European organisations working together in interregional projects (Interreg) are not always aware of each other’s cultural background. They assume that foreign partners think in the same way as themselves, and therefore it often takes three or four years before they understand each other’s approach, according to two researchers at Alterra: Roel During and Rosalie van Dam.
In one landscape project, North European partners ended up in a conflict about meaning without realising why. The term ‘landscape’ was used in Dutch, English, Danish and Norwegian, but in each country the term means something different. One such difference, between the Norwegians and the Dutch, came to light when the latter suggested converting farmland into woodland. In Norway ‘landscape’ refers to everything except woodland. ‘It was only after a year that the participants discovered that the meaning of ‘landscape’ varied widely in their countries,’ says Van Dam.
In another project, German and Polish planners ran up against mutual incomprehension when they wanted to exchange knowledge on spatial planning. The German partner considered regional development planning as a public scientific exercise, the content of which is made available to the general public. But in Poland a regional planning programme is a political matter that the government is in charge of. The Polish partner therefore was unable to make any land-use plans available to the German partner, and would not express an opinion about the planning programme. This hindered exchange.
Language is the biggest problem in European cooperation, state many participants in Interreg projects. According to During, however, the biggest problem is not language but cultural ignorance. ‘In Holland, for example, you are considered a good partner if you produce good reports; we produce lots of paper. In other countries a project is deemed successful if there has been good consultation and negotiation. This means being prepared to face conflicts and solving them; we Dutch aren’t so keen on that. And other countries tend to say: just tell me what I should do.’
During wants participants to become much more aware of cultural differences, so that they can learn more quickly from each other. ‘There have been 6500 projects in the last few years and they’ve all cost a couple of hundred thousand. If you don’t learn from these experiences, the value of cooperation together will remain low.’