How Business Stretches the Definition of Cultural Diplomacy

Two weeks ago Deirdre White, the CEO of CDS, spoke at the Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy in the USA hosted by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. The symposium, “The Use of the Arts in Promoting Dialogue, Fostering Peace, and Initiating Mutual Understanding Amongst World Cultures and Civilizations,” paid particular emphasis to America’s use of arts to promote a positive image abroad. As one of the closing speakers of the four-day symposium, Deirdre offered a different perspective on cultural diplomacy at an event heavily focused on its traditional forms. Deirdre emphasized that we are at a critical crossroads where the traditional definition of cultural diplomacy—the exchange of ideas, language, art, religion, and social structure through the interaction of people—must be expanded to include business as well.

“In many ways corporate diplomacy is the next step in cultural diplomacy,” said Mark Donfried, Director of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, during Deirdre’s introduction. Following a discussion of the history of cultural diplomacy, tracing the growth of the practice from a by-product of international trade, to inter governmental communications, to an aggressive tool for the expansion of influence, Deirdre gave an expert description of the burgeoning role business plays in cultural diplomacy.

Throughout history, products of industry have been a major cultural export. From French wines and Chinese silks to McDonalds and Coca Cola, people have learned about and adopted each other’s cultures via the products they export. Deirdre described the relatively new business export CDS brokers: people and skills, through international corporate volunteerism (ICV) programs.

ICV programs are typically teams of eight to 15 people, hailing from multiple countries, traveling to one country where they use their core business skills to address a social challenge. While this is an interesting and unique experience for team members and beneficial to host country recipients, Donfried pointed out that historically, businesses have cared about little more than the bottom line. So how in this era of corporate social responsibility does ICV support the bottom line enough to sustain interest and grow the practice?

Deirdre explained the multiple benefits to employers. First, ICV transforms team members’ leadership abilities, their perception of their company’s role in the world, and how they and their companies might interact with the global community in the future. Second, they provide a service to the NGOs and local governments on the ground that serves to improve the image and awareness of the company in a new market. Third, programs can be profitable. In addition to improved brand reputation, they receive media attention, market awareness, and increased employee loyalty.

The benefits to business gained by this growing form of cultural diplomacy are so great that the concept of ICV as an export falls short. In our globalized economy, any increase in cross cultural understanding of business practices is of immense value. ICV programs not only facilitate an exchange of such practices between the corporate teams and their partner organizations but also among team members who often must collaborate with coworkers around the world. Business has an influential role to play in the field of cultural diplomacy and ICV programs are a powerful tool for engagement.

Max Wilson

Max Wilson is a Program Associate at PYXERA Global where he assists in managing and implementing Global Pro Bono projects around the world. Before joining the PYXERA Global team, Max served for over two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Using his experience organizing conferences and events as an intern for the Amnesty International and the Committee on Conscience at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, he organized and ran a training for nurses in his region of Morocco on how to teach about sexual health. He will tap these skills again to organize PYXERA Global’s 2014 conference.

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