What Do You Mean That Trail Was Safe? Cross-Cultural Risk Management in Developing Countries

Risk management in any context can be challenging and crossing cultures can add some unexpected twists. This essay seeks to talk about some of these challenges and ways to deal with them in a cross-cultural and developing country setting.

In a same-culture setting risk management is challenging enough. Clients have different backgrounds and don’t always fully disclose physical or mental health issues; the environment may have unexpected hazards; and rules and regulations can vary widely within a country or state. Different organizations may have different perceptions of and tolerance for risk. Operating procedures and standards can be nonexistent or vary quite substantially. Taking all of that and running a program in a cross-cultural context, especially in a developing country (usually tropical), adds new layers of complexity - language, new or missing infrastructure (hospitals, emergency medical services, etc.), and novel or new threats from diseases and animals not found in the home context. Underlying all of this are often unarticulated cultural perceptions of “risk” and “safety” - even the concept of “prevention” may not really exist in the new host culture.

While wilderness programs are often aware of “backcountry” risks, they tend to be less aware of the cross-cultural hazards. Similarly, while study abroad programs often are aware of and engaged in cross-cultural orientation and training, they may be less prepared for the changes in infrastructure and the hazard profile of a developing country. Even programs that have a limited “excursion” component into the backcountry (hikes or day trips to the beach) can run into issues, and many of the cross-cultural risks and hazards are present regardless of if you are in a front- country (urban) or backcountry (rural) setting. Most study abroad programs are focusing on understanding the new culture, and may not specifically focus on understanding how that culture shapes understandings of risk and hazards.

Our programs at ISDSI are focused on experiential learning in both urban and rural settings. Because we are often in very remote communities, and often travel by human power through these landscapes (backpacking or sea kayaking), we have spent a lot of time learning from the field of wilderness education, and applying that to the challenges of cross-cultural experiential studies.

We’ve learned some practical things over the years that can help any program — urban, rural, experiential or classroom — to better manage risk and become aware of how culture shapes the hazards and understanding of risk. Here are three.

1. Safe means you won’t slip

Some years ago we had a group of students traveling from one remote mountain village to the next on foot, backpacking through some rugged terrain. Working with local instructors from the village, we talked about which route we should take that day. We asked which route was “safer” (ปลอดภัย bhlodpai). After some discussion, the trail was chosen and we set off. While it was adequately wide and dry, the path was along the side of a steep mountain, winding its way down into a river valley where the next village lay. At several points along the route, if someone had fallen off the path, there would have been a very long fall/slide to the river down the mountain or off the side of a cliff. Along these sections instructors took extra precautions, rigged a rope to hold onto in case of a slip in a couple of places, and slowly made their way with the group and local villagers down the steep mountain. When we got to the village, I was very interested in seeing the more “dangerous” (อันตราย andarai) path. It turned out to be muddy, slippery, but only 2-3 meters above the river. The upper part was down a ridge to the riverside path.  Steep, but no drop off, then a long slippery and muddy walk.

To the local people (sure footed, growing up in the mountains) “safe” was a place you wouldn’t slip. In that context, the result of a fall wasn’t even considered in deciding what was safe or not safe, while our understanding of “safe” took into account both the probability of a fall, and the consequences of a fall. Underlying this isn’t just language but a whole cultural framework about agency, fate and one’s ability to both influence and control future events. In this cultural context fate was what determined if someone lived or died. The consequences of decisions played a different (minor) role in their understanding of events and cause and effect.

2. A cake doesn’t always taste the way you expect it to

Years ago before Western food (and desserts) were popular in Thailand, there were bakeries that would make cakes that looked amazing — they looked exactly like cakes in a Western bakery in Europe or North America. But having never tasted the original, the bakers knew how to make them look right, but not taste right. So ordering a beautiful slice of cake usually ended in surprise (not unlike a Western chef preparing something that looks like curry but isn’t!).

There are a lot of “cakes” in developing countries — and when it comes to risk management and responding to risk it pays to “taste the cake” first to see if it really is what it looks like. We’ve found fire sprinkler systems in high end hotels that don’t actually connect to water pipes, but sprinkler heads stick out of the ceiling. Ambulances that look amazing, but have no equipment inside of them, or if they have equipment the staff aren’t trained in how to use it correctly or how to handle a patient who may have a spinal injury. It pays to directly check out the resources you may have (or not have) at your disposal in the case of an emergency. For our part, we train our instructors as Travel Medicine / Wilderness First Responders, so they can operate without access to EMS. At the same time, we check the clinics and hospitals where we work to make sure they are well equipped, and figure out which doctors we can trust and call in case of an emergency.

As a country develops its infrastructure, there is often a cultural lag of sorts.  That is, the “hardware” is being put into place, but the “software” (cultural knowledge, training, etc.) isn’t yet there to use it, or understand what is important.  Encouragingly, that cultural knowledge is changing quickly, as education and training upgrades the soft skills to meet the “hardware” that might be in place (and you can also now find world-class bakeries and cafes throughout Thailand!).

3. Check your pizza

In cultures where rote learning is the norm, and questioning superiors in the hierarchy is discouraged, empirical evidence is not always given the same weight it might be elsewhere. Once we ordered a sausage pizza. After some time, the pizza came, but it was a cheese pizza. When I told the waitress, she picked up the receipt on the table and, reading it, stated “No, this is sausage pizza.” It took some convincing to have her look at the actual pizza, which was a plain cheese pizza. Since the receipt (the “authority”) said “sausage” it couldn’t be wrong.

On a remote island in Southern Thailand, a Navy doctor offered to help us deal with a student who had put his hand on a sea urchin (very painful, lots and lots of spines). While two trained WFRs, one Thai and one American, tending to the student the doctor went to get his supplies to help with treatment. Our first clue something was wrong was that his supplies were in a cardboard box.

When he then offered to inject Novocain into the students hand before using a hammer (!) to smash up the embedded spines, we realized that “doctor” might not accurate — even though there was a sign saying there was a doctor (remember the receipt?). While he might have had some medical training, and everyone assured us he was a “doctor” (คุณหมอ) it turns out he wasn’t an M.D. or trained to the point where he could be as helpful as he first appeared. (We diplomatically declined the needle and the hammer and took care of the student ourselves.)

Be sure to check if what you are being told is what you are really getting. A lot of times it may well be that people are not misrepresenting things or being dishonest, they may just be looking at the wrong thing — the receipt rather than the pizza. As someone managing risk cross-culturally, be aware that hierarchy will impact how people interpret and explain events. Larger worldview issues will shape how people understand knowledge and ways of knowing (do you look at the receipt or the pizza?).

Cross-cultural learning usually focuses on language and cultural practices, and the cultural anthropology of how cultures live, create and enforce norms and values, and practice daily life. What is polite in one society (not causing offense) may cause problems in another (getting a direct answer). This applies to risk management as well, of course, but ideas of safety, what is or is not important are embedded in cultural frameworks that can be confusing and contradictory. This is especially true in a context where there is a mix of new and old, and the “hardware” (e.g. an ambulance) is in place before the “software” (e.g trained EMTs) has caught up.

Learning the local language and cultural practices is a start, but as we lead and manage risk in new cultural contexts, there will be surprises. Look for them, dig into why people are doing what they do, and you can begin to move beyond a checklist and risk framework into understanding how to work within and with sometimes very different cultural expectations and norms.

Mark A. Ritchie, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute.