Intercultural Learning and Diplomacy in Afghanistan

The international effort in Afghanistan would seem to represent a classic case study of an international relations issue.  Yet the need for intercultural learning is an equally important part of the story.  The Centre for Intercultural Learning interviewed the former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Chris Alexander. They asked him a combination of traditional international relations-based questions and others that were based on intercultural learning concepts and theories.  As a result, this short interview nicely displays the differences between these two fields, using conversational, everyday language.

Chris Alexander spent six winters in Afghanistan as a representative of Canada. He was asked several questions that highlighted the political nature of his work. These questions focused on the need for security, techniques for good governance and the personality of President Karzai.  Alexander also discussed the political history of Afghanistan in terms of its relations with large empires and other global actors.  Such content is typical of any analysis of a nation strictly from a foreign policy perspective. Within the field of international relations, it is important to emphasize the larger strategic picture that may surround a nation’s present situation. Such facts help outsiders understand the context around the Afghani government’s decision making process.

Yet the questions that emphasized intercultural learning greatly highlighted just how different this subject is from the more well-known field of international relations.  Within intercultural learning, it is important to focus on the cultural characteristics that inevitably influence how Afghans, including the government, think and come to decisions. Furthermore, intercultural learning emphasizes individual understanding and participation in culture in a very experiential, or ‘hands on’ way. The field of International Relations sometimes lacks this aspect. For example, during his six winters in the country, Alexander chose to adopt Afghan cultural customs by fasting during Ramadan. In addition, when asked about certain cultural qualities of Afghanistan, he noted the tradition of loyalty and hospitality towards quests through first-hand encounters. Yet he explained these qualities in context of the history and society of Afghanistan. At the heart of intercultural learning is the desire to understand a culture on its own terms individual by individual, and experience by experience.

Intercultural Learning at AFS often operates similarly because the overall objective is to become more aware of culture through experience and study.  However, Intercultural Learning places little emphasis on the political states of governments. Instead it focuses more on the general characteristics of a culture, and then acknowledges the significance of these cultural characteristics when forming personal bonds with people from the culture.

When asked about how diplomats can be more effective when trying to accomplish their political objectives, Alexander replied with an important goal of intercultural learning, “We need to invest in learning languages and in the cultural and historical understanding that must underpin good strategy—and that’s not going to happen overnight.” This statement is true for international organizations as well.  Studying abroad is certainly not as high-profile as a diplomatic assignment, but the results of understanding a particular culture from the perspective of members of the culture and the creation of personal bonds and relationships remains constant. This is the main reason why Intercultural Learning is essential and practical for AFS host families and government ambassadors alike.

Read the full Centre for Intercultural Learning interview with Chris Alexander here.

Paul Edinger is a strategic operations intern for the Intercultural Learning department at AFS International, where he works to facilitate the implementation of ICL strategy throughout the AFS Network. His time at AFS began in April of 2011 with the Development and Branding department and he continues in 2012 as an intern for ICL. Prior to joining AFS he taught English, Spanish and computer literacy courses to Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants to the United States while obtaining his B.A. in International Studies with a concentration in Latin America. He completed minors in Anthropology, Political Science, Latino Studies, and Spanish Language Studies.

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