Advice, Jobs

The Professional Skill All Interns Need But Don’t Get Taught

I am reading a really interesting paper on ‘intercultural competence’, a once rare skill that most job advertisements now list under ‘Requirements’ in some form or another.

Receiving training and figuring out how to work with people from many different cultures – national, regional, religious, organizations etcetera – used to be the preserve of the well paid and highly experienced. The authors frame the problem:

“In an increasingly global business environment, managers must interact effectively with people who have different values, behavioral norms, and ways of perceiving reality. Many jobs now entail an international dimension, so the challenge of communicating ideas and making decisions with people from different cultural backgrounds is no longer limited to a relatively elite group of expatriate managers who develop skills and knowledge by living abroad for years at a time.”

We live in an interconnected world where you interact with your line manager over Skype, the people sitting on the next desk might work for a different company all together and monthly office hot-pots are a walk into the unknown. Now everybody has to learn these skills, not just managers.

Interns, office managers, technical support – everybody.

I spent last year working for a startup in Nairobi. Our small team worked in four or five different time zones and supported clients in almost 30 countries. Intercultural competence was not only expected, it was practically a pre-requisite for the job. This may just be my own educational experience but I don’t remember getting any lessons on its importance to the job market. So how do you learn it?

The paper (in quite some depth) has solid advice.

“The core elements of intercultural competence therefore include an active awareness of oneself as a complex cultural being and the effect of one’s own culture on thinking and action, an ability to engage with others to explore tacit assumptions that underlie behavior and goals, and an openness to testing out different ways of thinking and doing things.”

Read the full paper here.

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Experiences, Learning

Development Hotel-ology

The closer I’m getting the end of my internship the more I reflect on what I have learned in 10 months working in the development industry in East Africa.

Besides the big important life lessons (I will probably write about that once I am back home) there are hundreds of small things I encountered that I would have never imagined to play a big role in my work. One of these interesting little characteristics of aid work is the importance of that one big question: Which hotel do we go to?

I always used to have quite a pragmatic relationship with hotels. Usually when I travel I want them to be cheap, more or less clean and in the best case offer a relaxed atmosphere that attracts like-minded backpackers. When I started working here I assumed that the choice for venues and accommodation would be driven by a similar kind of pragmatism. You want them to offer the service you need and the choice should be cost-efficient. Any average hotel with a conference room should do the trick, right?

Boy, was I wrong.

I work for a regional integration program and a big part of the job is to organize trainings, stakeholder meetings or policy development workshops all across the East African Community. With every new event the delicate question came up which hotel should serve as host. What I didn’t know: The chosen venue is so much more than just some venue. After 10 months of interning I present you a check-list for picking the right hotel for a fancy development meeting.

1. Think location.

All the three major cities of our region are crazy with traffic.

A commute from the airport to Dar, Kampala or Nairobi will leave you pounding your forehead on the dashboard and then slowly curling up on your seat sobbing about your stolen lifetime.

So, more than 3 participants coming from outside Nairobi? Pick that charmless hotel along that horrible airport highway instead of the nice one downtown. Similarly, you might want to find a place in the outskirts if your meeting promises to be long and boring. A small retreat at the lakeside in Entebbe (30 kilometers from downtown Kampala) makes it less likely for your participants to leave once they signed the attendance sheet.

2. Status matters.

I really don’t care if my hotel door has golden handles and staff in tuxedos. Turns out most of the people around me think differently. When I naively asked why we could not simply take the cheapest decent option on the menu, my colleagues smiled at me and told me that simply nobody would show up. The name of the place needs to be known – unfamiliar hotels often raise some eyebrows.

Then it depends on whom you want to invite: You want the ministry’s Permanent Secretary? You better add another star. I have the feeling that counts especially for public sector people. Private sector managers aren’t convinced to attend by a purpose of the meeting but by the venue’s marble columns.

3. Individuals and their distinct tastes

You won’t believe the amount of small talk I come across among my coworkers about their favorite hotels: the nicest hotel garden, the conference hall with the great view or the one time when their favorite cheese was not on the breakfast buffet…everybody’s got their favorite.

Our partners behave the same way. My most baffling moment was when a representative of our Partner Organisation just ignored that I had rented a room for him at a perfectly nice (and expensive) hotel and decided to rebook himself into a fancier venue. What really left me in awe was that once I asked him if everything was in order, he started complaining about details like water pressure in his shower like a spoilt child. None of the other participants staying in the original location ever complained – I guess they don’t travel too often to development industry meetings.

4. A word to costs.

As I wrote above, I thought, with limited budgets for development aid, we would go for cost-efficient solutions. That’s pretty impossible with the local conference hotel industry mostly charging rates of 100-150 US Dollar per night for something that most of the people involved find acceptable (I think they are pretty fancy). Our headquarters force us to get three quotations, but if you prefer a different venue, that’s fine too. It is only when budget pressures get too high that we begin to start thinking about some “innovative solutions” to hosting (like using our partner’s facilities… crazy thought).

I never imagined that I would learn so much about hotels in East Africa.

Sometimes it really felt as if some participants in these meetings  cared much more about where they were discussing a policy than about the policy’s content.

Initially, I was quite sceptical of the development industry and wanted so see the truth behind the stereotypes. While I have been positively surprised in some aspects, the strange concept of discussing poverty reduction in a 4-5 star hotel seems to be the reality. If I think only about the total amount that we spent on my own hotel nights for the five meetings I attended in these 10 months, I get to about 20% of what I earned during my whole internship!

To most East Africans who – like me – usually opt for pragmatic solutions to accommodation and venues, all this has a weird feel. Regardless, if you want to play the East African policy game, you better have a PhD in the science called Hotel-ology.

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This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

Gini coefficients 2006: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, through the medium of the internet, we again joined Professor Sachs in the large, airy room from which he gives his lectures for the second instalment of the course. Whilst the previous session gave a detailed yet accessible introduction to the key challenges faced in sustainable development, along with some basic technical concepts, this week things were taken a step further. The focus in this second session was economic development and income inequalities, and the influence this has on wellbeing across the globe.

There has also been an impressive growth in social interaction between participants in the course, with some discussion forums reaching upwards of a thousand posts. Contributors can be seen introducing and debating key development topics all over the world. There are over fifty different threads with participants looking for local study groups, with locations ranging from Toronto, to Nairobi, Valencia, and Manchester. The global reach of the course can be seen, and hopefully over the coming weeks more people will join the Google hangouts and forums, and will continue to be educated in what is truly a modern way to learn.

Sachs appears to have a knack for discussing the greatest issues the planet faces in a calm, cool way, making them sound like any other problem that requires a solution. The story he tells about the state of inequality across the globe is interspersed with case studies, statistics and potentially intimidating terms and concepts, but he outlines them clearly, making them easy to grasp.

The fallibility of various methods of income and wellbeing measurement were highlighted in this session. While GDP per capita can give an insight into the overall productivity of a country, it does not necessarily reflect the standard of living of the population. Especially important to note is that it does not take into account important factors such as healthcare and social inclusion, however it is a good starting point from which to build. We were introduced to the classification of countries that examining GDP per capita allows us to make: low, middle and high income countries, with around one billion people living in low income countries across the globe. Of these, 48 countries stand apart due to social instability, low education levels and susceptibility to droughts, disease and violence. These are the Least Developed Countries, several being in Asia and tropical Africa, and with landlocked countries and small island nations also cropping up more frequently than their total number would suggest.

We were introduced to the complex process of attempting to compare different incomes across the globe, and to normalise them taking into account the variation in purchasing power that this money would have within these different countries.

Professor Sachs then discussed the issue of urban and rural inequality, along with the current worldwide trend towards urbanisation, with around 70% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2030. This brought to light the growing importance of both urban sustainability and agricultural efficiency.

Income inequality within countries was then discussed, using the Gini coefficient as a tool to measure income distribution within a country. Examples of countries with comparatively healthy (low) Gini coefficients are Sweden, Norway and Denmark, whereas some with with higher Gini coefficients and therefore more inequality within the country are seen in much of the Americas, and in some African countries. These variations in income equality were explained using historical case studies, such as in the case of the Americas, where European settlers displaced local people to establish large landholdings, which have been passed down the generations and led to a more affluent class.

Sachs then went on to explain how the solutions to problems of inequality are often contentious, with the individual interests of those with the greater share of the country’s wealth, and often therefore a greater share of the power, using trade and globalisation to increase their wealth while the poor get poorer.

Wellbeing was another key topic, especially the individual perception of one’s own wellbeing, with factors such as social inclusion, honest governments, and values of compassion and generosity being credited for increased feelings of wellbeing alongside income.

The Human Development Index was introduced as a more holistic measure, attempting to assess quality of life independent of GDP per capita.

The week’s session was concluded with the importance of the understanding of convergence and divergence between different economies, with convergence being a key aim in global development. This was an area where, while it is important to take into account the “doom and gloom” of the global situation, it is clear that there are real potentials for improvement, and where improvements have been seen, such as in Scandinavia.

Apart from the lectures, the resources on offer are extensive, and give an opportunity to go further than what is discussed.

The chapters of the coursebook provided for download in weekly instalments gives thorough background information, and provide figures used in the lectures and more.

Learning

The Age Of Sustainable Development: Income inequality

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