Civil society groups, Opposition need to discover dynamics of intercultural negotiations

Dear Editor,
Civil society activists should begin to think about the profound differences in international and intercultural relations, something that is notably missing from the debates around Guyana’s oil contract with the foreign oil companies. Those who think that you can simply amend a contract when circumstances change for one party are missing this cultural dimension.
The main reason is that culture is central to how we approach negotiations in an international setting. To boot, cultural misunderstanding is one of the main reasons for failure in international business and international diplomacy
The crux of the matter is that cultural institutions in Guyana are based on elevated levels of informality, whereas the cultures of North America and Europe are rigid in business practices. For them, a deal is a deal. Guyana, by contrast, is a give-and-take culture based on face-to-face forms of engagement. In this cultural framework people can make things happen through informal means, sometimes by just making a call.
On the other hand, for Americans and Europeans, personal relationships matter less than what is written down. Once something is written down, and there is legal ‘consideration,’ you cannot willy-nilly change things.
Guyana, like much Latin America and the Caribbean, is characterized by a mañana type culture. This type of culture is elastic regarding rules, and especially regarding communication styles. Moreover, context is an integral aspect of negotiations. Evidence for this could be found in the repeated claims that because Guyana was once dominated by foreign exploiters, the oil contracts should demonstrate some measure of financial recompense. For Westerners, context is irrelevant.
The noted international and intercultural scholar Stefan Kammhuber makes the compelling point “that every negotiation is also a social encounter…” [I]ndividuals inevitably bring in their cultural biography, which they cannot simply shed but must … painstakingly adapt to a particular negotiation model that was created in a specific cultural environment” (2010: 256).
Kammhuber is clear that “[if] one judges the behavior of other partners according to one’s own system of orientation, then there is a good chance that this will result in misunderstanding or conflict and eventually cause negotiations to fail” (2010: 258)
The debates around the “sanctity of the contract” bring the central issues of intercultural communication to the fore. I think while many of the civil society groups such as Article 13 and individual writers are aware of the difficulties of reopening a signed contract, their audience may not know the same.
This is crucial, because when a renegotiated contract is presented to the “masses” as something that can be done easily and without harm, we move from civil society efforts at protecting the national interest, to efforts at weaponizing political mobilization. Culture becomes equally crucial here because the “masses,” more than any other sector of the society, are highly socialized into believing we can change things because a better deal could be realized. Put differently, the elites know one thing, but based on what they say and write, the masses are led to believe something else.
Those calling for a renegotiated oil contract should be aware that they are in the business of chasing away foreign capital. Without foreign investments, our hydrocarbon resources would have still been under hundreds of feet of water and we would still be the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

Dr Randolph Persaud

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