International volunteers and the problem of promoting culture – how much is too much?

On the blog today three of CEN’s team, all experienced in international volunteering, discuss the limits many face when it comes to promoting our own cultures. Today we ask when cultural promotion becomes culturally insensitive and at what point, if any, should traditional values stand in the way of change?

Mercè Girbau

When I think about change, I understand and conceive a change where everyone is participating and is aware that the change will be positive for the culture and the society in general. Unfortunately, it does not always works this way.

Not everyone agrees on the necessity of changing something for better when it comes to their own culture, especially people that call themselves “traditional”, since they don’t want to open their minds and accept other points of views.

Of course, some people will ask me “but, what is a change for better?” when we all have our own ideas of ‘better’. This is true, but the moral and ethical values are more important than the cultural values. And what is exactly a moral or ethical value? For me, and I guess for many people, it is the respect and tolerance between each other which is achieved by respecting our own and others freedom. The freedom of each individual ends when it restricts the freedom of another individual. The problem is that sometimes we don’t know where the border is between our freedom and others’.

The problem that we face when we want to change unfair things in the society is that in many cases people will claim that something is part of their culture. It is true, however, does it mean that if it is part of the culture it is positive for the culture and the people sharing this culture? Not always.

For example, in my home country, one part of our culture is bull fighting, which I totally dislike because it promotes cruelty to animals, even though some people like it and enjoy it and claim that it is part of our culture. Of course, every single person has their own values and you cannot agree all the time with everyone. For some people promoting cruelty to the animals shouldn’t be a tradition or part of our culture, for others yes. In the same way for some people gender discrimination shouldn’t be a tradition or part of the culture, for others yes.

It is not about considering our own values fairer and more correct than others; it is about understanding the positive and negative points of all values in general, not only from the others but from ours as well. And to find out what are the positive and negative points is to understand if the cultural value provides benefits for most of the people or not. If the cultural value promotes the respect and understanding between each other or not, if the cultural value promotes equality between individuals or not.

I don’t think that a colonization with western values it is a good idea. You need to comprehend and understand the others first, to be able to make suggestions about what could be changed for the better. I believe more in an exchange of values and to be able to talk about them and give our opinions. Of course, there are many things not working well here, as there are many things not working well in Western countries too. We can both share our weak points inside of our own culture and try to find a solution for them and to promote a positive change.

Eva Michálková

When I came to Georgia I experienced big cultural shock. Some things which were natural and normal for me in the Czech Republic now have a different meaning here in Georgia. For example, smiling at Georgian men in the streets immediately means you are ‘interested’, while in the Czech Republic it just means you are polite or happy. On the one hand I don’t want to stop smiling at people, but on the other hand many times it have caused problems for me.

And so this is the biggest question for me, where is the boundary between respecting different culture and defending own values? Should I just stop smiling and respect that women in Georgian culture have simply different position, or should I fight for my opinion which is different? I ask myself, would I react differently, if I would see man beating women in Georgia or in my home country?

Firstly I thought I should be more culturally sensitive and respect all the roles women in Georgia have. I thought that if I would see man beating a women in the streets of Georgia, I would not do much, because I am in foreign country and I don’t know anything about their situations and the reason for his actions.

But then I imagined myself in the Czech Republic. Would I know better the reasons why strange Czech men beats her wife in the street? No, I don´t. And so I realized, that promoting own values is in some way always insensitive. Or better to say, that promoting your own values is very often not connected only with your culture, but even within your home country, within the same culture, there are many people with other opinions. Promoting your own values is always confrontational. And what is more, even if I am not strictly promoting my own values, even if I say: “I do respect you and your different opinion”, even this respect and tolerance shows somehow my attitude or values. So, according to my opinion, I can promote my own value freely even in another country, because there will be always this influence of my own preview on reality.

I have very different opinion when it comes to promoting our own values knowingly, with the aim to change the values in other culture, in other country. This is connected with whole “colonialism and imperialism” topic. What give us the right to say “you are doing it wrong, I am doing it right”? After all, isn’t it this belief in the correctness of own opinion, what is the part of the superiority of western or let’s say white men´s culture? Isn’t it still kind of colonization, but maybe not so radical? Of course it is sometimes very hard for me. Especially when concerning human rights: women’s rights or LGBT+ rights, therefore the values about which I am internally and unshakably convinced that they are right, it is really hard for me to imagine, that there are some cultures in which human rights are not respected. But although (or maybe because) I do believe in human rights, I also believe in the fact that there is no one objective truth in the world. I do believe that other people can have different opinions or opposite opinions from mine and that they have the right to have them. I think that there have been enough of conflicts, fights and misunderstandings caused just by the fact that we are not able to respect. Even the concept of human rights is something what has its roots in western culture, so it is not necessarily common in other cultures.

In some way every sharing of values is insensitive, but this insensitivity is inevitable. While this cultural insensitivity on the level of inter-personal interaction will still remain, what is not necessary is forcing other cultures and countries to internalize western values.

Tom Ana

A criticism I have often faced in my work to foster LGBT and gender equality in Armenia (and the rest of the Caucasus) is that I am a typical European, parachuting into a foreign country trying to promote my own Western values in a culture that does not want it. I am seen by some as the cultural colonialist, sent by Satan himself to build shopping malls and McDonalds on the mass grave of traditional value.

However, for me the values I have always tried to promote have never been ‘western’ or ‘European’ in any way. For me they are basic human values that I feel every culture and nation can understand. Tolerance, freedom and solidarity have often been aspects that I felt my work promoted. To name these (and other values) as ‘Western’ is an insult to every non-western culture that maintains a basic respect for human dignity. To assume that religious diversity, freedom, pluralism or any of the other values we promote are exclusively Western is to assume that ‘Eastern’ or non-Western cultures never existed with these ideas before contact with the West.

This, of course, is a ridiculous idea, the kind of thing you would expect to hear from a hard-lined Eurocentric. Yet it is an idea I have seen peddled in many different non-Western cultures, often from those who model themselves as protectors of traditional values.

My work has never touched upon religion, it does not try to change governments or lifestyles or in anyway really encourage anyone to live a life anywhere close to mine. In fact I am happy to stand opposed to ‘Western’ ideals as much as any other cultural aspect that I feel stands in the way of freedom and equality.

These kinds of traditionalists that stand against the work of volunteers a I have many problems with. Traditionalists often survive on a platform of scapegoats and discrimination. They have moved beyond fighting colonialism and cultural decay and now more commonly exist to promote outdated ideals that often borderlines on bigotry. They attempt to maintain an ‘us vs them’ mentality that divides people and slows change and progress. In cases like this the ‘us’ becomes the arbitrary traditional cultures that they decide to promote, and the ‘them’ becomes anything opposed to that.

Homophobia was never a part of the Armenian value system, but became an aspect that occurred at some unknown point and was labeled a tradition by the powers that existed. If we accept then that same-sex relations are truly against Armenian values then what else should we ignore by that same logic? The food, which so often is borrowed and influenced by neighboring cultures? The political system, heavily influenced by Western styles of governance and the hangover of the Soviet Union? Or Christianity perhaps? A religion that emerged from Abrahamic ideas in the Middle East and was brought to the country by foreigners?

At what point should traditionalists draw the line? When can we consider something a tradition that should be valued when at some point in history we could view it as the same kind of outside influence that many now claim to stand against?

There is a difference between promoting change and ignoring cultural values. The balance at times can be difficult, especially when values and systems have existed for so long. However I feel that the world should not fear upsetting those that hide behind false ideas of tradition as a mask for their own intolerance.

We must fight the idea of ‘Western values’ and instead work together to promote the globally valued ideas that every human can abide by.


Eva Michálková is volunteer and activist from the Czech Republic who recently graduated with a degree in International Social and Humanitarian Work. She is currently working as an international volunteer at the Women´s Information Centre in Tbilisi.

Mercè Girbau is an international volunteer at the Women’s Information Centre (Tbilisi) who was born in Barcelona. She has a strong interest in women’s rights and the struggle for female equality and hopes to address these topics in her future work.

Tom Ana is a British-born activist, blogger and charity worker currently living in Yerevan, Armenia. He is the editor of Caucasus Equality News. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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