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CULTURE AS CONTEXT, CULTURE AS..., 9 Harv. Negot. L. Rev....

9 Harv. Negot. L. Rev. 391

Harvard Negotiation Law Review

Spring 2004



Kevin Avruchd1

Copyright (c) 2004 Harvard Negotiation Law Review; Kevin Avruch


In this essay I consider some of the special problems that humanitarian workers in the field encounter when engaging in negotiations with parties whose cultural backgrounds differ substantially from their own. After a brief description of the parameters of negotiation in general and humanitarian negotiation in particular, I conceptualize the notion of culture both in terms of its broad “context setting” properties and its more specific impact on communication.

It is widely understood today that negotiation covers a large territory, both conceptually and behaviorally. At one extreme is the very broad sense of the term as conceived by Anselm Strauss,1 whereby all of ongoing social life is negotiated by actors qua interlocutors, and therefore the social order is fundamentally a negotiated order.2 At the other extreme, negotiation commonly describes highly specific behavioral arenas or interactions, such as hostage or crisis negotiations.3 This essay addresses certain problems arising in negotiations in the latter sense: the highly specialized dialogues carried on by humanitarian fieldworkers in conflict or post-conflict situations. My immediate concern is with how culture impacts negotiation in these situations, and I consider the usefulness of some of the extant work on intercultural negotiation in these unique and often *392 highly charged situations. I also will discuss how certain widely accepted notions of general negotiation strategy and theory, such as the concept of a BATNA, figure in the case of humanitarian negotiation.

I. Humanitarian Negotiation

The “humanitarian negotiation” domain derives from the general articles of the Geneva Convention4 adopted in August of 1949. The opening general provisions define noncombatants as “persons not taking active part in the hostilities[,]”5 and subsequent paragraphs provide that they be guaranteed “protection”6 and “assistance[.]”7 The Convention lists assistance under “services”8 rendered to noncombatants but does not further elaborate; however, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva defines assistance to include food, non-food items, water and sanitation, medical and health services, and corresponding logistical support.9 In addition, the Convention guarantees “access” by third party agents to affected populations. Originally “agents” meant the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); today a variety of international organizations (IOs) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) actively participate. Broadly, humanitarian negotiation refers to any sort of negotiation carried out by humanitarian workers in the field in order to gain access to populations at risk and render protection and assistance.

Since such negotiation often takes place in cultural settings different from those of the humanitarian workers, it is reasonable to ask how culture affects the dynamics of negotiation in these special circumstances, and whether what we know about intercultural negotiations (or certain basic tenets of general negotiation theory) may fruitfully be brought to bear.

II. Culture

In his memoirs, former United Nations Under Secretary General Sir Brian Urquhart tells the story of the first night in 1957 that a contingent of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) was *393 deployed to Gaza. That evening, upon hearing from the minarets the muezzin’s call to prayers, but not understanding Arabic or the meaning of the act, the U.N. troops believed it to be a call to civil disorder and fired in panic on the mosque.10

Today, it is hard to imagine such a complete lack of fundamental and substantive knowledge about the “host” society and its culture by the majority of international participants in a complex humanitarian intervention. Yet the level of culture-specific pre-deployment training in most IOs, NGOs, and militaries is far from sufficient. Typically, humanitarian agents learn about their host society’s culture by committing to memory a standardized list of “do’s and don’ts” (e.g., “don’t offer your left hand to an Arab”; “don’t pat a Buddhist on the head;” “don’t expect the Latin Americans to be on time for the meeting”). This practice conceives of cultures as collections of static traits and customs. What gets left out is the dynamism--the conflicts, change, and quality of emergence that characterize cultures. To try to learn about another culture from lists of traits and custom is akin to trying to learn English by memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary--all vocabulary, no grammar. This method is particularly illsuited for those trying to master a dynamic process like negotiation in a foreign cultural context.

There are numerous definitions of culture and they continue to proliferate. For our purposes, culture refers to the socially transmitted values, beliefs and symbols that are more or less shared by members of a social group. These constitute the framework through which members interpret and attribute meaning to both their own and others’ experiences and behavior. One key assumption implicit in this definition is that culture is a quality of social groups and perhaps communities, and that members may belong to multiple such groups. Therefore, an individual may “carry” several cultures, for example, ethnic or national, religious, and occupational affiliations. Thus, for any given individual, culture always comes “in the plural,” and therefore every interaction (including negotiation) between individuals is likely to be multicultural on several levels. Another assumption is that culture is rarely, if ever, perfectly shared by all members of a group or community. Intracultural variation is likely to be present, perhaps considerable, and this should caution us against ascribing value, belief, or behavioral uniformity to members of a group--against stereotyping.11 These assumptions suggest that socialization *394 is the aggregate of numerous social interactions where culture is transmitted. It therefore becomes crucial to understand the different sources of culture and their different modes of transmission.

These assumptions militate against using lists of traits and do’s and don’ts to learn about another culture. Rather, as specialists in intercultural communication put it, a more sophisticated approach is necessary to become “culturally competent.” For humanitarian workers, who routinely find themselves working under difficult conditions in unfamiliar cultural settings, the attainment of such cultural competence is especially important--it might mean the difference between the success or failure of the mission. Certainly, it lies at the core of the broader concept of “communicational competence,” which in turn is a prerequisite for social interaction generally, and in particular, for the kind of interaction called negotiation.12

One popular model of culture is the “iceberg,” commonly depicted as a triangle or pyramid.13 In this model, the top level visible above the surface is comprised of behavior, artifacts, and institutions. Underlying this level, just beneath the surface but fairly easily accessible to sensitive observers, are norms, beliefs, values and attitudes. At the deepest level, all but invisible even to members of a cultural group, lie the fundamental assumptions and presuppositions, the sense-and-meaning-making schemas and symbols, the ontology, about the world and individuals’ experience in it.14 While a useful heuristic, the iceberg concept tends unhelpfully to assume a homogeneity of cultural sharing among individuals (this is never the case), and it lacks dynamism. Much more goes on “inside” the iceberg than the simple model implies; furthermore, icebergs frequently move about, often with disastrous results for shipping.

III. Negotiation

Before leaving structural (and static) models like the iceberg to focus on cultural process, a word about what similar models may teach us regarding negotiation itself follows. Perhaps the most popular model of negotiation that is currently taught (indeed, prescribed) *395 is the so-called Harvard model, exemplified in Fisher, Ury and Patton’s Getting to Yes.15 This model first instructs negotiators to get below the positions taken by the parties to try and identify the underlying interests. This is excellent advice, since while positions may clash or appear irreconcilable, some interests may be mutual and therefore amenable to bridging. This model has been demonstrably successful in intracultural commercial settings within the same nation or similar nations sharing a capitalist or free market context.16 The interest-based model of negotiation takes shared context for granted, as given. Yet such sharing is precisely what is problematic when negotiating cross-culturally. Moreover, the stratified iceberg implies that fundamental assumptions or presumptions about the world may lurk beneath even shared interests. I argue that it is far more difficult to reconcile or “bridge” conflicts of values or world views than interests. I am less confident of the success of interest-based negotiation in conflicts around deeply held values such as identity, or around religiously-inspired worldviews. While not all negotiations faced by humanitarians in the field will necessarily involve such fundamental parts of the cultural iceberg, some will, and in those cases the limitations of strictly interest-based bargaining ought to be considered.

IV. Context and Culture

Of the many different ways to conceive of the role of culture in humanitarian negotiation, two deserve special discussion: culture as context and culture as communication. “Context” refers to culture in its broadest, framework-defining, worldview-constituting sense. Here, culture includes deep presuppositions and presumptions about how the world works, which give contour to how individuals meaningfully experience and act in their worlds.

Consider the domain of social conflict--culture frames the context in which conflict occurs. Culture determines what manners of things are subjects for competition or objects of dispute, often by postulating their value and relative (or absolute) scarcity: for example, notions of honor or purity, or accumulation of capital and profits. Culture also stipulates rules, sometimes precise, usually less so, for how contests should be pursued, including when they begin and how *396 to end them. Finally, returning to our earlier definition, culture provides individuals with cognitive and affective frameworks for interpreting the behavior and motives of self and others.17 With respect to conflict, to see culture as context is to understand that culture per se, and even cultural differences, are rarely if ever the main “cause” of conflict (Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations”18 notwithstanding). Culture, however, is always the lens that refracts the causes of conflict.19 With respect to negotiation, to see culture as context is to understand that even before parties meet and converse for the first time, their most fundamental comprehensions of their respective positions, interests, and values have been set and circumscribed by the very language (i.e. culture) with which they bring them to expression.

UNICEF representative Daniel Toole provides two examples of the role of “deep” cultural context--the base parts of the iceberg--in humanitarian negotiations.20 While not addressing culture specifically, he first describes the deep divide between U.N. negotiators and the Taliban in Afghanistan over fundamental conceptions of human rights, such as treatment of girls and women. The lack of shared values and norms respecting gender equality made any discussion across the cultural divide on these issues next to impossible.21 “As a consequence,” Toole writes, “negotiation of numerous issues was very difficult and made little headway.”22 Many humanitarian programs in Afghanistan were subsequently suspended.23

Toole’s second example relates to the different principles of action that distinguish the U.N. from many humanitarian organizations. Such principles underlying action are sometimes called “strategic culture.”24 In difficult cases, the UN’s strategic culture employs a principle of “conditionality”--using a combination of carrots and sticks to induce change in recalcitrant negotiation partners. For *397 many humanitarians, however, who remain committed to providing aid to people in need regardless of political considerations, such conditionality appears ethically unsound and unacceptable.25

The debate over conditionality raises concerns about the viability of traditional negotiation concepts when applied in humanitarian contexts. In classical negotiation theory, parties must always bear in mind their “reservation prices” (the point at which each will not “sell” or “buy”), and what Roger Fisher and his collaborators famously called the BATNA, or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement[.]”26 This is the imagined best-case scenario should negotiations break down, and correlates to “the point at which a negotiator is prepared to walk away from the negotiation table.”27 If a party has not settled on a reservation price or thought through his BATNA, he is seriously disadvantaged in subsequent negotiation. Consider what the lack of conditionality implies for humanitarian negotiators-- especially if the other party learns of that deficiency. The principle that one gives aid or renders protection to those in need, irrespective of identity, past actions, or “politics,” means that there is no “reservation price” available to humanitarians, save in the field an operational withdrawal point if the situation becomes too dangerous. Also, in humanitarian negotiation there is no real BATNA for access or aid or protection--all the alternatives are bad ones, and inaction becomes unthinkable. Humanitarians thus face ethically precarious options of negotiating how many sacks of rice a warlord takes for allowing the convoy through, or (even more unsavory) of allowing militias or genocidaires to distribute the food in a refugee camp so that any is distributed at all.

In both cases described by Toole, any negotiations that take place will be framed from the start by the different cultural constructions of the world brought to the table by the parties. In this sense, the parties never wholly define the negotiating situation; it comes to them, as they come to it, partly predefined. Such predefinition may create an obstacle for negotiations. For instance, should one negotiating party’s construction of the world be based upon a universal *398 human rights discourse not shared by other parties, an impasse may result. Such is the power of cultural context.

Notice that Toole’s two examples draw from different sites of cultural difference. In the U.N.-Taliban case, parties deal across a “civilizational” divide à la Huntington, separating the familiar categories of Western and fundamentalist Islamic cultures. In the U.N.-humanitarian divergence over the issue of conditionality, the locus of strategic culture appeared to reside in organizations or institutional settings. Culture then is not merely a property of racial, ethnic, religious, or national groups--the usual “containers” for culture depicted in the negotiation literature.28 Organizations, institutions, professions and occupations are also containers for culture and sites of cultural difference. Each may serve to delimit its own context.

In a complex humanitarian operation, the number of such contexts can appear overwhelming. Not uncommonly, they include (1) the cultures of the host country populations (often comprised of several distinct subcultural groups); (2) those of international aid, development, humanitarian and relief organizations; (3) those of heavily bureaucratized institutions such as the U.N. (itself subculturally differentiated by nationality, and, more importantly, by functional divisions with geographically disparate headquarters); and (4) often by various militaries, with their own internal service divisions, inculcations of ethos, and national peacekeeping “doctrines.” Add, perhaps, international media to the mix and humanitarian negotiators face an exceedingly complex operation in a multicultural arena of national, ethnic, institutional, and professional interactions.

For example, in a multicultural arena an American military officer and an American civilian aid worker may share many of the same understandings and perceptions of the world based upon their shared American culture, and easily communicate about many matters (though they may still have much to disagree about, of course). However, on matters relating to security, force protection, command-and-control, or rules of engagement, the American military officer may share more cultural commonality with an Indian, Pakistani, or Nigerian military colleague; the mutual premises of a transnational “military culture” will facilitate communication between them. This *399 may be the case even when language differences necessitate the services of an interpreter. On the other hand, within the NGO community, even the English-speaking one, conflicts may arise in the field because of differences in the organizational or strategic cultures of relief or humanitarian workers focused on quick response, immediate access to populations in need, and crisis problem solving; those of workers representing sustainable development organizations who have longer term or infrastructural concerns; and those of a U.N. official focused on political or diplomatic issues.

One practical implication is that humanitarian negotiators, like all parties to a conflict, ought to begin with a process of “conflict mapping” that includes learning about the history, sources, and parties that define the conflict arena.29 In addition to this traditional mapping, I also suggest a preliminary cultural mapping including cultural knowledge about the host populations (e.g., Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in the following proportions...), and the various national and institutional cultures participating from the international community--NATO, U.N. peacekeepers, the ICRC, CARE, Oxfam, and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). One can imagine a multicultural arena complicated enough just by the presence of different U.N. bureaucracies! Are religiously-based NGOs present? Muslim as well as Christian? Will that matter? And so on.

It is critical to underline the “preliminary” nature of such a culture mapping, for two reasons. First, the knowledge about these cultures must come from somewhere--most likely from the experiential base that those in the field bring from having worked in such operations with some or all of the same international parties before. For instance, what does it mean that the U.S. Marines, rather than U.K. or Italian forces, are responsible for security in this sector; that the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) rather than the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is the “lead” U.N. organization, and so on. Experience is indispensable. On the other hand, experience also comes with costs, as anyone who has ever spent time in a postcolonial hotel bar listening to the old “X-hand” tell you all you need to know about the “X’s” in five whiskeys or less, can attest. Cultural experience can devolve to unproductive, and possibly relationship-damaging, stereotyping unless subject to constant “quality control.” Negotiators must check the purported experience against the observable realities generated in the field.30

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