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Save the Project on Indigenous People - CS EN


The author analyses the cultural elements influencing the negotiations on a UN project led in Ecuador and proposes a communication strategy.

I lived for two years in Ecuador, from August 2003 to August 2005. It was the first time I went to Latin America and the first time, apart from a ten days holidays in Spain, that I was in a Spanish- speaking environment. I worked at the United Nations Development Programme, the lead United Nations agency for promoting sustainable development among United Nations member states.

I worked there as a Programme Officer, elaborating, managing and supervising several projects focused on human rights. One of the projects I coordinated was directed to indigenous people and aimed at disseminating human rights and collective rights awareness. It was a pilot project lasting one year and, for the first time, UNDP was organising in Ecuador activities at the national level directly addressed and in cooperation with indigenous people. In case this pilot project resulted successful UNDP wanted to develop a second phase bigger project.

This project contributed greatly to my personal and professional enrichment. It provided me with the opportunity to travel to remote parts of the country and to meet people, coming from a totally different cultural context than mine, I would have otherwise probably never entered in contact with. The number of things I learned from these intercultural encounters is invaluable: I found myself in touch with people with very different traditions, beliefs, norms, values and customs. I sometimes had some problems in understanding the differences, while other times it was easier. Overall I consider it a very important experience in my life. It enriched me and helped me to develop my negotiation skills and my ability to manage conflicting interests and priorities in an intercultural environment.

The episode I will refer to in this paper is the negotiation that took place over the final evaluation of this project on indigenous people and human rights and on the elaboration of the second phase. Being the United Nations (UN) a multi-cultural environment that benefits of a widespread network and partners, sometimes opinions can differ as people have different approaches and vision that can be shaped by their cultural background. The reason why I chose this episode is to provide an example of how, when people with different cultural backgrounds and information work together in development cooperation, different objectives and priorities can have consequences for the beneficiaries. In most cases, different approaches reflect cultural backgrounds.


2.    Case study

When I arrived in Ecuador I was assigned, among others, the coordination of a project on human rights and indigenous people. To be precise, there was only a first written draft of the project document, which I had to finalise. The project was developed in collaboration with UNDP headquarters (New York) and another UN agency based in Geneva (they were both providing funds). Both the headquarters and the other UN agency lobbied to have, as the primary objective of the project, the creation of a consulting indigenous people forum (on the model of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) that would function as an advisory body for the UN system in Ecuador.

The idea was very innovative and challenging, but in my opinion, there was no favourable background for doing this in Ecuador at that time. However I could not see how the forum could be created in Ecuador at that specific moment, I had to include the creation of the forum into the project document as my colleagues based in New York and Geneva insisted. The compromise that was found was to transform the creation forum as a sub- objective of this pilot project and not anymore as the main objective.

Due to some administrative delay the project, although was formulated and financed by December 2003, started to be implemented only in August 2004. Socio-political changes occurred in the country since the project’s first draft had been written and continued to take place throughout its implementation. For example, the indigenous people party “Pachakutic” representatives were no more part of the government1, the indigenous people movement suffered the worst split and internal fights in decades, indigenous people representatives were marginalised from any decision making body and their institutions in the government and state system2  undermined, the President of the Republic was overthrown by popular protesters in 2005 and political and institutional instability became normal.

For these reasons, while implementing the project, I had to adjust it to the new context situation and to the needs of the beneficiaries, which I learned more and more as the project advanced in its implementation. As a result, I had to revise the project’s objectives and abandon the creation of the indigenous people forum. Once the project’s implementation was finished, I had to justify to the headquarters and the other UN agency why the indigenous people forum was not in place.

Apart from needing to maintain good relations with the other two international actors involved, this was a critical issue as they were also going to approve the financial contribution for the second phase of the project. Without their financial aid, there was going to be no second phase. While presenting them my arguments to explain why it hadn’t been possible to create the forum, I realised that this was a challenging task, which underlined differences between two different cultural contexts.

In the following paragraphs, I will analyse the case study with the methodology presented and discussed during the course: the argumentative interaction model. The argumentative interaction will be presented into the framework of the “fishbone scheme” which was also studied during the course.


3.    Communication context

  • Interaction field
    The interaction field was between Geneva, New York and Ecuador. The mean of communication has been primarily the internet (email) followed by phone calls and a brief meeting I had with the person in charge of the issue at UNDP headquarters when I went to New York in March 2005.
  • Interpersonal communication and actors
    There were three groups of actors that were crucial in the discussions. On one side UNDP’s New York headquarters and its Geneva partner, which were supporting a similar position. Then myself and my country office which was aligned in a different position. Last came indigenous people as a group, which had no direct possibility to participate directly in the discussion, but whose opinion and judgement was extremely relevant and necessary as they were the project beneficiaries.
    The two parties directly negotiating were the headquarters and me (on behalf of my office). Indigenous people were not directly involved in the discussions as it was a project evaluation. However, indigenous people opinions needed to be kept into account and I used their position to support my argumentation.
  • Cultural background
    The persons involved in the episode had different backgrounds. Oversimplifying we could say that the two actors that came from New York and Geneva represented developed countries and they had been to Ecuador only once for less than one week. Despite they had travelled to developing countries contexts they never lived in Ecuador and could only have “external knowledge of the situation”. My cultural background is mixed. The underlying matrix is clearly Western, but I lived in Africa and in Ecuador. I consider myself a sort of hybrid that was enriched by the different people I met. In this case, as I lived in Ecuador for two years, I would say that I knew much better the Ecuadorian socio-political-cultural context than my colleagues in New York and Geneva. In particular, I was familiar with the difference between indigenous people cultural background and the Western one and the implications that this has in terms of values, beliefs, social norms and priorities.

4.    Critical discussion

The aim of the discussion was to ensure that the people in New York and Geneva would understand and accept that their objective (to create a national indigenous people forum) was premature and wouldn’t have been successful without due preparation of the receiving context. The outcome of a successful understanding of my position would have resulted in receiving financing for the second phase of the project. If New York and Geneva failed to understand my position they would have rated the project as unachieved and stopped financing and collaborating with UNDP in Ecuador.

This could have had great consequences as this was the only project addressing human rights and indigenous people in a comprehensive way at the national level. The issue was to make clear that the first phase of the project had to be adapted to a new situation and to the needs of the beneficiaries which, having a different cultural background and another vision of the same issues, were asking for different things than those which were initially foreseen.

For example, indigenous people considered that the creation of a national forum was interesting, but not necessarily vital and the timing was not appropriate. They saw as more important other activities, as human rights dissemination and action at the local level. Additionally, a comment that I shared, people didn’t have the necessary understanding of what and how functions a forum in an international context. As a result, the number of people that would have been able to truly participate and understand the mechanisms would have been very limited, which would have been against the forum (creating a wide participatory mechanism).

The headquarters’ position was that the forum was needed and it would have enabled indigenous people views to be kept better into account by the United Nations system in Ecuador. It was crucial to create it as soon as possible and any delay was hindering the possibility to keep into account indigenous people voices. External political conditions would not have influenced the success of the forum: once in place it would have found its way of functioning. What they were not taking into account were some cultural differences that would have certainly influenced the success of the forum if not given the relevant attention.


5.    Strategy choice: Negotiation

The approach I chose to use to solve this case was the negotiation. “Negotiation is the process whereby interested parties resolve disputes, agree upon courses of action, bargain for individual or collective advantage, and/or attempt to craft outcomes which serve their mutual interests. It is  usually regarded as a form of alternative dispute resolution3”. This is not a case of mediation as there was no neutral third party and even if I could be seen as the third party liaising the headquarters level to the indigenous people I was not facilitating an agreement between these two levels. Additionally, in a mediation exercise, the mediator only facilitates the contact between the parties and it helps them find a solution.

I had a direct interest in the case and I was negotiating a solution among the headquarters and my office. Negotiation allowed to find a compromise among the two parties directly involved (the headquarters and the field office represented by myself) and to compromise on the difference in order to find a win-win solution.


6.    Communicative strategy

In this case, it was very important not to create a confrontational environment as it was crucial to maintain good relations with the headquarters and our counterpart. For political reasons, whether they would accept to finance the second phase or not, relations should continue to be smooth.

In search of common ground
All the three actors (headquarters, country office, and indigenous people) had a common interest: implement the second phase of the project. The reasons behind this common interest were different for each one of the three groups: for indigenous people, it was the first and only project that was addressing issues such as participation, human rights and collective rights at a national level. For the country office it was important to show that it was working with indigenous people as it was the only project specifically targeting indigenous people (even if they are approximately 40% of the population!). For the headquarters, it was important because it was a pilot project and they were gaining visibility at the international level. In addition to this, it must be mentioned that the common ground was not only on professional interests: everybody shared a common very high personal commitment and motivation to achieving this project.

For different reasons, everybody was interested in continuing to work and implement the second phase. However, the focus of what should have been done in the first phase and what had to be done in future was different. The headquarters, although admitting that the project had achieved some outstanding results, was rating the first phase negatively because it did not create the indigenous people national forum. This was hindering the possibility to receive the second crucial financial allocation for the second phase.

As my other two colleagues were Western the most effective way to negotiate over the project’s evaluation was to apply an argumentative strategy.

The headquarters were arguing that there was already an international indigenous people forum at the international level (the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues based in New York) and this positive experience could be transported at the national level. It was important to promote this innovative consultative mechanism which would have produced necessary changes in the way people thought. For this reason, the contingent socio-political situation was not that relevant. As the first phase project had not created the forum, it was rated as an interesting experiment but did not enter into their priorities and therefore they would not finance the second phase.

I will summarise in five points the arguments that I brought forward. First of all, I informed the headquarters that it is Ecuadorian indigenous people custom to collectively discuss issues that affect the whole community. This raised a number of problems regarding the creation of the forum: we couldn’t simply ask indigenous people main organisations representatives based in Quito (about six) to participate in the creation of the forum and then be part of it. The leaders of these organisations, according to their rules, had to present the issue to all the people they represented and consult how this mechanism should work and who and how should participate in it.

This is a very lengthy process and for a Westerner, it is very difficult to understand the rationale behind this time- consuming procedure, but for indigenous people it is essential. This was their procedure and, I argued if we didn’t want to create a discredited mechanism we should follow it. Under no circumstances we could have sold the idea of creating a national forum without getting to it by collective decision, a top-down approach would have been rejected. This is very difficult to understand when, according to the Western cultural background, decisions are taken by people delegated for this purpose and the concept of “efficiency” is central.

I then explained that the first phase of the project had set the conditions for creating the forum: on one side it had organised activities with communities at the local level and on the other, it created a trusted environment. This again can seem a weird comment if one does not know that indigenous people, who lived for over five hundred years under repression, are usually very diffident towards any proposal that comes from an organisation or body considered Western, as the United Nations. Moreover, UNDP, which privileges working with the Government at the central and local level, is often unknown at the largest population.

The second argument I articulated was that, as I mentioned above, the political situation was not favourable. Since the political party “Pachakutik” had left the Government the indigenous movement had divided itself and organisations had no relations between one and other and even some very unpleasant events happened among them. Without indigenous people organisation’s backup, it would have been virtually impossible to coordinate the creation of the forum. Only creating the basis for bringing representatives of all organisations together we would have managed in the intent.

The third argument that I brought forward was centred on the image both the headquarter and the country office would have projected if they had not implemented the second phase. At the end of the first phase many indigenous people that participated to project activities expressed vividly the hope that this would not be one of the numerous punctual projects with no follow-up. People were tired of seeing international development organisations and agencies realising short projects of little or no impact in the long run. Additionally, indigenous people had enthusiastically participated in the project and had high expectations. Deceiving them would have not only not taken advantage of their willingness to cooperate, but would have probably alienated their sympathy for the United Nations for long.

The fourth argument I brought forward was that what had been done during the first phase was to create an “enabling environment” for creating the forum in future. Creating the basis for settling the forum was necessary for its success seen the socio-political and cultural environment. Now that the general framework was created in the second phase more specific talks with the relevant actors for the creation of the forum were possible.

The position of the headquarters and their counter argumentation consisted in repeating that the forum had been created at the international level and it had worked therefore it could work in a smaller and local context. They were also claiming that no matter what was the condition in the country it would have worked.

After numerous email exchanges, some phone calls and a trip to visit my colleague in New York we reached a solution: they accepted that the first phase was a necessary introduction and they would have funded the second phase. We also agreed that in the second phase we would have concentrated all our efforts in creating the forum.


Interpersonal communication

I was far younger than both my headquarters colleagues (in this case, I want to believe, the fact of being a female was not relevant), therefore I had to prove my professionalism and knowledge of the and arguments I was speaking about. As this negotiation took place mostly by email language was one of the most important aspects of this negotiation. The choice of the words, of the registry of emails (more or less formal) and even the graphic chosen for the character, could influence the outcome of the negotiation. For example, emails were written in English. English, contrarily to Spanish and Italian is a more informal language.

You address email to colleagues, even in a much higher hierarchical position by name and, as there is no option in the language, you address everybody with a general “you”. Because of my linguistical/cultural background, I will always automatically divide “you” into a second person and a third person. Addressing people by name and with you could have induced me to opt for a more informal conversational register. However, knowing this difference I always tried to keep a formal registry in my correspondence with the headquarters. A formal registry indicated respect and also seriousness, both of which I need to express in order to be treated by them equally.

Non-verbal codes are also important and are related to a specific cultural background. When I went to New York and I took advantage for meeting with the person there. I had never been in the United States, I never met the person before and I had to guess (with some advice given me by some friends that had already been there) how was the working environment. The United Nations is not a private business company, but UNDP has adopted one of the most (“casual- chic”) trendy and formal dressing codes in the United Nations. The dressing code, again, was in a condition of influencing the negotiation.

For example, if I had met the person on a Friday wearing a suit I would probably have looked overdressed and far more elegant than my speaker. In fact, Friday in the United States is “casual Friday6” and people go to work in jeans. The image I would have projected if this occurred would have not been well perceived and maybe would have influenced my counterpart approach.


7.    Quality of argumentation

The argumentation, in the end, resulted successfully as it was accepted by the headquarters which decided to sustain the project’s second phase with financial aid.

The situation, although there were some trade-offs by each side, resulted in a win-win solution for all the parties directly and indirectly involved. For me and my country office because we could continue our work, for the headquarters because they would see the creation of the forum and for indigenous people because they could continue to benefit from the project.


8.    Conclusion

I chose this example because it shows how cultural difference can play a crucial role in managing and evaluating development projects. My headquarters colleagues had to take some decisions regarding (and affecting) people living in a cultural context they did not know sufficiently. They were applying the same rules as if they were working in their cultural context and they did not have the tools to interpret the implications.

There are many examples of unsuccessful cooperation projects that, despite good intentions, failed or even produced negative effects. Following the development of the “do no harm7” approach to development and humanitarian cooperation, international actors are trying to integrate into projects as much as possible local actors, as no foreigner can know the local cultural context as locals. This approach recognises the limit of people originating from a different cultural background to truly understand all aspects of a community of individuals with a different cultural background and to have a positive impact.

As it happened in this case, an argumentative methodology applied to a negotiation process can successfully sensitise people that otherwise would not have the possibility to understand needs of people belonging to a different cultural context. Depending on the angle of observation, the same issue can assume different meanings. Only with dialogue, it is possible to share the different meanings and realise that we are all talking about the same object.




  • Anderson Mary B., “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace or War”, 1999 Kymlicka Will, “La cittadinanza multiculturale”, Il Mulino, 1999.
  • Kymlicka Will, “Introduzione alla filosofia politica contemporanea”, Feltrinelli, 1996.
  • Lukes Steven, “Liberals and Cannibals. The Implications of Diversity”, Verso Publications, 2003 Losurdo Domenico, “Controstoria del Liberalismo”, Editori Laterza, 2005.
  • Mantovani Giuseppe, “Intercultura. E’ possibile evitare le guerre culturali?”, Il Mulino, 2004.
  • Programme des Nations Unies pour le Développement, "Rapport mondial sur le développement humain 2004. La liberté culturelle dans un monde diversifié”, Economica, 2004.