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close this bookGATE - 3/91 - Impact - A Neglected Dimension of AT (GTZ GATE, 1991, 52 p.)
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View the documentThe impact of appropriate technology - A neglected dimension
View the documentGATE Project: Participative impact monitoring
View the documentPlanning, observing, steering - Participative impact monitoring
View the documentParticipative planning and evaluation - Expensive in the short term, cost effective in the long term
View the documentThe forgotten overall goal
View the documentAn effective tool for project development
View the documentCreative cooperation demands mutual understanding

Creative cooperation demands mutual understanding

The Experience of an Expatriate Expert in a Team of Local Experts

by Dorsi German

This article is dedicated to my Philippine colleagues Anni, Beng and Ruth with my grateful thanks. It examines the reasons for our decision to employ a participative approach and reports on our experience with this method. The article focusses on the coming together of two cultures and on how to deal with one another.

While we were planning this study in Germany our main concerns were

a) to discover what impacts a project had at village level and thus also to discover more about the rural situation, and

b) to investigate this using a method which was just a bit different from the evaluation methods normally used. We wanted to discover the advantages and disadvantages of this method.

So we were investigating on one hand the project, and on the other hand the method used in the investigation itself.

Why did we decide to take a participative approach?

It is our assumption that research is subjective. In other words the experience and the values of a researcher influence his other perception and are reflected in his or her interpretation of reality. We believe that a team of various, quite different researchers can reduce this distortion to a minimum.

Project appraisal is primarily designed so that undesirable impacts of a project can be corrected. It is not enough merely to record the weaknesses found and propose changes. These changes must take place. The probability of these being translated into practice with energy and commitment is highest when the project staff and the people really affected in the project region have been actively and responsible involved in the investigations and planning.

The participative approach to investigation is, by its very nature, different from the "classical" approach to evaluation. The participative approach focusses on the process of investigation, the common learning process, on coming to terms with the viewpoints and the values of others, in getting involved in the cultural interrelations of another society and in the desire to understand these. Qualitative methods are used, which are relatively unstructured, and open to changing situations and conditions.

This sort of approach is much more in line with the cultural values and communication patterns of most so called Third World countries than our Eurocentric quantitative measuring techniques. Investigations in an alien cultural situation also demands a much higher degree of flexibility and spontaneous adaptability than one can expect of standardized instruments.

Cooperation on an equal basis with people from very different cultural backgrounds, with very different levels of training and with completely different experiences and interests is, in any case, only possible if a procedure is selected which is equally easily comprehensible to and accepted by all participants, and which all participants can realize.

The procedure adopted

Our approach made us particularly dependent on winning the acceptance, trust and cooperation of the villagers. Our integration, our living in the village was intended as a confidence-building measure, and, at the same time, it enabled us to obtain real grassroots information, beyond the narrow constraints of the project. Since the project itself was still in the implementation phase, our findings could lead to timely and expedient corrections. Thus, for example, after first results had been discussed with the NGO which was acting as project executing agency, we were asked to research locally variable ploughs on the spot, so that the practical part of blacksmiths' training could be immediately brought into line with the real situation on the ground. During our study it had emerged that the plough type which blacksmiths learned to produce in their training was not the model usually used, and was thus rejected by potential customers.

Our methods also allowed for the integration of new aspects and were able to modify the ongoing project.

Dealing with what is alien

The alien, the different, the unknown inspires fear, which can easily be manifested in the form of rejection and a derogatory attitude. You need time and a lot of good will to get used to something strange, to get "acculturised", to accept the other with all his or her differences, as they are. You also need the experience that getting to know something strange, and examining it critically is an opportunity to learn something new, to gain new experience. That can only be positive both for the individual in the team and for the whole project.

A foreigner in a team, purely because he or she has more distance to things, can sometimes recognize links and interactions more easily and can question things which appear self-evident to somebody from the culture in question. Thus, new viewpoints can emerge and different experiences can be incorporated.

Project agreements demand cooperation on the part of countries with very different cultural backgrounds.

The links established are usually impersonal and bureaucratic, marked by a lack of mutual understanding and indeed by misunderstandings. Activities performed together in the partner country can help create mutual understanding and can improve current and future cooperation.

This aspect was also a topic discussed in the team and during the investigations. The presence of a foreigner in the team was welcomed by the farmers' organizations, even where they created more accommodation problems than was necessary. They felt that they were being taken seriously and upgraded by the exchanged everyday experience. It was also exciting and satisfied some of their curiosity.

The special treatment we were accorded by the military and the local authorities on the other hand was negative, although it did give us easier access to the village.

Shared experience spawns trust

We lived in the villages. Generally we shared a small room in the house of our host family. We went with them to the market, bought food, went to the fields with the farmers, spent some time on the village square and at the blacksmith, washed our clothes at the public well. Thus we took part in the normal day-to-day life in the village while continuing our observations and we held discussions with individuals and with groups.

In the evening we discussed the events and results of the day in the team, and often with our host families. We also drank palm wine, sang, laughed and reported on our personal experiences. This shared experience of everyday life made it much easier for us to get to know one another and to accept one another.

The process was accelerated by shared critical experiences, such as the aftershock of an earthquake or the military threat, which demanded active mutual help and solidarity. In this way the fear of the stranger on both sides was countered and the mutual trust which is so necessary built up, which made cooperation possible.

Dealing with criticism

The quality of cooperation within the team was dependent on the way we dealt with one another. Divergent cultural communication patterns demanded tolerance and the willingness to learn on both sides.

In the Philippine culture one does not criticize, or only extremely rarely. Sometimes ridicule is chosen as away round the situation. The European way of dealing out criticism can be very hurtful and can have very negative effects rather than being taken as constructive criticism, if it is not very much watered down and linked with a positive assessment. These were behaviour patterns which I as the only European team member first had to learn, a process which demanded much patience on the part of my Philippine colleagues. Since I was a foreigner in a cultural context which was alien to me, mistakes were inevitable. Particularly at village level this could lead to misunderstandings and people being hurt, which jeopardised the continuation of the entire investigation. They had to be rectified or avoided.

Both demanded helpful criticism from my Philippine colleagues, who, however, were unaccustomed to meeting out criticism since it is not part of their behaviour pattern. Only one way was open to me - to criticise myself. When I suspected that i had done something wrong I offered them a whole range of possibly unacceptable behaviour. In the long term this strategy was positive. We began to deal with one another on a more open, companionable basis, laughed together und learned from one another.

European impatience

During the course of our joint work we were confronted with two behavioural patterns which were diametrically opposed. The patience of the Filipino was contrasted by the European pressure of time and pressure to perform. The collision of these two opposites resulted in a great many unnecessary conflicts. I tended towards speed and action and tended to disregard the situation, the conditions and the consequences. My colleagues were patient with me, a virtue which I learned much later. As we became less tense and more sure in our work though, as we developed greater trust to one another, it became easier for us to deal with pressure and with inactivity. By the end of the study we worked informally, creatively and efficiently together- and working together was fun.

The external expert and the participative approach

The understanding and the tasks demanded of an external expert are very different in a participative approach to those demanded by a "classical" evaluation. He or she is expected to be par inter pares and to be in a position to question what he or she has learned too. The expert should incorporate his or her own experience and knowledge such that a joint learning process is possible within the team and such that this process can develop and mature. He or she should be able to take a back seat and must be skilled in education techniques. Good cooperation demands that all participants be willing to cast aside their own interpretation patterns and be open to the ideas and stimuli of others. There is no place for an expert who is intent only on making his or her own individual mark. Given this, it can only be positive if the members of a team come from various cultural and professional backgrounds.


In this article the author sketches her own personal experience as the only foreign expert in a Philippine team performing a project evaluation. The participative approach was selected for the evaluation. The author describes not only the problems which arose in using this method, but the interpersonal problems which cannot be entirely avoided when people from completely different cultural backgrounds are thrown together.


Dans son article, l'auteur raconte les experiences qu'elle a personnellement recueillies, aux Philippines, en sa qualite d'unique expert feminin etranger au sein d'une equipe de femmes, dans le cadre d'une evaluation de projet. Pour cette evaluation il a ete opte pour l'approche participative. L´auteur decrit non seulement les problemes lies a la methode choisie, mais aussi et surtout les problemes des relations humaines, qui naissent inevitablement de la confrontation de cultures fondamentalement differentes.


En su articulo, la autora describe vivencias muy personales como unica experta extranjera en un equipo de colegas filipinas, durante una evaluacidn de proyecto que se realizo segun el enfoque participativo. La descripcio se limita unicamente a las dificultades que plantea el metodo seleccionado, sino que destaca especialmente problemas inevitables de interaccion humana que se dan cuando se encuentran personas de fondos culturales completamente distintos.