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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On the challenges of intercultural dialogue


James Edleston has been Head of International at BYC since 2009, before which he worked as a Youth Programme Manager at Think Global (previously DEA).  His role at BYC involves supporting youth representation, global campaigns and projects, intercultural learning and action, global youth work and European and international policy.



Here he talks about his experience of working with the Active Citizens programme for the promotion and development of intercultural dialogue in South Asian countries.

Could you highlight your experience working with people in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan in terms of intercultural dialogue?

A special feature of the programme is that people can reflect on their place in their community (before they engage in dialogue). Dialogue can be a dangerous thing. You can’t just sit in a circle and talk.

The Active Citizens Programme has two parallel goals. The idea of the programme from the very start was that there were two distinct aims. One was about building trust and understanding, and the other was about community action…let’s say, ‘sustainable development’...social action for positive change. And these two things were seen as mutually reinforcing. That by building trust and understanding we can work together to change our community for the better, but by working together we also build our trust and understanding, and bring our communities close together and live in a more peaceful way.

So this was kind of the conception…the core of it, and that’s why these two parallel aims have always been there. Every time we write the vision, it’s got something to do with peace, or trust, or coexistence. And the other one is about community development or sustainable development, or social action. There are always these two things. And that is sort of the vision. It’s about understanding each other first, it’s about the belief in every individual to be able to make a change, it’s about the power of working together to create new solutions. These are all principles, and everything we do fits between these two elements.

Giving a space to people in a programme that can be very technical is really important. We spend a of time on investment in the initial stages (of the programme) – understanding ourselves, our motivations, how we interact with others, the way we work in our communities, what we think about things, what we believe, what we want for the future. We invest quite heavily in that. And that’s I think, one of the reasons why it spreads quickly and engages people; and people give a lot of voluntary time.

In areas where there is serious conflict, like every-day insecurity, people engage quickly in the vision of a more peaceful coexistence. In a place like Pakistan, I guess it resonates with people who experience these things every day.

Just about your own experience with meeting people from South Asian countries like Pakistan, how do you think intercultural dialogue has taken place between you and facilitators you have met over the past three years?

I have learnt probably a lot more than I have shared from this programme, and that’s because we have been able to bring together people from all over the country with completely different perspectives, and that’s one thing that I feel is a strength.

In the UK issues of class, and status, and power, and wealth are more obvious because it is the country I was brought up in; it’s not so obvious (for me) here. But it does seem that the people that Active Citizens engages are quite diverse. I have definitely engaged people with very, very different perspectives, and people who I really respect have some times very challenging views for me. So I have to engage in the process myself; I have to engage in dialogue with participants myself and put my assumptions on hold; (I have to) engage in very deep questioning where I am challenged to think all that kind of stuff. So I’m learning more about intercultural dialogue by being here. It’s learning by doing.

What have you learned about intercultural dialogue?

Being forced to live those principles, and live the way we think the way we should interact is a challenge. It helps because we have to understand all the challenges that the Active Citizens face when they do the work.

What challenges does intercultural dialogue face in this region and what inherent strengths does it possess (to overcome them) and flourish?

There is an assumption that when we say ‘intercultural dialogue’ there are two cultures that we can see – provincial, or tribal or a country. But it goes deeper than that.

The challenge for intercultural dialogue is how it’s done. There is a danger that it can be superficial. One real challenge is that it is much easier to bring together people in a dialogue who obviously belong to different cultures but share the same economic status, or have wealth, are well travelled, have been to a university…that’s quite easy. In any country of the world you can bring well travelled, well educated people together, and have a good conversation. Sometimes this is easier than bringing together people with a different status or some other subtle difference.

So that is really a challenge: where can intercultural dialogue be most effective and who with, and not to be content with taking the easy road. What do we call good quality intercultural dialogue? What outcomes are we looking for?

People resist dialogue because they think that it is a danger to their identity and culture. There is going to be resistance to any externally organized process that gets people talking. There is always going to be suspicion, and that is a definite challenge.

There are dangers too in bringing people together. If there is underlying tension and conflict, then it can be a very dangerous and explosive situation. If it’s not well managed then it can make things worse.

**James Edleston was speaking with Younus Khan and Sadia Rahman ** 

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