Jesse Awalt



Leveraging Africa in Diplomacy & Business

Since the founding of the United Nations, poor governance and corruption have been cited as the primary reasons for Africa’s lagging economies. While this may still be a factor, after limited progress for nearly seven decades, this approach seems to be beating a dead horse. Its intended impact is nullified since there is no effective way to punish the few powerful corrupt without the effects inherently trickling down to those at bottom of the social strata—the very people we seek to protect. It is time to consider additional routes to addressing Africa’s plight as the second largest – yet poorest – of the seven continents. However, one way to help the continent grow would be through cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence (CQ) could ultimately help level both the sociopolitical and economic playing fields in Africa. In a world marketplace dominated by Western cultural norms, both from a linguistic and non-verbal perspective, education and training on cross-cultural negotiation could increase Africa’s engagement with the world where all players are on an equal footing. In fact, this approach could potentially produce a positive domino effect that will impact governmental and developmental issues that continue to haunt Africa as a whole.

Considering the rate at which the world is increasingly becoming connected, I continue to find the ability to effectively interact across cultures an invaluable asset. The African Diasporas community has grown exponentially over the last two decades. Hence their success abroad is most likely to indirectly impact African economies in a positive way. However, before exploring this latent potential, it is crucial to think about economic power and what it entails for any superpower.

Political realism tells us that economic power can easily be translated into all other forms of power, which sometimes works either to the disadvantage or the advantage of the less privileged nations or groups of people. Often times in life or, lets say in sports, a weaker player that follows in the footsteps of a greater player eventually becomes better and stronger – rarely it is the other way round. In politics, we are reminded of realism. Generally, by design, when nations establish power and security, it is then that they begin to witness some generous efforts to assist the downtrodden. A careful study of historical events attests to that – whether in war or piece, history continues to repeat itself. However, this article does not ponder on any Machiavellian maxims but suggests a harmless approach may lead to the true meaning of equal economic partnerships.

Soon Ang and Linn Van Dyne describe CQ as the capability to relate and work effectively across cultures. The need for greater CQ is clear. Bearing in mind the longstanding master-subordinate relationship between the West and Africa, i.e., the colonial past followed by a prolonged donor-recipient based affiliation. It is counterproductive to expect realistic progress in developing countries without some way of establishing an equal footing in the dialogue.

In their book, Principles of Microeconomics, Robert H. Frank and Ben Bernanke argue, “Seemingly noneconomic factors can also give rise to comparative advantage. For instance, the emergence of English as the de facto world language gives [native] English-speaking countries a comparative advantage over non-English-speaking nations in the production of books, movies, and popular music.”

Thus a person from Zimbabwe, a former British colony, may experience less difficulty communicating in the United States than someone from the Congo, a former Belgian colony. Language, however, is only a tip of the iceberg. Understanding even deeper nuances and social customs in American or Western cultures could allow Africans to increase effectiveness not only in communication but in many types of negotiation.

In the last seven years, I have come across many brilliant, well-educated African students within the American academic community. Despite their accomplishments, however, it seems that too often the “cultural missing link” has limited the scope of their accomplishments. If adequate training was available, it could help them overcome this hidden obstacle. They will be able to maximize their potential. They will not only have knowledge but also be able to deliver it effectively.

This same is true with visiting African diplomats and business leaders. We see it in cross-cultural presentation and negotiation settings. Although the Africans may be highly educated, they may not have had the opportunity to become aware of American social nuances. Unlike those of us who have lived for years in a culturally heterogeneous environment, they may not have learned that body language or other non-verbal cues can transmit an impression that is different than the message they intend to convey. In some cases, knowledge of these subtle differences comes after prolonged contact with a foreign culture but prior training can help alleviate the costly mistakes mostly likely to be made in the short run.

In any given culture, there are times when certain cultural nuances become a necessity in determining the chances of one man’s success over another. These standards are not necessarily imposed on an individual by another, but are things one must master in order to survive and succeed in an unfamiliar environment. In the 2007 International Journal of Psychology article titled, “The Influence of Culture and Sex on the Perception of Persons,” Korten asserts, “[T]he similar basic life experiences of the people of a cultural group shape cognitive structures which in turn cause that cultural group to perceive their environment in certain consistent ways.”

Since non-verbal communication isn’t always universal, it is very important to learn how to prevent sending erroneous or unintended signals. What is deemed a gesture of respect in one culture may come across as an indication of low self-esteem in another. For instance, merely sitting with your right calf resting on your left knee can be either insulting to the person sitting to your left in the Arab world, or an indication of a relaxed atmosphere in America. Proximity – engaging a client for a sales pitch standing ten inches away may be viewed in a positive light in one social context and create discomfort in another. Other factors, which I apply are: facial expression, eye contact – and so on. Something as insignificant as the above examples can easily do damage and go unrecognized and uncorrected.

A classic instructive example of the importance of nonverbal communication is the 1960 first televised American presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, but the vast majority who saw it on television favored Kennedy. Viewers were impressed by Kennedy’s visibly positive demeanor. Since then, paying close attention to image and body language has been regarded as essential to a successful political campaign. The lesson learned in American politics can help us support Africans to excel in the areas of education, business and diplomacy.

Currently there is no robust U.S. foreign policy framework that targets African nations in efforts to promote and encourage multiculturalism. Doing so could ensure success and economic influence Africans need. These cultural modifications do not address many other socioeconomic issues within the Africa continent. This is as opposed to the overly used donor-aid approach. It is a fact that such initiatives depend on the relationship between the U.S. and individual countries. The African Diaspora, African and U.S. Organizations working toward African development can collaborate to ensure there is a framework in place that will help reduce the cultural gap as a means to create economic opportunity and entrepreneurship.