“How to overcome Paternalism in International Cultural Management and Collaboration”: A Conversation between Sarah Herke and Astrid Thews


Sarah Herke has been working for MitOst e.V. with internationally engaged cultural managers for the past ten year. She currently coordinates the Department for Cultural Exchange.  

As freelance cultural manager and systemic consultant, Astrid Thews is involved with various civic and cultural projects and networks in Germany & Egypt and different other countries in the MENA region. She had been representative of the Robert Bosch Cultural Managers Network in 2016&17.

We had been in a Planning Meeting for three days, trying to find a common vision and setting milestones for the Robert Bosch Cultural Managers Network. Exhausted but happy to have a clear way to go, we hurried to get to the station in time. Arriving at the main train station – not surprisingly, but still upsetting – the train was expected 30 minutes late.

We tried to calm down, to change the rhythm that had been high for weeks. All of a sudden there was that half an hour of not yet planned time. We were looking for a bench to sit down, but couldn’t find any. “There is still that article to be written, right?” Astrid was saying, gazing at a point somewhere behind the roof of the station. I was still searching for a place to sit, not ready to jump into the topic we had saved for the train ride. So I just mumbled something like: “Yes. But are you able to switch to paternalism now?” “Well”, she looked at me. “Somehow with our new governance structure we are also overcoming paternalism, aren’t we?” She paused for a moment. My face must have told her, that I did not have any clue, what she was talking about. “I guess I rather mean overcoming anticipatory obedience.” She started explaining. “In our meeting, for example – before that I was expecting our funding bodies to be pushing us into specific directions. Some of their emails in the past I read rather as orders. That upset me a lot.” Astrid looked at me, trying to find out if I could follow her thought. “Oh yes,I remember that…,” I heard myself saying. Astrid laughed and continued explaining: “So what I mean is that I realized only through conversations that I had read the emails with resistance to anticipatory paternalism. I had assumed the sender was playing a power card and reacted defensively, sometimes passive aggressively actually. My assumptions that the person I judged to be abusing power had been simply based on how I had expected people in specific positions to be and act like. So the point I want to make is that paternalism and how it is ingrained in my mind happens well before international collaboration, but in regards to structural power relations, our previous experiences with them and the attitude we ascribe to persons´ functions.”

Astrid words hit me. They reminded me of a situation I had experienced in Moldova.  “For me the most difficult situations have been, when paternalism was even expected from me. It is tricky, not to take that role of an expert, when it is offered so easily. I made that experience for example during the first Tandem round with Ukraine and Moldova. We were to implement trainings for the participating Cultural Managers. And I felt the expectation that I would just tell the local partners, what to do and how to design those trainings. Just because I am from Germany and MitOst had been implementing trainings for Cultural Managers in Germany for years. Luckily I had many questions myself. I managed to ask questions about how things normally work on spot, rather than giving advice or even orders. Although of course I also enjoyed the feeling that someone looks up to me. That is the trap …” Astrid smirked. “Well, yes. If there is finally the recognition for the work you do … even if it is in the moment not for the ‘right’ reasons. Do you know how others experienced it who were there with you?” Astrid wanted to know. “No, I don’t. I just remember that it made me angry at a point because it also felt like local partners would just ask me for orders and are not committed themselves to what was our common project. Like if they would be ready just to fulfill my will. That felt really wrong. But finally we talked about it and there were some obvious structural explanations for it.”

The platform was crowded by now. The train should have left ten minutes ago. No news over the speakers. People around us angry, nervous and freezing. The display changed, informing that the train was now expected 60 minutes late. A murmur in the crowd. Over the speaker we heard, what we already saw: The train is running late. More murmur.

“I think from that experience I am also allergic to applications from EU participants for programmes with Ukraine, Turkey or the Arab World which state that their motivation for a collaboration is to ‘help people in the region’. Of course it is fine to wish for an exchange of knowledge for example, which would in the end help your collaboration partner. But you also need to have your own and maybe even egoistic motivation. Otherwise, in case something goes wrong in the collaboration and you start arguing, you will stand there hearing yourself saying ‘I am just doing this for you, and what do I get in return? Just complaints.” Astrid giggled. “I remember that sentence from my mom.” “See – paternalism!” There was a minute of silence and we both were floating in our memories.

“If you would set a code of ethics for international collaboration, what would you put in?” I asked Astrid. “Of course, I would work with a group of people on a code: A code of ethics for collaboration suggested by one person would be an oxymoron I suppose. Because one of the things I have experienced is that diversity needs to be seen as an asset. A single person has many blind spots. Only in a diverse group with members that have different functions, of diverse backgrounds, ages and genders such a code of ethics could be established.” “Everyone should be included?”, I asked. “Everyone who is asking the same question and is linked to the topic of international collaboration. For example, in this case it could be the shared interest in the question: “Which ethics and values do we commit to apply in order to overcome paternalism in collaborations?” My best collaboration experiences where when there was either a shared topic of interest, a shared question to be explored or a challenge all parties face somehow.” “What do you mean concretely?” I asked. Astrid replied: “In everyday life collaboration, an example could be that different neighbors are unhappy that there is no shared meeting space in their street, so they come together to tackle the issue jointly; each one bringing in their knowhow and knowledge. In international collaboration, artists in different regions in the world might want to explore how to reach new audiences and for that matter they develop a strategy together and set regular virtual exchanges and visits to support each other. Different cultural managers might be interested in conceiving, planning and implementing more eco-friendly events; even if they all work on different events in different regions, they can collaborate around the shared topic.”

Listening to Astrids examples, I discovered a pair of lights running down our track. Apparently a train was approaching, although we had been told, that it would be an hour late. Confusion on the platform. And relief.

The train finally pulled into the station and we followed the crowd that was eager to get a seat. On the train we didn´t manage to get a seat and were standing close to the doors with many others. Still trying to keep an eye on our suitcases and defend a minimal space to stand on, time passes. The crowd that had initially calmed down when the train had approached started getting angry again; the noise level started raising. The train did not move. Outside we had been freezing, inside the train I wished to take my coat off.  “Why is the train not moving? We have been waiting for thirty minutes outside and by now we are already an hour late!”, I heard a passenger next to me saying. Just in that moment a train attendant entered our coach. She raised her voice and said: “Could you please make some room and let me pass through?” “Could you tell us at least what is going on before giving orders to your customers?”, a passenger instantly replied. “Had I had information, I would have let you know,” she yelled back. The tone between the attendant and our fellow passengers became rougher and the atmosphere almost impossible to bear. When the attendant had reached my vicinity, I said – louder than needed – “It is shit, when you yourself are getting all information last, no?” Almost with relief the attendant looked at me and replied: “Yes, it is really shit. I also don´t like being late, in an overcrowded train and not being able to pass on information I haven´t received.”

In that moment, embarrassed silence muted the compartment and I almost regretted my own words previously. “Don´t be embarrassed”, I heard Astrid telling the couple standing next to her. “Sarah was just doing her job as cultural manager – being a mediator between people. She cannot help, but breaking the ice between people.” Turning to me, she asked: “So, what would you propose to be part in a code of ethics for international collaboration, Sarah” “I find it hard to shift perspective again now, after this situation.” I paused. “I think based on what happened now – I can only think in concrete, localized examples when thinking of the global picture – I believe equal footing between collaborators is important and a true understanding of being in this together. The attendant is in this situation just as we are; we all want to get to our destination, wherever that is. When we think and act in binaries of victim and offender, powerful and powerless, the wise and the ignorant, collaborations don´t work out.”

“Makes sense. I wonder why we all got so angry then?” Astrid asked. “Lack of transparency causes mistrust, I think. In any collaborating system. That includes the relationship between passengers and the train company as well. Anger is human though, showing your vulnerabilities is authentic. Being authentic is important when you want to reach somewhere and collaborate. I would add that to the code of ethics as well,” I replied.

The train started moving and we heard an apology announcement. “Finally!”, I said. “Now what are we going to do during our train ride?”, Astrid asked me. “Write this article about paternalism?,” I asked back. “But we have it! This conversation is our article, Sarah!”, she said beaming with joy. “And as conclusion we mention our propositions for sections of a code of ethics:

Encounter each other on equal footing. Be transparent and authentic. See and use diversity as an asset. Beware that we all have biases and blind spots. Collaboration only makes sense where there is a joint purpose. Have the local in mind, when working globally and vice versa. Celebrate your successes. Share your learnings. Be generous and presuppose the good will of your collaborators. Act as mediator, broker and facilitator. ”

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