How to overcome Paternalism in International Cultural Management and Collaboration

We had been in a planning meeting for three days, trying to develop a common vision for the Robert Bosch Cultural Managers Network and agree on future goals. Exhausted but happy to have found a clear path forward, we hurried to get to the station on time. Arriving at the main train station, we found that our train was expected to arrive thirty minutes late, which wasn’t surprising, but still irritating. We tried to calm down, to change the rhythm that had been fast for weeks. All of a sudden, we had half an hour that we had not planned for. We looked for a bench to sit down on but couldn’t find one. ‘We still have to write an article, right?’ Astrid said, gazing at a point somewhere behind the roof of the station.

I was still looking for a place to sit, not ready to jump into the topic we had saved for the train ride. So I just mumbled something like: ‘Yes. But are you able to switch to the topic paternalism now?’ ‘Well’, she looked at me. ‘Somehow with our new governance structure we are also overcoming paternalism, aren’t we?’ She paused for a moment. My face must have told her that I had no idea what she was talking about ‘I guess I rather mean overcoming anticipatory obedience.’ She started explaining. ‘In our meeting, for example – before that I was expecting our funding bodies to be pushing us in specific directions. Some of their e-mails in the past I read rather as orders. That upset me a lot.’ Astrid looked at me, trying to find out if I could follow her thinking. ‘Oh yes, I remember that…´, I heard myself saying. Astrid laughed and continued explaining: ‘So what I mean is that only through conversations with others did I realize that I had read the e-mails with resistance to paternalism. I had assumed the sender was playing a power card and reacted defensively, sometimes passive aggressively actually. My assumptions that the person I judged to be abusing power were simply based on how I had expected people in specific positions to be and act like. So, the point I want to make is that paternalism and how it is ingrained in my mind has its sources in experiences that took place well before my work in international collaboration. They go back to structural power relations, our previous experiences with them, and the attitude we ascribe to persons’ functions.’

Astrid’s words hit me. They reminded me of a situation I had experienced in Moldova. ‘For me the most difficult situations have been when paternalism was even expected from me. It is tricky not to take on the role of an expert when it is offered to you so easily. I had that experience, for example, during the first Tandem round with Ukraine and Moldova. We were supposed to conduct training sessions for the participating Cultural Managers. And I felt that I was expected to just tell the local partners what to do and how to design their training sessions. Just because I am from Germany and MitOst had been implementing trainings for Cultural Managers in Germany for years. Luckily, I had many questions myself. I asked questions about how things normally work there, rather than giving advice or even orders. Although of course I also enjoyed the feeling of someone looking up to me. That is the trap…’ Astrid smirked. ‘Well, yes. If you finally get recognition for the work you do…even if it is not for the “right” reasons at that moment. Do you know how others experienced it who were there with you?’ Astrid wanted to know. ‘No, I don’t. I just remember that it made me angry at a point because it also felt like local partners would just ask me for orders and were not themselves committed to our common project. Like as if they were ready to just fulfil my wishes. That felt really wrong. But finally we talked about it and there were some obvious structural explanations for it.’

The platform was crowded by now. The train should have left ten minutes ago. No news over the speakers. People around us angry, nervous, and freezing. The display changed, informing us that the train was now expected sixty minutes late. A murmur in the crowd. Over the speaker we heard what we already saw: The train is running late. More murmurs.

‘I think that that experience also made me allergic to applications from EU participants for programmes with Ukraine, Turkey or the Arab World that state that their motivation for a collaboration is to “help people in the region”. Of course, it is fine to want to exchange knowledge, for example, in a way that in the end would help your collaboration partner. But you also need to have your own motivation, maybe even an egoistic motivation. Otherwise, if something goes wrong in the collaboration and you start arguing, you will stand there hearing yourself saying “I am just doing this for you, and what do I get in return? Just complaints.”’ Astrid giggled. ‘I remember that sentence from my mom.’ ‘See – paternalism!’ There was a minute of silence as we both filed through our memories.

‘If you were to write a code of ethics for international collaboration, what would you put in?’ I asked Astrid. ‘Of course, I would work with a group of people on a code: A code of ethics for collaboration suggested by one person would be an oxymoron, I suppose. Because one of the things I have experienced is that diversity needs to be seen as an asset. A single person has many blind spots. Only in a diverse group with members that have different functions, diverse backgrounds, ages, and genders could such a code of ethics be formulated.’ ‘Everyone should be included?’, I asked. ‘Everyone who is asking the same questions and is involved in international collaboration. For example, in this case it might be our shared interest in the question: “Which ethics and values should we commit to in order to overcome paternalism in collaborations?” My best collaboration experiences were when there was either a shared topic of interest, a shared question to be explored, or a challenge that all parties were facing in one way or another.’ ‘What do you mean concretely?’ I asked. Astrid replied: ‘In everyday life collaboration, an example could be that different neighbours are unhappy that there is no shared meeting space in their street, so they come together to tackle the issue together, each one bringing in their know-how and knowledge. In international collaboration, artists in different regions in the world might want to explore how to reach new audiences and for that they might develop a strategy together and set up regular virtual exchanges and visits to support each other. Different cultural managers might be interested in conceiving, planning, and implementing more eco-friendly events; even if they all work on different events in different regions, they can collaborate on the shared topic.’

Listening to Astrid’s examples, I discovered a pair of lights running down our track. Apparently a train was approaching, although we had been told that it would be an hour late. Confusion on the platform. And relief.

The train finally pulled into the station and we followed the crowd, everybody eager to get a seat. We didn’t manage to get a seat on the train and had to stand close to the doors with many others. Still trying to keep an eye on our suitcases and defend a minimal bit of space to stand on, time passed. The crowd that had initially calmed down when the train had approached started getting angry again, the noise level started to rise. The train did not move. Outside we had been freezing, inside the train I wanted to take off my coat. ‘Why isn’t the train moving? We waited outside for thirty minutes and now we are already an hour late!’, I heard a passenger next to me saying. At just that moment a train attendant entered our car. She raised her voice and said: ‘Could you please make some room and let me pass through?’ ‘Could you at least tell us what is going on before giving orders to your customers?’, a passenger snapped back. ‘If I had any information, I would have let you know’, the attendant yelled back. The tone between the attendant and our fellow passengers became rougher and the atmosphere almost impossible to bear. When the attendant came near where we were standing, I said – louder than necessary – ‘It is bad when you yourself get all the information last, no?’ Almost with relief the attendant looked at me and replied: ‘Yes, it is really bad. I also don’t like being late, in an overcrowded train, unable to pass on information I haven’t received.’

In that moment, embarrassed silence muted the compartment and I almost regretted my own words. ‘Don’t be embarrassed’, I heard Astrid telling the couple standing next to her. ‘Sarah was just doing her job as a cultural manager – being a mediator between people. She cannot help but break the ice between people.’ Turning to me, she asked: ‘So, what would you include in a code of ethics for international collaboration, Sarah?’ ‘I find it hard to switch topics again now after what just happened.’ I paused. ‘I think based on what just happened – I can only think in concrete, localized examples when thinking of the global picture – I believe equal footing between collaborators is important as is a true understanding that we are in this together. The attendant is in this situation just as we are; we all want to get to our destination, wherever that is. When we think and act in binaries of victim and offender, powerful and powerless, the wise and the ignorant, collaborations don’t work out.’

‘Makes sense. I wonder why we all got so angry then?’ Astrid asked. ‘Lack of transparency causes mistrust, I think. In any collaborating system. That includes the relationship between passengers and the train company. Anger is human though, showing your vulnerabilities is authentic. Being authentic is important when you want to get somewhere and collaborate. I would add that to the code of ethics as well’, I replied.

The train started moving and we heard an announcement of apology. ‘Finally!’, I said. ‘Now what are we going to do during our train ride?’, Astrid asked me. ‘Write this article about paternalism?’, I asked back. ‘But we have it! This conversation is our article, Sarah!’, she said, beaming with joy. ‘And as a conclusion we should mention our proposals for a code of ethics: Encounter each other on equal footing. Be transparent and authentic. See and use diversity as an asset. Beware that we all have biases and blind spots. Collaboration only makes sense where there is a joint purpose. Keep the local in mind when working globally and vice versa. Celebrate your successes. Share what you have learned. Be generous and assume that your collaborators are acting with good intentions. Act as a mediator, broker, and facilitator.’

Article by Astrid Thews and Sarah Herke