make the other shine! What impact could such a positive sense of purpose have on us? How could it help us to adapt more enthusiastically to a new situation?

Improvisation has the benefit of being experiential learning that can help us truly assimilate the knowledge of a culture or people. This fits nicely into intercultural coaching, as cultural differences are easier to perceive when actually experienced. By playing with scenarios in a relaxed atmosphere, we can work through the specific challenges our clients are dealing with to help them experience a shift in their understanding—a shift to help fade the fear of “What will they think of me?

Improv techniques and Cultural Detective integrate easily together, with CD providing a framework in which to use the skills acquired through Improv to better communicate across cultures. Learning to let go of the idea that our approach is the only approach is part of what can be derived from utilizing the CD process. Cultural Detective Value Lenses help us to recognize that our interpretation of events is but one of many potential interpretations. And, the “yes, and” approach may help each person value and build on the diversity found within the interaction. If you haven’t yet, be sure to subscribe today.

PatriciaComoletOur guest author, Patricia Comolet, has a background in surgical nursing, and has worked and lived in seven countries on four continents, including work in Africa and India, honing her ability to get real results in difficult conditions. Currently, she focuses on coaching global and virtual team dynamics, integrating her skills developed during challenging work experiences with her coaching training. Patricia helps global teams to clarify their team dynamics and establish concrete objectives by promoting clear communication, creative problem solving, collective intelligence, and strong team identity. More information about her work can be found on her website:

Cultural Detective is’s “Top Business 2015”

gk-1Nipporica Associates LLC, the company behind the Cultural Detective brand, is proud to announce that it has been been named to the Diversity “Top Business” list for the 15th year in a row—each year since the inception of the prestigious award!

This honor speaks to the hard work and dedication of our Cultural Detective team, beginning with Dianne Hofner Saphiere, founder and principal, and including our highly talented and diverse group of 138 authors, hundreds of certified facilitators around the globe, and to YOU—our clients, colleagues, and community. Together we engage passionately every day to build respect, understanding, collaboration, and justice across cultures!

Here is the notification letter:

Dear Honoree,

We are honored to announce that your company has been recognized as a 2015 “Top Business” recipient by! You have distinguished yourself as one of the leading entrepreneurs in the United States and are most deserving of this award and recognition. We are pleased to present you with this honor.

Over 1,300,000 businesses in the United Sates participated in our 15th annual business survey and you were among the select few chosen based on both your annual gross revenue and the business profile you presented to us. This award reflects our annual “Top Business List” which receives over 20 million viewers annually. We could not have done it without you!

Our “Top Business List” offers the most comprehensive look at the strongest segment of the United States economy – America’s privately held companies. These companies are the most recognized and respected which truly differentiate themselves in our indeterminate market place. We are proud to say this esteemed list has been coveted by the most successful companies in the U.S and, as one of the strongest your company has joined its ranks!

Your award is intended to inspire, motivate and honor your employees, customers, community and most of all, you. Your dedication and hard work has created incentive to stimulate economic growth in America. Like you, we at are dedicated to empowering the economic growth of our country and we are proud to walk alongside you as we all work to make this happen.

As an awardee, I am pleased to extend a personal invitation to you and your team to attend the “15th Annual National Entrepreneurship Summit”. This event will honor you and a select number of businesses which have dedicated themselves in stimulating econonmic growth throughout America. The event will be held at the Harvard Club of NY in NYC on April 30, 2015.

On behalf of and our sponsors, we salute you and your employees for achieving this momentous honor.

We look forward to congratulating you and your team in person at the awards ceremony on April 30th at the Harvard Club of NY in NYC!

With warm regards,

Kenton Clarke
President & CEO
(203) 255 – 8966

Here is the official explanation of the award:

“The ‘Top Businesses in America’ program recognizes and honors individuals who have established themselves as a world class community of entrepreneurs that continue to transform the way we live and advance our economy forward. In recognition of these outstanding accomplishments and contributions, the program is also designed to celebrate and support their efforts in order to generate public awareness among their peers, customers, press and to organizations who seek their products and services.

Now in its 15th year, has been privileged through business intelligence in identifying the USA’s most successful entrepreneurs on a state and national basis. Over 1.3 million businesses participated in the annual survey. The ‘Top Businesses’ are determined by a selection committee which evaluates the eligibility for all submissions in each award category.

The ‘Top Businesses in America’ program is sponsored by major brands which include Apple, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Office Depot, Toyota, Cisco, and Verizon, among others. This ongoing partnership and support has allowed the “Top Businesses in America” program to progress into the nation’s most coveted awards program.

The goal each year of the ‘Top Businesses in America’ program is to continue to celebrate another year of innovation, progression and growth and to raise the profile of entrepreneurs who remain committed to strengthening our competitive global landscape and rebuilding our future. No matter what circumstances, these men and women continue to build successful business relationships. They also continue to create an atmosphere of pride, camaraderie and confidence among their family, customers, suppliers and communities they serve. is proud to be in the position to identify and stand behind these individuals. We know their accomplishments will serve as inspiration to current and future generations.”

We are pleased to receive this honor again this year, and we recognize it is a team effort that puts us in this competitive group. There is a great deal of work to be done building bridges across cultural gaps in this world, and we are thrilled to be able to make a small contribution to this process!

Terrific Summertime Intercultural Movie: McFarland USA

MV5BMjMwNjY2Mjk5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM2NTA0MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_Preparing to waste some time watching an in-flight movie as I flew to Europe from Mexico, I perked up considerably as soon as Los Tigres del Norte’s America came on. This film, McFarland USA, was not going to be a standard high school sports movie after all!

Todos son Americanos, sin importar el color
De América, yo soy, de América, yo soy

We are all Americans, no matter our color
I’m from America, I’m from America

The plot line:
Track coach Kevin Costner’s (Mr. White) temper has resulted in him and his family bouncing from one high school to another in a downward spiral of disenfranchisement from family and friends, as well as loss of self esteem and family cohesion. As the movie opens, Mr. White is forced to leave a (very white) school in Idaho for a very rural school in another part of the USA. His daughter’s first words as they pull into their new home? “Dad, are we in Mexico?” It turns out they’ve moved to the agricultural Central Valley of California. Living as a US expat in Mexico, their cultural confusion delighted my soul.

The initial culture shock:
Arriving tired and hungry, the White family heads to a restaurant in search of a burger. “We have tacos, tortas, burritos, quesadillas, tostadas…” recites the waitress. After several repetitions of the phrase, the family orders the only thing they apparently understand, tacos. They imagine their confusion has ended, but oh no… “Do you want asada, al pastor, chorizo, cabeza, lengua…?” While they are dumbfounded by the options, my family would be in heaven!

Low riders cruise the streets and Dad is scared he won’t be able to protect his family—bias incarnate. A rooster wakes them up at dawn, in stereotypical fashion, and a neighbor lady gives them one as a welcome gift. Dad finds a simpatico cultural informant in the local grocery store owner. They go from hating the Virgen de Guadalupe colorfully painted on their living room wall, to loving it.

Cultural adaptation:
Within a week of his arrival to their new home, Dad is fired from his position coaching football. His students’ reaction to the news? “Congratulations, Mr. White. They are treating you like a picker.”

A teacher now without a head coach position, Costner notices that many of the local kids run far distances as part of their daily lives—there isn’t any transportation other than one’s own two feet. He also realizes that the kids wake up early in the morning to help their parents pick crops, before they begin their second day later in the morning at school. The kids’ abilities impress the heck out of him; he is blown away that they have the stamina for both work and study, and disappointed when his students’ parents don’t support their kids’ after-school activities (they need the kids’ help in the fields).

Mr. White gets to know a couple of the local kids, and enlists their help to put together a cross-country running team. Part of his learning journey includes a day with the kids out picking in the fields where, as expected, Mr. White fails miserably.

The movie does an excellent job capturing Mexican values such as family, respect for elders, hard work, dealing with adversity, and joy in life. We watch with delight as Mr. White and his family learn invaluable life skills from their new neighbors and friends, and experience, for the first time in their lives, some of the joys of community and tradition.

The movie as a learning resource
McFarland USA is a predictable movie, rather stereotypical, but refreshing and timely. I found it a very worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours on an international flight, and would recommend it to you for summer viewing. I can definitely see using clips from this film in coaching, educational or training environments. Please let me know what you think.

Do you have a favorite cross-cultural movie, book or resource? Share with us your review!

How Our Thoughts Affect Our Performance: 3 Activities

PerformanceMany of us wish we could perform with the focus, strength and skill of a professional athlete. To do so requires a strong connection between our minds and our bodies—some research shows only a 5% difference between imagining oneself performing and the performance itself!

In a session at the SIETAR Europa Congress in Valencia, Jenny Ebermann, who focuses on mindfulness and leadership, and Susan Salzbrenner, who works with international athletes, told us that even professional athletes struggle with disconnects between their minds and their bodies. While they tell themselves they can do anything, their bodies may be tight and small. Just like us weekend warriors, athletes need to learn to listen to their bodies, connect with their emotions, and have resilience in order to achieve optimal performance.

Jenny and Susan facilitated three activities that quickly and impressively demonstrated the power our thoughts have on our performance. I share those exercises with you here, in hopes that you’ll pass on what I learned from them, and help integrate the mind-body connection for intercultural competence. The three exercises were conducted standing in a circle.

  1. First, participants were asked to imagine a time in our lives when we felt small, diminished. We were instructed to feel that in our bodies and then turn with our backs to the circle, come our eyes, and back up. After a couple of minutes, we were stopped and quickly debriefed: How did that feel? What happened?
  2. Next, we were asked to imagine a time in our lives when we felt strong, like a champion. Again, we were instructed to turn our backs to the circle, close our eyes, and walk backwards. After a couple of minutes, we were stopped and quickly debriefed: How did that feel? What happened?
  3. Finally, we were instructed to be ourselves, and, standing on one edge of the circle, close our eyes and walk backwards to try to get to the other side of the circle. We conducted a quick debrief after this one as well. It rapidly and powerfully showed our personal tendencies and styles.

Most everyone attending the session seemed to find insightful learning from these three simple activities. For those of you interested in the neuroscientific aspect of this topic, below are two additional resources Susan provided for this article:

  1. Article on the benefits of visualization and motor imagery, and how they stimulate neural pathways that are also involved in actual motor activity.
  2. Study on cognitive motor processes

Both of these articles have incredible repercussions for users of Cultural Detective Online!

The session included a couple of other noteworthy points as well. The two presenters shared that the statistics-loving NBA has found that the more ethnically diverse a team is, the more successful it is. I found this interesting, since most intercultural research shows that it’s the effective management of a team that makes it successful, not the diversity in and of itself.

Their example was the San Antonio Spurs, whose coach, Gregg Popovich, has formed highly successful multicultural teams (including that of the “green card five” in the early 1990s), which, on paper have less talent than many far more successful teams. Susan mentioned how instead of the typical individualized, specialist training so popular in the NBA, Popovich engages his team in more team play time. Hmmm…perhaps it’s not just the diversity of a team, but the effective coaching and management of the diversity, that does make the difference.

Finally, there was talk about the interesting cultural patterns demonstrated in the Irish response to defeat in Euro 2012 (football/soccer). The video below begins with about six minutes left in the match and Ireland losing 4-0 to the favorite Spain. What usually happens when your favorite team is staring loss in the face? I’ll bet money you don’t usually react as do the Irish fans do here:

Just Released! New Book: Perception and Deception

PERCEPTION AND DECEPTION COVER FACE 3Need a powerful story to illustrate your point about intercultural miscommunication? Want to help someone understand that different cultures may utilize the same word, concept, image, gesture, sound or touch to mean different things? Could you use a proverb that gives insight into another person’s cultural worldview? Search no more—Joe Lurie , intercultural trainer, Executive Director Emeritus at UC Berkeley’s International House, and former Peace Corps Volunteer, has got you covered!

Perception and Deception: A Mind Opening Journey Across Cultures, is an entertaining, eye-opening and easy-to-read book that contains dozens of intriguing intercultural experiences, gathered from Joe’s research and his decades living abroad and managing Berkeley’s International House, one of the largest, most diverse living centers on the planet.

In an informative and enticing manner, the author explains how he discovered that his perception of a situation could be “deceptive” when he looked at it simply through his own Lens. Joe’s growing self-awareness of the impact of culture is clearly illustrated through his humorous stories and striking culture clash examples from news reports across the globe. Better yet, these stories are indexed by culture! Joe also shares pearls of wisdom about perception, perspective and the nature of “truth” from his rich personal collection of proverbs and sayings from around the world.

Joe’s infectious curiosity in uncovering and understanding cultural differences will help readers, no matter their profession, age or cultural background, gain a fuller appreciation for the richness of human diversity, and the multiple things that can go wrong when trying to communicate across cultures. You, your students, colleagues, clients, friends, and family will all enjoy this engaging book, published by Cultural Detective, and now available in paperback. Kindle on Amazon and other e-versions from Barnes and Noble and Apple will be coming soon.

Perception and Deception is an engaging and insightful introduction to cross-cultural communication in a globalized world. For more information, reviews, a peek inside the book, and a link to purchase a copy, visit

Purchase the book now.

You are also welcome to copy and print the flyer below to share with your colleagues and friends.
Perception Deception Flyer White

Using the Body to Transform Conflict

Choreography of Resolution

Conflict happens. When different cultures and worldviews are involved, conflict can arise more frequently and, sometimes, more powerfully. It can also be more difficult to resolve or transform.

At the SIETAR USA Congress in Portland last October, Michelle LeBaron conducted a couple of exercises that I believe could be useful to some of our readers as we seek to create cross-cultural understanding, respect, and collaboration. The exercises very viscerally demonstrated how our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes affect the way we hold and move our bodies, and that something so slight as a shift in our gaze can shift our perspective, opening us up to new experiences.

I have had the privilege of knowing Michelle for about twenty years, as we both teach on the faculty of the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication. She is a specialist in cross-cultural conflict resolution who teaches at the University of British Columbia, and I greatly respect and enjoy her work.

Michelle’s recent research focuses on how the arts can foster belonging and social cohesion across cultural and worldview differences. She is one of three authors of a new book, The Choreography of Resolution: Conflict, Movement and Neuroscience, that investigates how dance, movement and kinesthetic awareness can enhance people’s capacities to transform conflict.

Instructions for Michelle’s activities follow.

Setting up the Activities

How does my body communicate to me? Let’s spend some time learning about our body’s ways of messaging us.
  • When we are out of step, off center, or in resonance, our bodies get our attention.
  • Our bodies help us heal splits, they connect our thoughts and feelings.
  • Our bodies help us connect with others via touch and closeness, depending on our cultural common sense.
  • We have habits and patterns that can be helpful or destructive; our bodies can help us re-pattern our habits and keep our brains plastic.
Shift, conflict resolution, is a physical event.
  • Our bodies shift us personally and interpersonally—”let me step towards you,” “I could breathe more easily,” “a great weight was lifted,” “the knot in my shoulder released.”
  • When we are “right,” we become stiffer, tighter, more brittle. We need suppleness, to be able to see gradations instead of just black and white.
  • Movement helps us realize that small movements can make a big difference. The body can show us the value of incremental change vs. an epiphany, e.g., rarely do we resolve conflict by saying, “He was right!” “Win-win” outcomes are rare; “mostly ok-mostly ok” outcomes are much more common.
  1. Have a group of participants stand and move around the room freely. Instruct them to hold up their arms like a bird, bringing their hands forward just far enough so they can see both their hands. Have them drop their hands but keep that level of peripheral vision and walk around. After doing this for a few minutes, conduct a short debrief about how that felt; how their bodies felt; how they perceived the group.
  2. After doing this for a minute or two, instruct participants to (nonverbally) find a tiger and a horse from among the other participants, and to move around so that they keep the horse between themselves and the tiger. After doing this for a few minutes, instruct participants to derole, and conduct a short debrief about how that felt; how their bodies felt; how they perceived the group.
  3. As a third step, instruct the participants to (again nonverbally) find a new tiger and a lamb from among the other participants, and move around so that you keep yourself between the tiger and the lamb. After doing this for a few minutes, instruct participants to derole, and conduct a short debrief about how that felt; how their bodies felt; how they perceived the group.

Michelle has an article, available online, called Bodies at Work: Moving Towards Alchemy, that might be of interest. In it she says, “The single most neglected truism in mediation, whether virtual or in person, is that it does not happen without bodies. We mobilize to engage and reach toward understanding while literally standing our ground.”

The concepts and activities that Michelle presents combine very well with the activities in Cultural Detective Online. I trust you’ll put them to good use building intercultural respect, understanding and collaboration!

“On the Road with Migrants” Game

IMG_3100World Refugee Day is June 20th, and I am honored to be able to share with you a powerful new game available free-of-charge to help raise awareness and understanding of the refugee and migrant experience.

Catherine Roignan, co-author of Cultural Detective Morocco, conducted the game at the recent SIETAR Europa conference in Valencia, and it was my favorite session of the conference. Many people in the room had tears running down their cheeks, and in the days following we found ourselves often talking about the experience we’d shared.

The game is called On the Road with Migrants, and it was created by Caritas France, the Association des Cités du Secours Catholique or ACSC. At the conference we had only a brief 15-20 minutes to play, but it was remarkable!

Groups of us gathered at tables with game boards showing different continents of the world, including Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. Each player had a pawn representing an immigrant, who was identified by name and story. We threw dice, drew cards and moved our pawns around the board according to the instructions on the cards and the dice.

Kudos to Caritas France for their brilliant work on this! It is a terrific game!

Right now the materials are all in French, available for download free-of-charge; you print out the cards and boards, and add dice and pawns—1 die and 4 pawns (one color for each of four characters) per continent/board. Our SIETAR Europa group helped with an English translation, which I’m told will be available to the public shortly, and others volunteered to translate the game into other languages as well. This is collaboration with a purpose!

Learn more and download the game in French: En route avec les migrants

Please, share with us your resources and ideas for commemorating World Refugee Day and for building empathy for the migrant experience in this world of ours.

Development or Displacement?

ICIJFormed at the end of World War II to help develop countries torn by war and poverty, the World Bank is dedicated to improving the lives of the world’s poorest: to getting them clean drinking water, housing, food, and basic services like electric power. It is a challenging and complicated mission.

The Bank loans $65 billion annually for what have become increasingly large, high-profile projects such as dams, pipelines, and power plants. Projects of this magnitude can displace whole communities and wreak havoc on the natural environment. Sometimes providing water or energy to a city can drastically reduce the quality of life of rural farmers and fishermen. While the Bank has a clear policy of “do no harm” to people or the environment, all too often the Bank’s projects do negatively impact the environment and the lives of the very people the Bank was designed to help.

“Over the last decade, projects funded by the World Bank have physically or economically displaced anestimated 3.4 million people, forcing them from their homes, taking their land or damaging their livelihoods.”
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

Complaints about the World Bank are nothing new; protests have taken place throughout much of my adulthood. Just a couple of weeks ago the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists added data to fuel the fire when it released the results of a year-long research project involving more than 50 journalists from 21 countries. They analyzed thousands of WorldBank records, interviewed hundreds of people, and conducted on-the-ground investigations in Albania, Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Kosovo, Nigeria, Peru, Serbia, South Sudan, and Uganda. They titled the report, “Evicted and Abandoned: The World Bank’s broken promise to the poor.”

The report states that the World Bank has “regularly failed to enforce its rules, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet.” The most common hardship suffered by those in the path of “progress” is lost or diminished income. Forced relocations involve millions; they can rip apart kinship networks and increase the risk of illness and disease. Resettled populations are more likely to suffer unemployment and hunger, and mortality rates are higher.

“From 2009 to 2013, World Bank Group lenders pumped $50 billion into projects graded the highest risk for ‘irreversible or unprecedented’ social or environmental impacts — more than twice as much as the previous five-year span.”
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

What causes such a well-intentioned mission to go awry? When the Bank is filled with so many people who are dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, why do the systems become dysfunctional?

  1. Bias is a human reality, and partnership is tricky. All too often, well-intentioned efforts to serve result in the world’s poorest and most historically oppressed suffering even more. Partly that is because we don’t validate what local communities know, and lenders want “experts” in the lead on projects. No matter how committed the Bank might be to partnering with local communities, bias runs deep and it’s an enormous challenge to be sure the expertise, experience, concerns and insight of all involved are heard and valued. It is a reality ripe for Cultural Detective and other intercultural tools, wouldn’t you say?
  2. Greed and glitz, blind capitalism, and the appeal to ego (and to continued funding) of the big, dazzling projects. Major infrastructure projects look good on a dossier or resumé, and they help ensure that member states will pony up the money to support the Bank’s efforts. According to the Evicted and Abandoned report, a 2012 internal audit found that projects in the Bank’s pipeline triggered the Bank’s resettlement policy 40 percent of the time—twice as often as projects the Bank had already completed.
  3. The gap between international funders and national and local governments. The Bank negotiates with those in leadership positions, who themselves may not only have the welfare of the people at heart. Or, there may be different leaders who control different regions or areas, and who consider an agreement with the national government not worth the paper on which it’s printed. Cultural Detective West Africa includes a critical incident on this very topic of negotiating with national governments when it’s local chieftains who control the territory.
  4. Corruption. Corruption can exist at all levels, including soldiers who have been known to beat, rape, and murder in the course of forced evictions. The Huffington Post reports: “’There was often no intent on the part of the governments to comply—and there was often no intent on the part of the bank’s management to enforce,’ said Navin Rai, a former World Bank official who oversaw the bank’s protections for indigenous peoples from 2000 to 2012. ‘That was how the game was played.’” While there are cultural variations in whether we hire those we know and trust or whether we have public, transparent job calls, there is a line beyond which corruption must be called corruption. For example, relocating poor villagers without restitution so that your son-in-law can own an elite oceanside resort is clearly not true leadership. The Cultural Detective series has some powerful critical incidents about the effects of cronyism and how to honor preferential treatment for family, while also ethically honoring one’s goals, as well as incidents dealing with bribery and other ethical issues (Cultural Detective Global Business Ethics).
  5. The world stage is shifting. There are new development banks on the world scene, competitors to the World Bank, that often don’t have the same social standards. Many say that this is leading to ever-lower standards, and disregard for the people and environments that “development” seeks to serve.
  6. Changing a large dysfunctional system is far from easy, no matter how well-intentioned even a top leader is. I’ve seen this in many of my clients over the years, and in a few corporations I’ve worked in as well. Many felt hope when Jim Yong Kim took over as president of the World Bank in 2012. A Korean-American physician known for his work fighting AIDS in Africa, Kim Yong became the first World Bank president whose background wasn’t in finance or politics. Twenty years earlier, Kim Yong had joined protests calling for a shutdown of the World Bank and accusing it of valuing economic growth over assistance to the poor. Despite expected improvements, “an internal survey conducted last year by bank auditors showed that 77 percent of employees responsible for enforcing the bank’s safeguards said they think that management ‘does not value’ their work. The bank released the survey in March, at the same time that it admitted to poor oversight of its resettlement policy,” according to the Huffington Post article. A 2014 World Bank internal review found that in 60 percent of sampled cases, Bank staffers failed to document what happened to people after they were forced from their land or homes, and 70 percent of the cases sampled lacked required information about whether anyone had complained and whether complaints were resolved.

In my opinion we need the World Bank, just as we need the United Nations. For all their foibles and failures as human-run entities, their missions are crucially important. Incorporating cross-cultural best practices into the manner in which projects are managed, meetings are conducted, and decisions are made is a critical first step. Developing intercultural competence in the Bank’s staff and local partners in an ongoing, sustained manner, can make a major contribution to preventing the devastating downsides of development projects.