Conversation with Mwangi Waituru on North-South relationships


The below is a reply to my colleague Mwangi Waituru’s fascating post on how ‘North’ and ‘South’ can work together internationally, the cultural differences between our ways of working and how speech and writing have different significance for each group. 

Unfortunately my comment didn’t fit into the wordcount on his site, so I have posted it here instead..


Mwangi, what a very reflective and interesting piece.  I really enjoyed it – especially your colourful stories and metaphors.

I recognise a lot of what you say about the different modes of discourse in the North and South – with one preferring to write and the other to speak.  Of course we must remember that there is a lot of diversity both in what we call ‘North’ and ‘South’ (anyone who has worked in a shared office with Americans, French, British and Swedish people can tell you that the ‘North’ is full of its own differences).  But I think it is useful as a broad observation.

When I lived in Indonesia, infact, I remember people asking all the bule (white people) “mau ke mana”, which means “where are you going?”.  For Westerners who were new to Indonesia this was almost a threatening question, and they often thought the Indonesians would try to follow them or cause some kind of harm.  But the Indonesians were simply doing exactly what you described in Africa – expecting that people would need to ask directions all the time to find their destination and (correctly) assuming the bule were new to the area.  They were simply offering help.  After a few weeks in the country the bule would learn that these questions were nothing to be frightened of, and Indonesians who worked with bule got used to their ways.  And so by making some mistakes and continuing in dialogue, we start to learn together.
I don’t think it’s true that in Northern culture people read and believe what they have read.  But I do think that there are some cultural taboos  about when and how you can say that you don’t believe something.  Usually, when Northern organisations and individuals “put it in writing” it means they are more serious than when they just say something verbally.  It is more dangerous to write something you don’t really mean, because someone could directly quote the exact words back to you in the future (whereas with speech people might mis-remember).

Because writing is usually your most serious, formal expression of what you think, your whole honour can be at stake with it.  To simply say “I don’t believe what you have written in your report” is to say “I don’t trust you at all”.  It is a fast road to relationship break-down because you are attacking someone’s whole integrity.  Usually if someone wants to express a lack of trust in what has been written, they have to do so very carefully and delicately if they also want to preserve a relationship for future dialogue.

For me, a key way of doing this is by looking at citations and references in written work.  Good citations and references mean that when someone is making a point or stating a fact, they are letting the reader check where it comes from and what source they are using as their evidence.  Citations mean you can trace back to the original source and evaluate whether someone is saying something with a strong basis of existing evidence or writing only from their own imagination.  They also mean you can see who someone has been reading or talking to (ie. where they have got their ideas from).  It lets you see what kind of evidence they think is important – whose opinion ‘counts’ and whose is disregarded.

Many people think that citations and references are a minor issue because they visually they are small in a written text – but I think this is what makes them useful.  For me they are one of the most powerful and also tactful way to express “how am I supposed to believe you?”.  When I criticised the poor citations and referencing in the UN Task Team report, it was a tactful way of questioning where they had got their truth from, and why they had not acknowledged that some of their truth had come from us.

I love your point about us all trying to work outside our comfort zones – for those in the South to try writing and those in the North to try speaking more!  I think that’s an excellent idea, and something we should definitely all challenge ourselves to do more.  Infact, it made me think about how we have been organising our attempts to work out our civil society postion on post-2015 content, and whether we could find a better way to do this.  Lets speak about this more (!) on our skype call next week!!

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