Stakeholder analysis and intercultural dialogue: an insight from Colombia

Bogota D.C., photo by Pedro Felipe via Wikimedia Commons
Bogota D.C., photo by Pedro Felipe via Wikimedia Commons

It is commonly agreed that stakeholder participation in environmental decisions offers many benefits, but there is some level of concern that this tool may not be living up to some of its expectations. In particular, there is some level of concern that the interaction with ethnic minorities – especially when there are sizeable differences in terms of power – can reinforce existing privileges.

Kogui village, photo by Thomas Dahlberg via Wikimedia Commons
Kogui village, photo by Thomas Dahlberg via Wikimedia Commons

Privileges can be very subtle, such as the language in which the interactions happen, but they do have a substantial impact on the minorities’ perception of the overall fairness of the processes.

Stakeholder analysis offers some tools to accommodate a dialogue between different cultures, but these tools tend to presume the existence of some ethical common ground. Moreover, research on stakeholder participation has tended to focus more on the process itself, and not so much on its outcomes.

It is clear by now that the quality of a decision depends largely on the quality of the process that led to it. Consequently, the current best practice states that stakeholder participation requires a philosophy that promotes empowerment, equity, trust and learning. These principles are meant to foster a mutual learning among the participants of a given dialogue. This should be true even if some stakeholders hold very different values and knowledge systems.

Stakeholder analysis is a methodology that generally works through a three step process:

  1. Identifying stakeholders
  2. Differentiating and categorising stakeholders
  3. Investigating relationships between stakeholders

Due to the time required to advance through these steps, in practice most of the effort is done on the first and maybe second steps. When there is action on the third, there are two main tools to engage in the characterisation of the relationships between stakeholders:

  1. Social Network Analysis: A tool that helps understanding patterns of communication, trust, and influence between actors in social networks.
  2. Knowledge Mapping: A tool that analyses the flows of information between these actors.

These tools are designed to help considering different perspectives and cultural differences in participation processes, and they are meant to help accommodate the format of the participation to these particularities. They tend to present detailed maps of relationships based on power, legitimacy, and urgency factors, but how well do they really work when not only these differences are present but also radically different cultural values?

Intercultural communication

When power differences are substantial, the possibility of meaningful dialogue suffers, mostly because structural change is unlikely to happen. The consequence is that even if there is an effort for inclusion, openness, and representation, particular assumptions on the side of the powerful about the nature of equity can be biased, and they can mask current discriminatory relationships (Ganesh & Holmes 2011, pp. 84).

Power is a key element in intercultural communication, but the difficulty to engage in a true dialogue has deeper roots. It has been argued (Scherer &Patzer 2011, pp.156) that the very thing in discussion here is whether and in what way a “universal justification of reason and rationality” can be achieved given the multiplicity of social norms and values across the world.

The divide is set between a universalistic tradition based on Enlightenment values, and a relativism that understands reason and rationality as constructs influenced by history and culture, and that are not necessarily transferrable. Stakeholder analysis clearly takes the latter approach, following the ideal of preserving the current pluralism of ethical norms and world visions (Scherer &Patzer 2011, pp.159).

Stakeholder analysis uses tools that help us getting closer to a workable solution that integrates different cultures, but if one of its main goals is to prevent one ethical system to largely dominate over the others, how can it help us to solve direct clashes of values and ethical systems?

The problem with ethical norms and the moral acceptability of actions is that they cannot be assessed and compared with the help of external criteria. Instead, this assessment can only be done through a process of mutual learning engaged by the opponents in an ethical conflict. When the opponents realise that they mutually disapprove the norms of each other, the only way out of conflict is to learn from each other. This learning process – in order to be fruitful – has to go through three stages (Scherer &Patzer 2011, pp.171-172):

  1. The opponents must accept that their differences are just about something they are unfamiliar with.
  2. They must honestly try to understand the unfamiliarity – usually best done by experiencing it.
  3. There needs to be an interaction between the opponents in such a way that they have to distance themselves from their own familiarities.

This kind of process can produce meaningful communication between different cultures, but it requires a set of conditions that may be difficult to find in practice:

  1. It cannot be determined from the start who has to learn from whom, and to what extent.
  2. The opponents need to be open to embrace any kind of outcome coming out from the process.
  3. In the absence of agreement, they need to go beyond their existing cultural frameworks and eventually establish completely new practices.

The question that follows is whether the powerful will be willing to engage in such a process with the powerless. This is especially important when large economic and political interests are at stake. In a previous post I pointed out the case of a conflict of interests of miners, government, and ethnic minorities in Colombia. It can be an interesting case to consider the challenges of implementing it in large scale.

Insight from Colombia

Colombian law establishes a Previous Consultation instance for ethnic minorities to give them a voice in any project or law that could have a negative impact on them – such as new mining developments in their ancestral lands. There is currently a clash between the indigenous peoples, the Colombian government, and mining businesses regarding the role of mining on indigenous lands.

The differences between the parties are ultimately of an ethical nature, and they are based on different conceptions of development and wealth. So, to what extent does the Previous Consultation mechanism facilitate intercultural communication?

Colombian State Delegation, photo by Eddie Arrossi via Flickr
Colombian State Delegation*, photo by Eddie Arrossi via Flickr

I recently interviewed some stakeholders in Colombia, and one of them was the Director of the Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC). During his interview he pointed out that:

National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) delegation, photo by Eddie Arrossi via Flickr
National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) delegation*, photo by Eddie Arrossi via Flickr

[Translation]: “… the companies and the government treat the community in unequal terms. We say unequal because the indigenous authority – that often does not speak Spanish or barely can understand it – is there, against 10, 15 lawyers, officers, [and] engineers, asserting that the project is wonderful; and since the indigenous does not understand the matter in discussion, then they end up saying that it is a wonderful project and that “I need a health centre, a school, a bridge”, and it looks like there is participation when that is not the case…”

It is clear that despite the good intentions of the government, the process faces the need to accommodate for power, legitimacy and urgency differences, but there are also other questions to be addressed, like the level of education needed to understand the projects and their impacts, or having one side represented with the best lawyers and engineers available, while the other may struggle to have any at all.

The consultation process is performed in the official language (Spanish), but it is a language that in the best of cases is a second language for the indigenous representatives, and in the worst it is a completely foreign one. The government could try to facilitate translators but this would further stretch the limited resources that the Ministry of Interior has for advancing all consultation processes in the country (see my previous post). With 65 indigenous and 2 creole living languages in the country, the task can be daunting.

Even if these hurdles were addressed, the problem that remains is that the government and the miners truly believe that they are advocating for the national interest, defined as trade surplus to be invested in infrastructure and better living conditions. As such, when an ethnic minority opposes a project on the grounds of their different conception of development and wealth, the likeliness of engaging in a true dialogue that will ultimately produce new forms of collaboration is remote. Power seems to be the true currency in this kind of conflict, which is an unhappy development, since the very ideal of stakeholder participation is to prevent this from happening.

Is it time to consider the need of an intercultural framework for addressing value-systems conflicts with a better degree of equity and real communication?


* Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) Audience: Assessment of indigenous peoples’ human rights in Colombia, 14/03/2013, Washington DC 

References and some interesting readings about this subject:

Bernstein A & Norwood R 2008, “Ethnic Differences in Public Participation: The Role of Conflict Communication Styles and Sense of Community”, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 119-138

Ganesh S & Holmes P 2011, “Positioning Intercultural Dialogue Theories, Pragmatics, and an Agenda”, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 81-86

Kim M & Hubbard A 2007, “Intercultural Communication in the Global Village: How to Understand ‘The Other’”, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 223-235

Levine T, Park H & Kim R 2007, “Some Conceptual and Theoretical Challenges for Cross-Cultural Communication Research in the 21st Century”, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 205-221

Reed, M. S. (2008). Stakeholder participation for environmental management: A literature review. Biological Conservation, 141, pp. 2417-2431.

Scherer A & Patzer M 2011, “Beyond Universalism and Relativism: Habermas’s Contribution to Discourse Ethics and Its Implications For Intercultural Ethics and Organization Theory”, Philosophy and Organization Theory Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Volume 32, pp. 155-180

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