‘Money – it’s a hit. Don't give me that do goody good bullsh*t.’ (Pink Floyd)
‘When I die, if I leave ten pounds behind me, you and all humanity may bear witness against me that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.’ (John Wesley)
Now that’s extreme. In his lifetime, UK Christian preacher John Wesley is estimated to have earned around £30,000 (roughly equivalent to £1,000,000 today). When he died in 1791, 47 years after having written these astonishing words (above), he was found only to have a few coins left in his pocket. He had given everything away. Wesley believed that to follow Jesus meant intrinsically to use whatever resources God had given him to help others in need. He challenged fundamentally those who believed that material acquisition was a blessing from God to enjoy for their own benefit. As his own income increased, he stayed at the same simple baseline and gave even more away.
I find Wesley’s example incredibly humbling and challenging. I live in a society that is individual-, wealth- and future-orientated. An implicit cultural imperative is that we should each make as much money as we can; both so that we can improve our own quality of life today and prepare for the future, confident that we will have plenty to spend then as now. I once had a long journey home from working among the poor in Cambodia. An intrigued Indian Hindu businessman travelling next to me on the plane confessed in bemusement that he found my work for a Christian NGO shameful: ‘Shouldn’t you be earning as much money as possible to increase your own family’s wealth?’
He had a point. To take care of one’s own family is, of course, an important, universal, human value. Yet, still, our worldviews collide. I find my life inspired by a different ethic, exemplified by Jasmin, a radical follower of Jesus among the poor in the Philippines: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ That isn’t about self-righteousness. It’s not a denial of the visceral tug of anxiety and security. It is about choice, decision and stance.
What beliefs, values and principles guide your life? What do they look like in practice?
In my first encounters with the Philippines, I was surprised by how often people asked me about my meals. ‘Have you eaten?’ This included during conversations online. I learned, over time, that the question arises out of an economic context in which food is often scarce owing to high levels of poverty, and a cultural context in which the health and well-being of one’s neighbour is considered important. It means the question is literal and it calls for a literal response. If I answer ‘no’ while I’m there physically, I’m likely to be offered and given a meal; even if the person who’s asking is poor.
Rudo Kwaramba, a Zimbabwean colleague, explained a similar dynamic whilst working together on an assignment in Uganda. I had been invited there to help an NGO address a key challenge: that managers in rural community-based projects were, apparently, bad at addressing poor performance. Rudo reflected: ‘In wealthy countries, if you can’t earn an income or lose your job, your government provides you with financial support; if you become injured or unwell, your health system or insurance covers you. In poorer countries, people can only look to each other for support.’
It means that, in such contexts, to establish and maintain positive relationships with one’s extended family and neighbours is essential for survival. It also means that to support the health and wellbeing of one’s neighbours is critical too. There is a sense of radical interdependence, a pragmatic-ethical need, that drives cultural behaviour. Against that backdrop, we discovered that managers who were living and working in the same communities as their staff felt unwilling and unable to address poor performance – in case it damaged the network of relationships. It was the core issue for them.
This insight moved the culture-shift question in the work from a simplistic-transactional, ‘How to change the performance management system’, to a deeper-relational, ‘How can we hold honest conversations that don’t harm community?’. It proved transformational. As I focus back on South East Asia, I notice that as some countries have grown in wealth, they have experienced a corresponding shift towards individual-orientated cultures. It's as if: the richer I am, the less I need you. ‘Have you eaten?’ is often retained, yet as a simple greeting, not as a literal inquiry or as an invitation to a meal.
So, I’m curious: what have been your experiences of working cross-culturally? What have you learned?
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