Cross-cultural management in international development

Talking to international development professionals about cross-cultural management, many of whom are economists, often produces blank looks. Why should they be concerned about ‘management’, and the rather more esoteric topic of ‘cross-cultural management’, when there are bigger issues to consider?

This isn’t just about the distinction between macro and micro issues. It probably is more about divides among discipline areas. Yet, it is likely to be more than this. It is likely to be about the way management scholars have sold themselves and their ideas outside the confines of their discipline, and the lack of contribution that management scholarship has made to the social sciences as a whole. Scholarship in this area has tended to follow rather than lead, has tended to borrow from the wider social sciences (often several decades late) rather than having led developments in the social sciences.

The sub-discipline of cross-cultural management has largely hung on to the coat tails of its older and somewhat conservative parent. From the outside it looks as though the biggest achievement of this field has been a multi-country study in one organisation that has produced initially four ‘cultural’ dimensions into which the values of all human societies can be slotted. But, I may be over-stating the case as it is unlikely that our colleagues working in international development have ever heard of our most-cited founding father.

Although it seems logical for anthropological theory to have informed cross-cultural management studies, this is far from reality. This could have been the bridge between disciplines as International Development sometimes does make use of anthropology, despite (or perhaps because) of its historical support for imperialism in its day.

The extent to which international development supports current-day globalisation is a moot point. The extent to which cross-cultural management scholarship could counter that implicit support is exactly my point.

The extent to which development practice (inadvertently) exports Western managerialism could actually be countered by invoking Hofstede’s concern that American theories do not always work abroad. Although a cultural issue, it is not simply that. It is also a political issue stemming from the current neoliberal orthodoxy that aid for development has to show a return and be numerically accounted for. Community-based organizations that grow out of the local community to meet community needs are conflicted as soon as they become financially dependent on funding from international development organisations. They now have to meet the (managerial) needs of the international development organisation providing them with funds.

Insensitivity to community-based solutions, or as I would prefer to call it, indigenous knowledge, is not only detrimental to locally based development, it reinforces the belief that Western solutions are best, and ‘developing’ country approaches are backward.

But surely, the rejoinder might be, organisations like the World Bank are now incorporating ‘indigenous knowledge’ into their activities. This may be right, but such knowledge is seen as a ‘resource’ to be drawn on and capitalised on, rather than being a solution or a development route in its own right. It isn’t seen to be relevant anywhere else apart from the locality from which it is drawn. It isn’t seen to be part of the global discourse. A good summary of this view by Warren writing for the World Bank (quoted by Arun Agrawal) , is as follows:

‘..indigenous knowledge is an important natural resource that can facilitate the development process in cost-effective, participatory, and sustainable ways …… Indigenous knowledge (IK) is local knowledge – knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. IK contrasts with the international knowledge system generated by universities, research institutions and private firms. It is the basis for local-level decision making in agriculture, health care, food preparation, education, natural resource management, and a host of other activities in rural communities. Such knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, in many societies by word of mouth. Indigenous knowledge has value not only for the culture in which it evolves, but also for scientists and planners striving to improve conditions in rural localities.’

The assumption is that Western knowledge is applicable anywhere in the world, whereas indigenous knowledge (IK) is only applicable in its locality, and as a resource for international developers.

Cross-cultural management specialists could disabuse international development organisation of this odd, ethnocentric view, although I must admit so little scholarship has been undertaken by cross-cultural management specialist on indigenous knowledge. This is an area where we could make a substantial difference. But how many of our colleagues are interested in international development although a multibillion dollar industry? Most of our colleagues stick to representing the interests of the international commercial sector in helping Western MNEs to manage across cultures more effectively. Much of the scholarship directed at this sector could easily be transferred to the international development sector. Work in the area of cultural intelligence, international team development, and international conflict management is highly relevant to the way International development should work.


Claeyé, F., & Jackson, T. (2011) Project delivery in HIV/AIDS and TB in Southern Africa: The cross- cultural management imperative. Journal of Health Organization and Management. 25(4): 469-86.

Claeyé, F. and Jackson, T. (2012) The Iron Cage Re-revisited: Institutional Isomorphism in Non-profit Organisations in South Africa, Journal of International Development, 24(5), 602-22

Jackson, T. (2009) A Critical Cross-cultural Perspective for Developing Nonprofit International Management Capacity, Non-Profit Management and Leadership, 19(4): 443-66

Jackson, T. (2011) Conceptualizing the cross-cultural gaps in managing international aid: HIV/AIDS and TB project delivery in Southern Africa, International Journal of Health Planning and Management, 26(2) 191–212.

Jackson, T. (2013) Reconstructing the Indigenous in African Management Research: Implications for International Management Studies in a Globalized World, Management International Review, 53(1):13-38.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s