The Bani World And Nation-Building

The Bani World And Nation-Building

Using coaching and intercultural competence at international organizations in the context of BANI and Nation-Building

Thomas Anthony Imfeld, M.A., Managing Director, bullseye international GmbH, Trier, Germany


In a BANI world characterized as brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible, leaders in international organizations, impacting nation-building, benefit from having intercultural competence when using coaching approaches. This article focuses on what is useful to understand and apply in the context of cross-cultural coaching. Models are introduced to add insight for fostering performance. The paper fuses 3 components: the BANI model; the coaching model; intercultural model.


Coaching, BANI, managing behavioral complexity, national culture, change


  • Nation-building involves change and the development of people, societies, and their institutions. Human beings are a critical component in these processes. Working with intercultural competence and empowerment through coaching, coach and coachees support individual and organizational development objectives.
  • Resilience, adaptability, empathy, mindfulness, and intuition are needed to cope and thrive in the face of BANI. Leaders in international organizations support the development of corresponding mindsets and behaviors at both the individual and group levels by investing in people; this can be supported with coaching.
  • Attitudes and behaviors to organizational and personal goals can be impacted by national culture. In this regard, it is useful for coaches to have intercultural competence.
  • Motivation and communication are two illustrative areas highlighting the importance of intercultural competence that coaches and coachees use to focus on changing behaviors and seeking productive outcomes. Ignorance of cultural components is not an option for international organizations.
  • Intercultural competence can be gained in various ways. For coaches in complex organizational settings, Hofstede’s 6-D Model and Huib Wursten’s Mental Images are constructs to effectively frame intercultural issues. In international organizations, with a myriad of nationalities, it is useful to access a model and a gestalt for reducing cultural complexity and facilitating hypothesis testing to foster informed actions.


In the juxtaposition of BANI and nation-building, international organizations underpin their own objectives when people are supported to understand and develop desired traits and behaviors. This is challenging. The personalized nature of coaching, in an environment of psychological safety, can have a significant impact on shifting attitudes and fostering concrete behaviors. Coaching can be used to reconcile and align individual development with organizational objectives. Working internationally means working interculturally. Change initiatives are supported by the action-oriented work and positivistic professional relationships between coaches and coachees. Empathetic, proactive, introspective human actors are paramount to supporting desired individual and organizational outcomes.

What is nation-building? Nation-building is a process of socio-political development that turns loosely or even contentiously connected communities into a common society with a state that corresponds to it. This article looks at the people in organizations that shape, accompany, and influence the nation-building process. These are international organizations such as the IMF, World Bank, UNICEF, NGOs, and multinational companies. What the nation-building process and international organizations have in common are human beings with a diverse range of personalities, behaviors, and national cultures who work with processes involving change.

Human actors in change processes operate in the context of BANI. More than ever, working internationally in a BANI world, people are pivotal components in change processes. Change initiatives can be effectively supported by coaching. In turn, coaching in international settings benefits from intercultural competence.

Organizations, nations, and individuals want to ensure survival. In this chaotic world, we have great uncertainty about what is to come. Long-term plans and strategies are becoming less and less reliable. The fast pace of change and chaos makes some ideas that seemed illogical just months ago and were not part of any planning suddenly worth examining or even implementing. In the BANI environment, we learn that nothing is right and nothing is forever. Some say, what matters is to get through the storm and do it fast.

BANI is an acronym made up of the words ‘brittle’, ‘anxious’, ‘nonlinear’, and ‘incomprehensible’. The concept is attributed to Jamais Cascio, a California professor, anthropologist, author, and futurist. Cascio has written several publications on the future of human evolution, education in the information age, and emerging technologies. In our world with high levels of chaos, the well-known concept of VUCA is less relevant. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and was created by the United States Army War College in the late 1980s to describe the scenario of the post-Cold War world. To replace VUCA,  “Facing the Age of Chaos” with BANI at its core, Jamais Cascio publishes his article. Let’s examine BANI word by word.[1]

Brittle: In the BANI world, a system can work well on the surface, even if it’s on the verge of collapse. Consequently, taking precautions not to rely completely on the assumptions behind any systems makes sense, even if we think that the systems appear reliable, flexible, and unbreakable. To illustrate this, just think about the fragility of markets, our environment, peace, and the human condition. If something is brittle or fragile, we, as human beings can show capacity and resilience.

Anxious: While information is essential, too much of it creates anxiety. Even, technologies can contribute to making people feel powerless and unable to make important choices in times of pressure and tension. Our networked, virtual and digital world has so much information, threats and fake news that it easily becomes overwhelming. That’s why mindsets enabling us to take some distance from situations and develop creative problem-solving solutions are pivotal. Using emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence can also give us an edge when facing anxiety. When we feel anxious as human beings, we can apply empathy and mindfulness.

Nonlinear: In the BANI world, cause and effect are no longer sufficient for understanding, coping with, or mastering phenomena. We are increasingly facing non-linear paths and it’s sometimes disconcerting. We’re frustrated by our attempts at planning, especially long-term. We are experiencing accelerated economic crises, environmental threats, pandemic outbreaks, and wars. Technology is developing at a break-neck pace. Leaders are using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and algorithms to make sense of things and master decision-making. This implies that being able to flexibly deal with various scenarios and implications is the order of the day. If something is non-linear, as human beings, we seek context and adaptability.

Incomprehensible: Living in a fragile, anxious, and non-linear world makes many of the events, causes, and decisions incomprehensible. As human beings, we’re pretty good at finding answers but it is harder when many pieces of a puzzle are concurrently in flux, due to the fast pace of changes. Even having more information doesn’t help us unless we can make meaning out of the information. Binary thinking is inadequate. Either vs. or is not enough. Instead, finding meaning, purpose and direction require “and” thinking[2] added to the ability to prioritize. Technology is used to make sense of this complexity. This includes artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning. If something is Incomprehensible, humans seek transparency and intuition.

While the BANI scenario can appear foreboding, it holds opportunities for persons and organizations willing to grow, learn and embrace change. It is possible to become anxious, paralyzed, apathetic, or even depressed when confronting BANI. Alternatively, we can grow personally, with cohorts and collaborators using insights for change and leadership. Are nations, organizations, and individuals willing to learn and grow by preparing for and coping with BANI? Many leaders are ready. This article is dedicated especially to innovators and early adapters.

In the context of BANI, coaching emerges at the crossroads of nation-building, international organization, and individual development. Coaching is centered on performance-based psychological principles. Coaching is about evoking solutions and supporting their implementation. Equally important in coaching is understanding and learning about a situation, an environment, a setting from different perspectives, and weighing alternatives for making sound choices and decisions.  The purpose of coaching is to allow a coachee to understand their thinking and activate resources to achieve something worthwhile for the coachee, and often, their organization.

Coaching as a process enables learning and development to occur and performance and potential to improve. A coach uses knowledge and understanding of the process as well as a variety of styles, skills, and techniques that are appropriate to the context in which the coaching takes place. Field experience contributes to a coach’s value-added as does having specialized knowledge and subject expertise. A coach helps coachees learn how to act and behave during specific situations in the workplace.[3] In a coaching process, a key is to let coachees be learners, rather than a coach imposing ways of facing situations. Instead of “telling” coachees how to do things, coaches empower coachees to make future decisions on this own.

The coaching starting point is positivistic. It is about a person’s potential, not just their performance. The foundation to this way of thinking and interacting is trust. With trust, the coach positively influences performance. Coaching is a commonly used method of employee development that generates positive business outcomes. A strong coaching culture has been linked to increased business performance and employee engagement.[4]  In organizations, coaching is typically used in five areas: 1) improving team functioning; 2) increasing engagement; 3) increasing productivity; 4) improving employee relations, and 5) speeding up leadership development.

Ultimately, coaching is related to being Agile. When companies start an Agile transformation -i.e. seeking more innovation in a rapidly changing technological world- and people learn new ways of working including self-organizing teams, the quest is really for changing mindsets. Yet, the reality is that not everyone has an Agile mindset or values. The point is that an individual’s personal value structure does not equal behavior. All people can behave in Agile ways if they are motivated enough.[5] In this vein, coaching is supportive.

At the core of effective coaching is supporting the coachee to be more the person they want to be. Within organizational contexts coaching is about supporting behavioral change. Ultimately, coaching is about consciously and genuinely helping an individual align their behavior with their beliefs and values. We all have preferences and deep feelings for these beliefs and values shaped by our upbringing. In comparative terms, we can pinpoint both differences and similarities in these preferences when examining our relationship to power, the group, uncertainty, time, happiness, and sources of motivation. Let’s examine some differences between a coaching focus and an intercultural context.

From ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are a concept that describes how contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent and how they may interrelate with one another.[6] This is a starting point to both distinguish and relate coaching and culture. For successful coaching across cultures, we seek to bring both aspects together.


Coaching largely frames the individual as the focus of work. The idea is to support the individual to impact, change and develop her/himself directly and effectively.

Shorthand: Me; I can change myself.


Culture is a group phenomenon. Simply stated, culture is the shared values, ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.

Shorthand:  How I fit into the We.  

Figure 1: Coaching and Culture

Seemingly countless tools and methods are available in coaching to support individuals to change their behavior. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.[7] The emphasis here is on changing her/his own behavior and not the behavior of others. For the purpose of this article, we use David Peterson’s Development Pipeline. It describes the five necessary and sufficient conditions for change and is a useful guide with respect to where coaching provides the greatest value for the individual.[8]

Figure 2: David Peterson’s Development Pipeline

The pipeline analogy alludes to liquids traveling in a pipeline that can become blocked, slowed, or accelerated. In coaching, where understanding and goal attainment are critical parameters, it makes sense to focus on those areas where development is constrained. For example, if a coachee already has sufficient understanding about what they want to focus on if they want to focus, i.e., getting promoted, insight is likely not the focus condition. On the other hand, understanding their motivations might be useful, if serious conflicts or trade-offs need to be considered. Let’s look at each of the conditions by way of questions.

  1. Insight. Does the person understand what areas need o the developed in order to be more effective?
  2. Motivation. To what degree is the person willing to invest time and energy to develop her/himself?
  3. Capabilities. To what extent does the person have the skills and knowledge needed?
  4. Real-world practice. What opportunities does the person have to try out new skills at work?
  5. Accountability. What internal and external mechanisms exist for paying attention to change and providing meaningful consequences?

Each condition can be influenced by culture. To illustrate what this means, we’ll use the context of a coachee socialized in Central Asia i.e., Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan.

When we talk about issues related to culture, we are dealing with generalizations and bell curves i.e., the 80/20 rule, to provide a reasonable hypothesis that is subject to on-the-ground testing and always subject to revision. Sometimes issues have no cultural component, and instead, have to do with a particular situation and circumstance or are in the domain of individual personality factors. What is worth understanding when it comes to national culture and coaching? Let’s examine this using the five pipeline conditions.

Using the scenario of the Central Asian Coachee, Insight may be less guided by self-reflection of personal insights and more about understanding and guiding the perception of others and impression management. If this is so, the roots can be cultural. For example, it can be normal to frame issues in Islamic terms in which there is no or low separation between the religious, the personal, the leadership, and the government. In that case, using the Quran can be useful for framing issues for both coach and coachee. Another cultural factor is the importance of impression management and maintaining status. Where impression management is critical, awareness is necessary when attempting to use 360-degree feedback questionnaires or stakeholder interviews. Coaches need to be aware of the increased power perceptions and think about how any collected feedback is to be presented. Moreover, sensitivity to pride issues can cause the coachee to perceive negative feedback as an attempt to threaten career aspirations and goals. In the worst case, the source may be viewed as a foe. As a result, the coach will want to be aware of these factors, perform mitigation and seek constructive framing for all parties involved.

For Central Asian coachees, coaches want to pay attention to this mindset, framing, and make adjustments. Concretely, in goal setting, this can mean less emphasis on gaining personal insight leading to change and more about comprehending and channeling a response to the perceptions of others. The coach’s goal in developing insight is to support the individual to articulate what perceptions they want to change and how perceptions are limiting their ability to achieve their goals. In this vein, related questions can include the following: Whose perceptions matter to you, to your future, to your success?; Whom do you trust?; Whose perceptions do you believe?; Who knows you well enough that they can answer the questions posed?

In Central Asia, the coach is seen as an expert, often as a leader. As such, the coachee may not have the answers to these questions. In such cases, generic rephrasing may help as follows. What makes Yalda most effective in her role and her leadership? What gets in the way of Yalda being as effective as she is capable of being? What suggestions do you have for Yalda’s development? What skills, changes or development would make her more effective or help her to reach her potential? A coach can maintain a strong professional relationship with the coachees by paying careful attention to coachees’ sensibilities about any focus on weakness and understanding the importance of impression management.

In the second part of the development pipeline, looking at motivation, we can inspire commitment to change. Here motivation and trust are coupled. The coach can develop trust by using the GAPS model. This looks at Goals, Abilities, Perceptions, and Success factors from two perspectives. One perspective is the coachee’s view. The second perspective is viewed by other significant stakeholders. The model is useful because it can expose perceptional differences as a step toward implementing changes. Discussing goals and values can help in finding what is most meaningful for the coachee. This in turn can expose links to development priorities that can have a high payoff for both the coachee and the organization. With coachees from Central Asia, it can be useful to pay careful attention to high-status needs and social constructs, as forces for change. For example, motivation can be leveraged by showcasing a high-status person as supportive of the coachee’s goals for development and by keeping the sources informed of change and development.

Another cultural aspect is the external focus on control which can lead to the view that coaching is something that is done to someone and not done by the person/himself. In this mindset, the responsibility for change is on the couch and not the coachee. Here, the person may feel developed even if the actual change is less relevant. For the coach, awareness of these possibilities is useful.

When the liquid passes through the insight and motivation conditions of the pipeline we arrive at capabilities and real-world practice. This is all about having the skills and knowledge needed to effectuate change. Talking is not the same as doing. Here we may notice that Central Asians enjoy dialogue and are gifted talkers. Yet this is insufficient when it comes to change. For a change, we need to distinguish between insight/discussion and the demonstrated ability to do something different than it has been done previously. Coaches can work on building skills in real-time, through practicing and role-playing. This is followed by real work practice at work. High context and low context cultural differences may require techniques to understand how behaviors and emotions are communicated.  Building trust and partnership are key. Finding the appropriate level of risk-taking for experimenting is a fundamental part of the process. This level will differ between in-coaching and outside-of-coaching environments, especially because of high impression and status management. Additional cultural factors to consider are saving face and obtaining the acknowledgment of change from those of high status. These two factors can make change real and meaningful to the coachee.

When the liquid gets near the end of the pipeline, we are in the condition of accountability. In Central Asian contexts, a lower internal focus of control lessens holding oneself accountable. However, the external focus allows for influence to come from respected external sources such as senior managers or important family members. In an organizational setting, this can be linked to measurable outcomes in the form or learning or coaching plans and specific measurable targets that are endorsed by the appropriate hierarchical levels. If the mindset is more about fixing problems rather than shaping the future, it is possible to use a senior person to achieve this. Working towards a clear commitment to action is the necessary criteria for change useful. This is supported by practice and role-playing as mentioned earlier.

Now that the liquid has reached the end of the pipeline, what have we learned? To keep the liquid flowing, coaches use psychology-based processes, real-world experience, and cultural understanding. In Central Asian cultures, changing behavior is more a social construct than and personal one. This is the “We” side of yin/wang that we saw at the inception of this article. In the coaching environment, safe opportunities to practice are a real value-added. Coaches find out where the energy is and channel it by creating clear links to measurable goals and conscious choices.

Coaches support their coachees and their international organizations to change and take action. In international settings, this is facilitated by having cultural competence. Methods, models, and approaches abound. Learning by doing is one approach. Taking courses and getting certification is another approach. Alternatively, people participate in online learning and videos. Another possibility is reading books. Whatever approach, you will want to consider a few things. Is your focus on country-specific cultural information? How much breadth and depth of knowledge do you seek? Are comparativist models, to speed your learning and provide you with linkages between cultural phenomena, of value to your objectives?

If you chose a single country approach, you have many possibilities. In one such approach culture is interpreted as a set of standards and you learn the ins and outs of a particular culture, by one nation or region at a time. This can be rewarding and time-consuming.

An alternative is to learn a cultural model. Cultural models abound yet the most scientifically validated cultural model is based on the research of Professor Geert Hofstede.[9] The result is a model comparing national cultures along 6 main dimensions. We will highlight the model briefly to understand its applications. Once a user comprehends what the six dimensions mean, it is possible to compare over 100 countries with ease and consider associated implications. This facilitates cultural hypothesis making and testing.

Hofstede defines culture as the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others. He acknowledges three levels in mental programming, i.e., personality, culture, and human nature. Seen as a pyramid, the base of human nature is inherited and universal. The next level is a culture which is specific to a group or category and is always learning. At, the peak of the pyramid is the personality which is specific to an individual and is both inherited and learned. When we work with culture, there are several layers, similar to the rings of an onion. At the core, where culture is deepest and associated with what is good/bad or right/wrong is values. Many people are not explicitly aware of their own values, let alone the values of others. It is understandable since culture cannot be easily seen or described. The outer layers of culture are easier to see and understand. These include rituals, heroes, and symbols. Also referred to as practices, these three outer levels of culture are what organizations tend to focus on and develop.

National culture and organizational culture are related but distinct. In this short article, the focus is on national culture also referred to as geographic culture, a concept delimited by national borders.

The 6D model of Hofstede works on a scale from 0 to 100 and makes tendencies in society more transparent and understandable. The cultural dimensions represent independent preferences for one state of affairs over others that distinguish societies (not individuals) from each other. In comparison to each other, the 6D score unlocks useful insights into intercultural human relations. For coaching in international organizations, the dimensions help to frame and contextualize intercultural issues.

A brief tour of the dimensions provides a taste of how this is done. The first dimension examines the extent to which the less powerful members of a society accept that power is distributed unequally. A low country score reveals that a bell curve member of a corresponding society will prefer low dependence, minimizing inequality and hierarchy for convenience. By contrast, a high score reveals a bell curve preference for high dependence, inequality is accepted and hierarchy is seen as needed. Numerous correlations reveal rich details of societal preferences. In our Central Asia example this dimension is revealed when a coachee subordinates their objectives in deference to a specific superior(s) or perceived superior(s)  As a coach, we want to understand what that means and how to work with or mitigate that perception and behavior.

A second dimension contrasts individualism with collectivism. In collectivism, the “we” is emphasized, in individualism the “I” is dominant. In collectivism loss of face and shame are important constructs. In individualism, it is a loss of self-respect and guilt that commands more attention. Filling obligations to family, in-groups, and society are important in collectivism while in individualism, it is more about fulfilling obligations to self.  In our Central Asia example, the coach will be keen to understand issues around saving face and group-related behavioral norms. This covers a gamut of issues including how, what, when to communicate, how to behave and dress, and when to do certain things. This dimension correlates within-group expectations and can dovetail with religious behaviors. An example might be an unwillingness to confront a particular issue due to a particular constellation of people involved.

A third dimension is dedicated to distinguishing between dominant values of achievement/success versus cooperation and quality of life. Some societies have a need to excel, to polarize, to live in order to work, see big and fast as beautiful, and have admiration for the successful. Other societies emphasize more quality of life, seek consensus, work in order to live, view small and slow as beautiful, and have sympathy for the unfortunate. In our Central Asia example, this dimension can manifest itself in the area of career advancement whereby career advancement per se may play a less motivating role.

Uncertainty avoidance is a dimension looking at the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity, and try to avoid such situations. Where uncertainty avoidance is low, we find more relaxed atmospheres, there is less stress and emotions are less show. There is less of a need for rule and conflict and competition are seen as fair play. In contrast, high uncertainty avoidance correlated with anxiety, greater stress, and the need to show emotions, to release stress. We also find a need for rules and a view that conflict is threatening. In our Central Asia example, we may find a need to bridge coachee preferences for structure and predictability in the face of BANI-driven organizational initiatives to purposely disrupt and increase the change of pace in increasingly ambiguous settings.

Another dimension looks at the extent to which people show a future-oriented or pragmatic perspective rather than a normative or short-term point of view. With this dimension, it is possible to constructively expose timeframes, preferences for stability and change, conventional and pragmatic approaches, and even perspectives about truth in the workplace. In our Central Asia example, we may find organizational objectives fostering change, diversity, and inclusion at odds with normative perceptions about such initiatives. Coaching can expose the underlying beliefs while offering ways to bridge gaps, impact attitudes and change specific behaviors.

The final 6D dimension highlights the extent to which people express their desires and impulses. Relatively weak control is referred to as indulgence while relatively strong control is referred to as restraint. In our Central Asia example, this dimension can be manifested in skepticism about organizational initiatives and reluctance to accept or embrace desired changes. Here too, coaching offers a psychologically safe environment to explore, understand and focus on behavioral changes to align the individual with organizational objectives.

Equipped with a 6D understanding as a foundation, it is possible to further reduce complexity by working with culture clusters. By focusing on the first four main dimensions of national culture, clear patterns emerge as combinations related to low and high dimensional scores reveal 6 national clusters. They are referred to as; Contest, Network; Family, Pyramid, Solar System, and Machine. When working with highly complex organizations it is normal to have a myriad of nationalities collaborating. As such, the Culture Clusters are a further way to create effective insights in the face of complexity.

The culture clusters were coined by Hofstede and further refined by Huib Wursten who crafted a gestalt, the 7 Mental Images of National Culture.[10]  In a short book, it is possible to cover the globe of national cultures using just 7 distinct mental images. Using Huib Wursten’s gestalt, both coach and coachee can rapidly achieve a common language and reference point to discuss issues impacting coaching objectives when they relate to national culture.


The author kindly acknowledges coachees from Central Asia who helped shape this article and provided practical relevance and learning to the author.


Cascio, J. (2020).  Facing the Age of Chaos.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind, third edition (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill Professional.

Imfeld, T. (2021). What is transition coaching?

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.

Passmore, J. (2009). Diversity in Coaching: Working with gender, culture, race, and age. London: Kogan Page.

Peterson, D. B. (2006). People Are Complex and the World Is Messy: A Behavior-Based
Approach to Executive Coaching. In D. Stober & A. Grant (Eds.), Evidence-Based Coaching Handbook: Putting Best Practices to Work for Your Clients (pp. 51-76). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Thoren, P-M. (2017). Agile People: A Radical Approach for HR & Managers. Lioncrest Publishers.

Wursten, H. (2019). The 7 Mental Images of National Culture. Hofstede Insights.

About The Author

Thomas Anthony Imfeld, born and raised in Metro New York, earned his BA and MA degrees in the USA. Working on both sides of the Atlantic, Thomas has been leading international business development at a visual communication company. He served Fortune 500 companies globally over a long period. Thomas founded and incorporated his own consultancy in 2012 working for clients in the Mobility Industry and beyond.  He obtained certifications in career coaching, intercultural management, and training. Thomas uses his experience, knowledge, and networks to support individuals and organizations in change processes to secure objectives. He calls Trier, Germany, home where his son was born. Thomas is involved in the community, assisting global citizens, ex-pats, women, and neurodiverse Gen Alphas.

[1] Cascio, J. (2020).  Facing the Age of Chaos.

[2] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

[3] Imfeld, T. (2021). What is transition coaching?

[4] Human Capital Institute, in partnership with International Coach Federation. (2016). Building a coaching culture with managers and leaders. Retrieved from

[5] Thoren, P-M. (2017). Agile People: A Radical Approach for HR & Managers. Lioncrest Publishers.

[6] Source of yin/yang image.

[7] Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.

[8] Passmore, J. (2009). Diversity in Coaching: Working with gender, culture, race, and age. London: Kogan Page.

[9] Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind, third edition (3rd ed.). McGraw-Hill Professional.

[10] Wursten, H. (2019). The 7 Mental Images of National Culture. Hofstede Insights.

Culture and Nation-building in Africa.


This paper Culture and Nation-building in Africa is trying to assess two hypotheses by answering the following questions:

  • Nation-building in Africa guided by the colonization and decolonization process? Following some African nations the colonial administration par excellence in their post-Independence phases?
  • The culture of Ubuntu and leadership in building a nation as a community?
  • “Violence reduces the cost for an organization”?
  • What happened with all donor aid assisting nation-building, good governance, and fundamental rights?
  • Are Nations only built when there is an Enemy?
  • Nation-building in times of COVID?
  • The role of national heroes as catalysts for fomenting national identity?
  • Is African Nation-building following the principles of Native Nation Building?
  • Conclusions


Nation-building, Ubuntu, Attuned leadership, native nation, decolonization, black economic empowerment

Introduction: (Falode 2019, Lemay Hebert 2009)

There is a difference between Nation-building and State building. This paper is trying to explain how Nation-building in Africa was based on the power of tribes, the Bantu culture Ubuntu and the existence of an enemy (the colonizer, the intruder, Covid pandemic)

State-building is rather artificial, state borders have been made artificially by the colonizers. Tribal and clan-related territories have been split up into new states in a more mathematical way, not taking into account the reality of cultural, tribal, and clan relations.

Nation-building is wider, and deeper and can be defined as:

“Nation-building is the process whereby a society of people with diverse origins, histories, languages, cultures, and religions come together within the boundaries of a sovereign state with a unified constitutional and legal dispensation, a national public education system, an integrated national economy, shared symbols, national heroes and catalysts. “ (14,6)

“The primary objective of nation-building is to make a violent society peaceful. Security, food, shelter, and basic services should be provided first. Economic and political objectives can be pursued once these first-order needs are met.”

“Nation-building theory was primarily used to describe the processes of national integration and consolidation that led up to the establishment of the modern nation-state as distinct from various forms of traditional states, such as feudal and dynastic states, church states, empires, etc. “(Falode, 2019, p. 181).

“State-building as a specific term in social sciences and humanities refers to political and historical processes of creation, institutional consolidation, stabilization and sustainable development of states, from the earliest emergence of statehood up to the modern times.”

Hypotheses on Nation-building and culture in Africa

Two hypotheses need to be analyzed in this paper:

  • Post decolonized African countries are not built on nation-building projects financed by Development partners and International funding?
  • Is Nation-building built on the shape of sociological communities and the intercultural management of tribal/national identities in an African country?
Is Nation-building in Africa initially guided by the colonization and decolonization processes? (Peters 2016, Native Nation Institute 2010)

Most African nations have known long colonization processes and a fight for independence period. The main colonizers were France, the UK, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium with RDC and two protectorates Rwanda and Burundi.

There are two schools in the Nation-building in Africa. The former French colonies have known nation-building efforts while mirroring the Mother country: la France, based on the Language (La Francophonie) and the French social values (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité)

The British former colonies have known for strong state-building efforts. (Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya)

The first one, nation-building (legitimacy approach) needs consolidated state institutions but not without the socio-cultural-political (Durkheimian sociology) cohesion during the process.

The second one: The “institutional approach” (Weberian approach” of nation-building, stressed the importance of institutional reconstruction where state-building efforts do not need a sociological cultural coherence nor nation-building efforts. In the state-society relationship in institutional approaches, state and society are viewed as intrinsically separable.

The first approach, the legitimacy approach is more sociologically or anthropologically oriented, relativizing generalizing assumptions and emphasizing the particularities of each state and its societal context. The legitimacy approach, therefore, poses obstacles to measuring state strength in quantitative terms.”

A good example is the “Afrobarometer” project that studies public opinion in various African countries, notably the citizen-government relationship.

The questions concern the theme of the citizens-state relationship, the way the political institutions and system are understood, and how public services and goods are assessed given the state’s legitimacy. An important perception is their own needs and how a high-level perception of corruption is changing the view of the legitimacy of the state machinery.

Legitimacy and the process of nation-building are hindered by having less voice of the citizen in the process and the lack of adequate accountability of state actors in the process. Therefore, there is an important role for non-state actors and the civil society as well as their own elected representatives in free elections.

There is this important paradox in the reconstruction of state institutions without an eye on the socio-cultural cohesion of states and nations. Before having important state-building efforts, it is recommended to analyze the socio-cultural data of what is intended to become a “modern democratic” nation/state. The colonial and post-colonial times in Africa had this important default that the socio-cultural factors were not fully understood. The Bantu concept and moral compass of Ubuntu ( “I am because we are”) came only lately upfront in nation-building. And with Mandela, Ubuntu (African humanism) became part of the new Constitution of the RSA after Apartheid. Mandela was an “attuned leader” who brought the spirit of Ubuntu, the protection of people and their communities rooted in justice and equality to the foreground.

Do some African nations follow the colonial administration model par excellence in their post-Independence phases? (Sidane 2000, Boudja 2019)

The independence of many African states was ill-prepared and was not anticipated by the colonizers who thought that independence would come much later ( 20 years later at least). But this was a misinterpretation. Under charismatic leaders like Lumumba, Nyerere, Nkrumah, and Nasser independency came earlier, at the beginning of the sixties. Some African states/nations were only independent in the seventies. (Comoros, Djibouti, Angola, Mozambique). The latest independent nation was South Sudan (2011).

The colonial society and the colonial administration were excellent mirrors of the motherland. There was a difference between the term “the fatherland” (when” the colon” left the home country) but when in the colonies reference was made to the “motherland”, to whom every colonized person belonged.

The situation of installing an independent new state was chaotic at that time. The case of Congo (now DRC) is a good example. The Belgians had bought the colony from Leopold 1, who had Congo Free state under his possession. Hence, all the proven stories about institutionalized mistreatment of the local population (White King, Red Rubber, Black Deaths.) Congo officially became independent from Belgium on 30th June in1960. The King of Belgium came to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) and he was caught off guard during the impassioned independency speech of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister in the government of Kasavubu.

Extract of the speech in 1960, Leopoldville:

“Although this independence of the Congo is being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle, a persevering and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle, in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood.

It was filled with tears, fire, and blood. We are deeply proud of our struggle because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us.

That was our lot for the eighty years of colonial rule and our wounds are too fresh and much too painful to be forgotten.”

We have experienced forced labor in exchange for pay that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger, to clothe ourselves, to have decent lodgings, or to bring up our children as dearly loved ones.”

That was the spirit in Congo when the whole Belgian colonial apparatus left the Congo; The country had no university-educated people, except for the postal employee, the teacher, the candidate priest, and the “ évolués”. The newly elected government struggled to keep the new state functioning but failed as the old colonizers wanted to show that the independent Congo will not function. But nation-building, the Ubuntu philosophy, and the young politized generation tried to make it work. The best example of excellence was to continue the old colonial administrative Belgian model. The state institutions, the schools, the tax office, and all other public services were taken over by the new elite. Manuals, Standard operations, procedures, and the rule of law were taken over and the old legal acquis was still in place. The Congo became a prismatic society in public administration, with a subsystem of interpretation and in development of a society in transition from fused towards diffraction of its social, cultural, political, and economic systems and values. (Zwaenepoel 90)

 But the colonizer and special the USA CIA had other plans as the Congo was a geological abundant country with an important uranium reserve. The USA and its allies were also afraid that the new State would come under the influence of the USSR bloc. Several CIA sponsored and Belgian sabotage activities were planned to undermine the new government of Kasavubu (the First Congolese president) and were set up: the kidnap and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the secession of Katanga ( rich copper province), the killing of Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations on a peace mission in the Congo.

But it was much later when Colonel Mobutu Seseko started his reign after a coup d’ état in 1965. He was seen in his later years as a nation builder but one with bloody hands or an enlightened despot. He was as a former journalist aware that the Congo needed to become” authentic”, with a shared national identity in line with the Bantu philosophy, to unite all tribes and with common cultural values. So he changed the country and the “fleuve” name into “Zaire”, all citizens, now called “citoyen(ne)” had to change their colonial names and have ancestral Bantu names, and the vestimentary outfits were changed into cultural clothing (abacost (à bas costume) for men, traditional” pagnes” for women), everybody became a member of the One state party; Le Mouvement Populaire des Peuples. It brought a sense of belonging to a new nation with pride in their Bantu culture, ancestral beliefs, and values. This is well seen in the first sentence of his famous speech:

« Tout comme le soleil se lève avec éclat chaque matin sur le grand et majestueux fleuve Zaïre.. »

Mobutu was, after all, cruelly, a nation builder using the sociological cultural consensus of his citoyens and citoyennes, making Zaire the country of authenticity. But what happened with the state-building; Zaire was and is a fragile state, where the state cannot provide all public services to all citizens, where the immense wealth of the elite was made by corruption, and where the many dollars brought in by international donors, the private sector, the international banking, and the CIA disappeared.

Mobutu failed in getting the state build as efficiently, with sound systems and a share for all. State-building without nation-building cannot be a good and sustained case of cultural nation-building.

Seseko Mobutu and also Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu dreamed about the renaissance of Ubuntu in political and societal life in Congo and RSA, but it was Mobutu who brought the “authenticité” of the Ubuntu culture, the African society as an important factor in building the nation.

However, on the other hand, Mobutu also build a failed state and the most important threats are the loss of democratic and fundamental rights the oppression and killing of opponents, the limitation of the free flow of information in the community, and the most important factor was the collapse of the financial self-sustenance by the “greed” of his tribe and cronies.

When corruption and fraud in colonial times were seen as patriotic deeds, nowadays corruption is an act of individualism as it is taken away from the community. Population expects to be protected by the chiefs as a good family father and do have trust in a moral leader.

A second threat is a large population that lives under the poverty line and who is not inclusive in political life. Their only frustration is that security, and social needs for their extended family are no longer secured by the Chiefs and responsible.

A third threat is tribal strife and conflict in the region. A great part of Africa encounters continual armed conflict and war, where strong human rights abuses and discriminations are no longer punished. These fragile states like Zaire/Congo are far away from the Ubuntu values and this impact on large migrations, health disasters, and war crimes like the raping of women, girls, and babies (North Kivu, RDC).

The post-Mobutu period showed that nation-building based on Ubuntu cultural values cannot be true if the three factors of failure in state-building are not addressed. The administration apparatus, the “Acquis Communautaire”, the legislation, the financial systems and HR procedures are still the same as in colonial times. The so-called change management, sponsored by the development partners, to a new institutional state setting did not realize. All elements are in place to stay forever a fragile and failed state with an erroneous debt despite all well-intentioned state-building and capacity development efforts of donors and IFIs.

The culture of Ubuntu and leadership in building a nation as a community?
“Violence reduces the cost for the organization”? (Sidane 2000, Zwaenepoel 1990, Gyekye 1994, Ref: Bantu -New World Encyclopedia)

The culture of Ubuntu in Bantu Africa assisted in sustainable nation-building. The tree of basic values in the Bantu part of Africa (see map) leads to a humanism based on solidarity, community-driven, and with social control by peers, tribe, and community.

Several attuned leaders (Mandela, Bishop Tutu) have understood that a fragile broken society can only be healed by the sense of Ubuntu and belief in community focus. After the apartheid, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was installed to give victims and persecutors the chance to reconcile after a process of deep communication and looking for the truth.

The TRC was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. No section of society escaped these abuses.

TRC’s likely biggest failure was its lack of involvement in addressing social and economic transformation. The commission members were given the power to grant amnesty, but not the power to implement reparations.

The TRC has been criticized for having sacrificed justice for reconciliation. Another criticism is that the TRC is built on the Christian sense of forgiveness.

The amnesty process did not lead to a full restoration of a balanced nation and the old “enemy” and class typology was still in place. The state was still organized following the old institutional set-up of the Apartheid machinery, but the nation was scattered along with tribes and races, political parties, and minorities.

The government party ANC could not bridge the divides and had no solution for poverty reduction, the development of minority groups, implementation of reparation payments for victims, and enabling the right of land property for the landless minorities (Indigenous groups and minorities).

When the reconciliation idea was culturally correct, it underestimated the sociological deep divide between different population groups and the have-nots.

A new concept was introduced, as positive racial reinforcement, called the BEE, the Black Economic Empowerment, that was not a success. Later it was replaced by the B-BBEE Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment. A system that allowed “Blacks” to have advantages in job hunting, state jobs, financing, housing etc. “Blacks” were all victims of Apartheid like Africans, Colored, Indian, Indigenous, other minority groups, Chinese and White Women, who are South African citizens.

The main objective of B-BBEE is the inclusion of black people (defined broadly as Africans, Indians, and Colored) in the economy, within a larger goal of nation-building, and national empowerment, targeting historically disadvantaged people such as black people, women, the youth, rural communities, and disabled people.

The seven pillars of B-BBEE currently measured are:

  • Ownership.
  • Management Control.
  • Employment Equity.
  • Skills development.
  • Preferential Procurement.
  • Enterprise development.
  • Socio-Economic Development (Social Responsibility)

THE BEE and the B-BBEE were an answer to the lack of economic transformation and sharing of economic opportunities for all victims of apartheid. They completed the Ubuntu-inspired process of the Commission, which lacked attention to reparation and sustaining economic opportunities for all citizens in the South African economy.

Did the B-BBEE work as a tool for inclusive nation-building? (Boudja 2018, Sinha 2019)

The results are mitigated, giving more power to the ANC party and high funding going to provincial and local governments. It kept in place the “enemy typology”, we gain from the “others”. The old divide between the white population and the nonwhite African population was not solved and made more difficult with the non-solving of old territory and land property problems, as most landowners (Boer) had owned the majority of fertile land. At this problem was added, the problem of mining rights and access to water for industrial farming.

The first Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy has been one of the most direct attempts to achieve racial transformation in the South African economy. They missed key issues in terms of the high barriers that sustain exclusion and concentration.

The BEE approach was later copied by the Government of Namibia through The Targeted Intervention Programme for Employment and Economic Growth, with little success.

All these tools in nation-building by using the Ubuntu cultural values did not give sustainable results of the transformation of the economy and giving citizens an equal share in the wealth of the RSA. The nation-building in RSA is a long political consensus process, where the idea of “ the enemy inside” prevails. These sentiments were made stronger under the Zuma regime and the well-documented state finances robbery called “ state capture”. The former president and his cronies from inside and outside the RSA had a system of plundering Public finances.

On 11 September 2017, former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan estimated the cost of state capture at 250 billion rands (almost USD 17 billion), in a presentation at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.

All steps in the nation-building of a young democracy did not work for the RSA and the different tools to effect racial transformation and create an equal share in economic welfare and opportunities had not the expected results. The RSA is, of today, still a divided nation, even when the state machinery built during the Apartheid regime still works and old legislation is in place.

“Violence reduces the cost for the organization”? (Peters 2021)
Can a nation when restoring a national identity be built or restored by having an enemy? (Zwaenepoel 2019, Arino 2015)

 Some African nations like RSA, Angola, and Zimbabwe had known a long history of struggle, independence fighters, guerilla war, and ideologically inspired long conflicts. Most conflicts were supported by foreign countries ( the cold war), the masters of the weapons trade, and the secret services of different countries. Neighboring countries kept a growing interest in keeping the war economy and the access to important mining of crucial ores for industrial developments (coltan, cobalt, uranium, gold, copper, diamonds). This is the case with the war in North Kivu.

The idea of having a common enemy is the denominator to unite the opinions of citizens, “ we against the other”. And as Sartre was saying, “hell is the others”.

The recent invasion in Ukraine is a good non-African example of how a war between two Russian brother populations galvanized Ukraine’s defense and united a nation behind their leader. The principle of defining the everlasting enemy can be a tool in realizing nation-building during conflict and war.

On the other hand, conflict, and war do not stimulate economic growth and necessary transformation. Only foreign weapon production economies and the traders in conventional weaponry are increasing their profits. The importance of the illegal weapon import in Africa is the precursor for more conflict, tribal war, and incursions by neighboring countries to have access to priceless ores in fragile states.

Having a common enemy can be a bad catalysator of having a nation built around a charismatic leader but under the constraints of continuing conflict and war. (The Case of North Kivu)

What happened with all donor’s aid assisting nation-building, good governance, and fundamental rights?

A high part of donor aid and international cooperation is given to nation-building in the new African nations. Development funds and budget support are targeting the building of a new democratic nation based on the example of their old nation organization.

The EU, the biggest provider of donor aid, does have programs based on the European Values. The funds are used to finance political advisors, capacity development programs for state employees, the reform of Public Finances, the role of non-state actors and civic society, the organization of democratic and free elections, the peace and security concerns, and the cross-cutting issues of gender, climate change resilience and social inclusion.

The EU values in democratic nation/state-building:
  • Human dignity. Human dignity is inviolable. EU fundamental rights are primordial.
  • Freedom. Freedom of movement gives citizens the right to move and reside freely within the Union.
  • Democracy. The functioning of the EU is founded on representative democracy.
  • Equality.
  • Rule of law.
  • Human rights.

Many funds have been used by international donors to finance Capacity development programs for leaders, officials, non-state actors, Faith-based organizations, and NGOs. Money was spent on travel, conferences, workshops, structured democratic dialogue, exercises in democracy, and fostering the EU Fundamental Rights. There is no study on what the added value could be of these projects in nation-building and enhancing national identity. A succession of stand-alone projects and programs never fully contributed to the long process of nation-building. Western nations learned it in their history the hard way through war, conflict, and revolt and not by programs and projects in nation-building designed and promoted by international donors. All Nation-building programs in Africa mirror the actual state of Western states that donors use as an excellent example of a democratic nation. It has similarities with the colonization where the idea was to introduce civilization to the uncivilized. In the case of aid and cooperation to assist in building a newly democratic nation and restructuring the state institutions, the same emerges. Two examples: Twenty years of nation-building in Afghanistan and the different funds for a democratic nation, transformative gender, and a strong National army were finished in two weeks with the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul.

Another example of the well understandable self-interest of the donor community in France in West Africa. The former colonizer still has armies in some Sahel countries to protect their mining and other interests in the region. After the independence, the real “decolonization” still needs to start. France linked the CFA (currency used in most West African countries) to their Public finance policies and keeps the gold reserve backing the CFA in their vaults in Paris. The well understandable reaction from the West African young population that never knew colonization, is to get la France out and create a new financial system. Geopolitical interests are prime, and some compare it to a form of neo-colonialism.

Nation-building under the Covid pandemic (Peters 2021)

The world will never know what the exact number of victims of COVID 19 in Africa is. Citizens of Africa face a lot of different health challenges and the life expectancy of women and men is lower than 60 years. When the pandemic broke out, the struggle for vaccinations was the work of the capital-oriented pharmaceutical industry and “the first come first serve” principles; Africa could have a small share of the vaccine production and the efforts to produce vaccinations in the African continent were a lost cause. The result was the many nonvaccinated citizens and many more victims than is officially known.

Another important impact was on livelihood, as non-mobility means that people could not move to sell and buy the necessary products in markets and the streets.

Did Covid 19 assist in nation-building?

In one way, it showed African solidarity and

self-help, which was a great factor to unite the citizens in the struggle to overcome the pandemic. But Africa had known many pandemics and epidemics. There was this sense of resilience during HIV Aids, the EBOLA, and many other pandemics. Facing disasters, communities are built on resilience, unity in organizing, assisting the weak and the children, and Ubuntu, African humanism as a compass.

The role of national heroes as catalysator with football and music (Meeks)

The role of national heroes as catalysts for fomenting national identity is an important factor in nation-building and building a “society of people with diverse origins, histories, languages, cultures, and religions come together within the boundaries of a sovereign state.” The independence struggle brought some attuned leaders. “An attuned leader is an insightful person who stresses the importance of human relationships, empathizing and identifying with the followership, winning their trust and producing results in line with the needs of the followers”. (12) Several African leaders had an important impact on the African post-independence period by being courageous and even giving their own life for a good cause. Leaders like Lumumba, Nyerere, Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Jomo Kenyatta, Thomas Sankara, Kwame Nkrumah, Kofi Annan and Ellen Johnson -Sirleaf were attuned leaders

An attuned leader is an insightful person who stresses the importance of human relationships, empathizing and identifying with the followership, winning their trust, and producing results in line with the needs of the followers. (Khoza 2016)

But also, nonpoliticians or religious leaders like football players, musicians, and writers can be attuned facilitators.

A good example is Didier Drogba’s peace- and nation-building effort on Ivory Coast. Civil war broke out in Cote d’Ivoire in 2002. In 2007, Drogba ended a 5-year civil war in his country, Cote d’Ivoire by scoring a goal, that helped them win a match against Madagascar. He asked that the next game be played in Bouake, a rebel stronghold then got on his knees and pleaded with rebels to drop their arms, and they did. The symbolic gesture of the game in Bouake seemed to have united a country once again.

This campaign impacted the sense of national ownership and identity and influenced the resilience of this political and tribal conflict.

Another good example of nation-building was in Jamaica, where the island state was in a conflict between two parties and two candidates for president. Bob Marley proposed to hold a reunification concert to make peace in Jamaica. Sometime before the concert he was attacked in his house, his wife with a bullet in the head and Bob in his arm and shoulder. He continued to hold the first peace concert “Smile Jamaica Concert” in 1976

and played with his wounded arm. In 1978 he organized with the Wailers the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston. At the end of this concert and during the political

conflict, he asked the Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and his political opponent Edward Seaga onto the stage, to say “one love “in the microphone.

That is how Rastafari culture helps national identity and resilience. With this important message sang by Bob Marley. (15)

Is Nation-building mirroring the five principles of Native Nation Rebuilding? (Native Nations Institute, Wursten 1997 , Hofstede2010)

Is Nation-building mirroring the five principles of Native Nation Rebuilding? (Native Nations Institute, Wursten 1997 , Hofstede2010)

Five core principles African-nation building Cultural dimension Comments
Sovereignty Nations make the major decision Self-governing power Nations are independent and make institutional decisions but still, there is a great influence of International donors and the community who decided on the conditions of the supply of funds for development
Capable governing institutions



The Nation backs up authority with competence Collective societies with a strong sense of consensus-building UBUNTU compass Following the history of the colonial institutions and procedures for state-building after independence. Successful African nations put in place effective, non-politicized dispute-resolution mechanisms and build capable bureaucracies
Cultural match


Governing institutions match community beliefs about how authority

should be organized:

The strong influence of Ubuntu culture and old governance practices

Cultural values as strong power distance, less individualism but collective based.

Social control and the influences of chiefs, faith-based organizations, and non-state actors

Nation-building is more based on culture, sociologically or anthropologically oriented, relativizing generalizing assumptions and emphasizing the particularities of each state and its societal context.
Strategic orientation



Decisions are in African Nations not made with long-term priorities in mind


African nations score very low on Long term orientation (Hofstede), all decisions are short term and with the own tribe, or clan in mind African nations tend to find short term solutions for long structural problems like poverty, food security, migration, climate resilience


Public spirited leadership

A few numbers of attuned leaders rose in the history, who had a long view and through a charismatic approach have their eye on sustainable change in society, economy, and politics The value of Ubuntu, African humanism The culture of change in African nations is not seen in the political elite, it is more the non-state actors, the faith-based and non-governmental organizations, the unions, and advocacy groups who are working on the grass-root levels. Fundamental changes cannot be brought by evolution but by the revolution of the mind and the masses. The elite does not like major changes that can impact their position, the position of the clan, and their wealth.



There were two hypotheses to be assessed:

  • Post decolonized African countries are not built on nation-building projects financed by Development partners and International funding?
  • Is Nation-building built on the shape of sociological communities and the intercultural management of tribal/national identities in African countries?

As was proved in this paper, after independence the state-building and the institutional concepts were copied from the nations of their former colonizers. There was no time left to prepare for a transition after the declaration of independence by the colonizing power. The new leaders had to continue what was conceived before, to provide public goods and services in the post-Independence time. And even up to now, the International donor community with an arsenal of funds, tools, and techniques provide the new nations with assistance, aid, and cooperation to build the new nation with cultural values from the West. Cross-cutting factors and often conditions for more funds were social inclusion, gender transformation, sexual orientation, trade facilities, and resilience were of importance.

Some capacity development projects have sustainable results, but it is difficult in the long term to define the value-added for and from the nation that received aid and for the provider to know the value for money and the expected rate of return.

Is Nation-building built on the shape of sociological communities and the intercultural management of tribal/national identities in African countries? Nation-building in most African nations is based on deep cultural values, language, and cultural, and sociological identity. The high-power distance is a basic characteristic of traditional communities, where the chief has to provide for his tribe, clan, and nation.

The moral compass in Bantu Africa is Ubuntu or African humanism. Some cases of racial transformation, reconstruction, and the building of national identity were given. They proved not to be always successful and nations with a more “cultural fusion” approach are making more changes in society and economy. The younger African generation with access to social media and ICT tools will be the biggest change-makers in African society, politics, and economic development.


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Dr. Jonathan Fisher(University of Birmingham), Professor Nic Cheeseman

(University of Birmingham): WhatsApp and Nigeria’s 2019 Elections: mobilizing the people, protecting the vote; Centre for Democracy and Development, 2019

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United Nations Publication ST/ESA/PAD/SER. E Volume 46

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African Prismatic Societies, California University, USA, 1990

Dr. Luc Zwaenepoel is a Drs in Development economics, Ph.D. Development management and a Master’s in Sexology. He lived and worked for 40 years on the African continent, the Indian Ocean, and the Far East. His international work in economic development brought him in contact with a better understanding of African organizations and communities, with a great interest in the Bantu philosophy and the Ubuntu approach. As a novelist, he wrote a book: “Sartre in the Congo” 2020, a magical realism story, against the background of the first genocide in Kongo and Rwanda.

Mental Images and Nation-Building

Mental Images and Nation-Building

Huib Wursten, Public speaker, Author, and Consultant


It’s still fresh in our memory. The chaos of the hasty withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO allies from Afghanistan and the earlier failure of nation-building in Iraq.

In both cases, the necessity to intervene was partly legitimized by the argument that the states in question were a threat to the international order and safety and the consequent need for regime change.

Nation-building is notoriously difficult. Even more difficult if another nation is involved. A report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace looking at U.S. attempts at nation-building counted more than 200 interventions. The conclusion was that only two could be seen as a success—Nation-building in Germany and Japan after the second world war. ( Pei Minxin, Kasper Sara, 2003)

In this paper, it will be shown that Cultural values, as defined by the most quoted scholar in the empirical approach in this field, Geert Hofstede, help to understand the difficulties. Furthermore, it will be shown that the 7 “Mental Images,” the combinations of these values developed by the author of this article, are crucial for the sustainability of all policy development in general, specifically for nation-building.

Most of the failures of the interventions in nation-building can be explained by

  1. A failure to understand the cultural requirements of the desired situation.
  2. A mismatch between the “rules of the game” used to manage change and the attributes of the culture at hand.


Nation-building,  Culture, Hofstede, Mental Images,  Imagined communities, Diversity.

Some definitions


In this paper, we refer to nation-states in the following meaning:  Nation: people sharing a specific territory and having a shared national consciousness, who, in principle, accept the authority, legitimacy, and power of their political administration (= state).

Nation-building is constructing or structuring a national identity using the state’s power. Nation-building aims to unify the people within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run. The “shared consciousness” in the definition above is essential. Anderson (1991 and Norton (2003)) argue that what we aim at are “imagined communities.” Imagined, “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” In “imagining ourselves bonded with our fellow compatriots across space and time, we can feel a sense of community with people we have not yet met, but perhaps hope to meet one day.”

Imagined communities and dimensions of culture                                                           

Constructing and structuring an imagined community must address the value preferences of such an imagined community and the consequences for functional structures and the rule of law. Additionally, it must also provide a way for people to be heard and to be able to influence the imagined community. Finally, it should be clear how citizens can participate in shaping policy decisions.

We need some verifiable research about the game’s specific rules to analyze the requirements. Unfortunately, too much in the sometimes-overly aggressive- discussions about these issues are related to anecdotic and emotional storytelling. This is where the research of Hofstede comes into the picture. He focused his research on the value dimensions of national culture.(Hofstede 2001, Hofstede et al.2010)

The value dimensions of Hofstede

Geert Hofstede found and explained value differences on the most fundamental level among nation-states. The four confirmed value differences describe preferences per Nation-state about how to deal with the outside world and each other. Research by others (Beugelsdijk et al.2015) found that the differences Hofstede found are stable over time and are not disappearing because of globalization. This finding is relevant because some “globalists” believe that the world is turning into a global village with shared values and where differences only exist on an individual level.

The confirmed four dimensions of national culture identified by Hofstede are:

Power Distance (PDI) The way people accept hierarchy as an existential fact of life

or as just a matter of convenience in organizing a group or community.  

Individualism/Collectivism (IDV) The way people deal with the relationship between the individual and the group. In collectivist cultures, people prioritize loyalty to the ‘in-group’ they belong to (extended family, tribe, ethnic group, religious group, etc.), whereas, in Individualistic cultures, people put the rights of the individual first.

Masculinity/Femininity (MAS) The way people deal with motivation: a preference for competition (masculine cultures) or a preference for cooperation and consensus-seeking (feminine cultures).

Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) The way people deal with unfamiliar risks. This concerns the need for predictability. The continuum goes from a weak appetite for predictability to a strong need for predictability.

These are not binary divisions but a continuum. It describes the central tendency of a bell curve per nation. It concerns the majority culture. Minority cultures need to define themselves in relation to the majority culture. Individuals can have other preferences than the majority. However, the majority culture decides the criteria for proper behavior in that culture and defines what is and what is not acceptable.

The majority frequently see being different as “deviant” and tend to neglect or even punish minority behavior. This explains why minorities though different in their preferences, tend to conform to the norms of the majority culture.

The position of about 180 countries on this continuum is charted. A meta-analysis shows that the repeat results are consistent over the +/- 50 years since Hofstede’s first conclusions. However, the latest significant research found that two ‘Dimensions’ scores are slowly changing. Everywhere the scores for power-distance are getting lower, and the scores for Individualism are getting higher. The relative distances between countries are however not evolving. That is, worldwide, we are moving in a cohort.

The scores describe the majority values of nation-states. The idea of nation-states is relatively recent. It is often associated with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. In this treaty, the sovereign legal status of the nation-state was “cemented” (Spark notes: Nations and states).   Sovereign nation-states are vital because they shape their citizens’ values by their educational policies, the influence of institutions, and the national media.

Mental Images and the gravitational influence of culture

Wursten shows that country cultures cannot be understood by the separate value dimensions one by one. “The whole is more than the sum of parts. Combining the four fundamental value dimensions leads to a “Gestalt,” something new. Seven of these Gestalts are identified (Wursten 2019). The word “mental images” is used in this paper to differentiate between the Gestalts. The term reflects an essential consequence of the seven combinations: they lead to seven different “pictures” in the mind of people of what society and organizations look like.

Every Mental Image has a specific approach to the ‘rules of the game'”. (Wursten 2019). These ‘rules of the game’ influence almost everything relating to societal issues, including the shape of Governance and the st up of institutions in a culture.

To fully appreciate the seven different Mental Images, it is essential to understand that the countries belonging to a particular Mental Image have a similar mix of values. But that does not mean they are identical. Sharing the same “rules of the game” does not always lead to the same decisions! In every culture, different forces are at work. For instance: you’ll find different mixes in all cultures of conservatives and progressives. Issues like size, location, and geography all play a role. Even the personality of leaders can play a role.

The need for nation-building

The need for nation-building is nowadays felt mostly in Collectivist value systems with a high score for Power-distance, a combination that complicates one of the critical goals for nation-building: creating a broader identity, the feeling of belonging to a shared “imagined community,” Achieving this shared Imagined community proves to be very difficult in multi-ethnical, multi-tribal multi-religious environments. This is the challenge for new nation-states that have their origin in political decisions from the past. Decisions that were not taking cultural diversity into account and created artificial borders.

Short overview of the seven Mental Images

  • The arrows indicate a low, middle, or high score

 The Pyramid. Important issues.

Most cases of recent nation-building are in the Pyramid Mental Image. The Pyramid includes the combination of large Power distance, Collectivism, and High UAI. MAS is of a lesser consequence, mainly manifesting itself by the assertiveness in people’s behavior and their willingness for consensus-seeking.

Analysis of the value combination of the Pyramid will show that it complicates one of the essential goals for nation-building: creating a broader identity, the feeling of belonging to a shared “imagined community,” This is very difficult in multi-ethnical, multi-tribal multi-religious new nation-states. Unfortunately, it is precisely the situation of many new nation-states that have their origin in political decisions from the past. These decisions created rather artificial borders and did not consider cultural diversity.

Two historical examples

  1. Africa and the influence of colonial powers (Faal 2009) The African borders were drawn during the late 19th century, from 1870-to 1900. This was when imperialism dominated European foreign policy. This was the time when Europe conquered most of Africa. At the congress of Berlin in 1888, headed by German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the rules for drawing up borders in Africa were determined, mandating that countries could only draw out their respective zones by military occupation, and if other countries were to control Europeans have already occupied areas what which, it would be seen as an act of war. There have been numerous other changes – with quite a few in the 1930s and further in the run-up to independence. For example, the border between Nigeria and Cameroon was modified as recently as 2008 following the resolution of the Bakassi dispute, while a new border appeared when Sudan split into two countries in 2011. After WWII, in the wave of decolonization, countries were granted independence to their respective control zones; thus, the previous borders were retained.
  2. 2. The Ottoman empire and the development of nation-states (Aviv 2016)

Nationalism as an ideology was alien to the Middle East. It first emerged within intellectual circles as a reaction to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, demonstrating the economic, military, and political development gap between the Muslim Middle East and Christian Europe. The Turkish elite of the Ottoman Empire shifted towards nationalism to close this gap and started a reform period known as the transmat. Until then, the empire had been divided into millets, comprising religious communities granted autonomy for internal affairs to pay taxes to the Sultan and keep local order. While the primary feature of identity was religion, local rulers struggling for independence, such as Mohammad Ali of Egypt, wanted to keep the money they had to transfer to the Sultan. This scenario changed fundamentally with the transmat. All inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire officially became citizens with the same rights and duties. The autonomy of the millets ended, but partly in contradiction to the reform, the Turkish elite pictured itself as the ruling millet, which meant discrimination against all non-Turkish citizens. This became most apparent in public administration as non-Turkish civil servants lost their posts while the share and influence of Turks grew. As a reaction to Turkish nationalism, the Arabs emphasized their ethnicity—Arab nationalism was thus a reaction to Turkish nationalism. Arab nationalism, however, remained a marginal phenomenon until the First World War. Michel Aflaq, a founding member and leading intellectual of the Ba’ath Party, defined an Arab first by his language

Nation-building and the attributes of the Pyramid.

Loyalty to the in-group and particularism.

One common attribute of all Pyramid countries is Collectivism. In the Hofstede framework, this is the opposite of Individualism. In Individualistic societies, people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only, whereas, in Collectivist cultures, people belong to “in-groups” that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.

In collectivist cultures, people are supposed to be loyal to, and in harmony with, the thinking and the interest of their own in-group (tribe, ethnic group, region, clan, religious group). In return, the in-group will take care of them. In these cultures, it can be dangerous to have ideas and behavior, not in line with the in-group. It can be seen as disloyalty which is punished by exclusion from the in-group. One is expected to adhere to the set of values for the in-group. For outsiders, different values apply. This is called particularism.

The consequence for nation-building: because the values don’t necessarily apply to other in-groups, it is more challenging to develop a nation with “shared national consciousness” in collectivist cultures.

Identity In a previous paper, I analyzed the difference between individualistic and collectivist cultures in the context of self-concept, a central element in our mental programming. In collectivist countries, the in-group is the primary source of one’s identity, and the only secure protection one has against the hardships of life. Consequently, identity is in collectivist cultures to a substantial extent derived from Group/category membership. In collectivist cultures, a person hardly thinks about himself as an individual. Hsu (Hsu1971) argued that the Chinese word for “Man” (ren) includes the person’s intimate societal and cultural environment., which makes that person’s existence meaningful. In a broad review of literature, Markus and Kitayama (1991) argued that our cognition, emotion, and motivation all differ depending on whether our culture has provided us with an independent or an interdependent” self-construal. Children in cultures with an Individualistic culture” learn to think of themselves as I. This I is an individual’s identity and is distinct from other people’s I’s, and these others are classified not according to group membership but individual characteristics. Playmates are chosen primarily based on personal preferences. (Hofstede,2001) In collectivist cultures, gender and religion are essential for identity. Not so much in IDV cultures. As an interesting example: In Individualistic cultures, the generic goal of psychotherapy has often been defined as “self-integration” or “self-actualization.”  Such goals would be condemned in Arabic societies, where collectivist identity is given precedence over the self. (Hofstede 2001) This cultural issue strongly influences the discussion on Nation-building in collectivist cultures. In collectivist cultures, in-group identity is an existential issue.

Trust and relationship: A condition for cooperation with others.

The rational or “functional” reasons for a joint effort in policy development or a project are secondary to the need to trust each other. This takes time but is a necessary condition for the sustainability of an endeavor.

Hierarchy: In the Pyramid, it is accepted that hierarchy is an existential part of life. People are raised to accept and respect power inequality. Superiors are viewed from a different stratum of society. As a result, subsequent to the acceptance of hierarchy, there is also latent mistrust between the levels. This has consequences for communication and feedback. To avoid disharmony and conflict, communication tends to be indirect. There is a real need to read between the lines.

Feedback: Upwards criticism is very uneasy. It can provoke the ire of the superior and it can create disharmony or loss of face for the superior or employee. This also applies to giving negative feedback to the superior. In small PDI cultures, the superior expects the employee to report immediately if something is not happening as expected. Because of this emphasis on equality, there is basic trust between the levels. Superiors can expect subordinates to volunteer direct feedback if things develop in an unexpected direction. If no such feedback is given within limits, a superior can rely on the expectation that things are developing as foreseen. “No news is good news.” In large Power Distance countries, the approach to this issue is different. In these countries, people are raised to respect inequality. However, the fear of creating disharmony and loss of face and the latent mistrust make people will not volunteer to give negative feedback to their superiors. Therefore, the superior needs to look for negative developments actively. The saying is:” People respect what you inspect.” Reviews of the work take place continuously. The inspection is done physically on location. Phone calls or Zoom meetings are inadequate. In small PDI cultures, the lack of visible inspection from the superior is perceived as positive. The perception is that the superior trust you in your competence and empowerment. In large PDI cultures, however, lack of visible inspection is frequently perceived as bad leadership: It is perceived as disinterest of the superior in what you are doing.

Leadership:  A power holder in the Pyramid functions like a family’s strict but caring father (or mother). In return for the loyalty of employees or citizens, the boss is supposed to take care of them. This is very effective on the local level where the boss and the subordinate ‘know” each other and are from the same in-group. This, however, is difficult if the superior and subordinate are not in close contact and are not from the same in-group. In such a situation, it is a must for the superior to overcome mistrust and show that the “caring” behavior is also happening to people who are more remote, literary in terms of distance, and belonging to another in-group. This is where it frequently goes wrong in nation-building. The need to develop and maintain trust with members of other in-groups tends to be neglected by the people in power. In the Pyramid, the leader is supposed to be a strict but fair fatherlike/motherlike person, rewarding the loyalty of the subordinates by taking care of them. People in his in-group expect preferential behavior and protection. This is the essence of mutual trust. The top person in the Pyramid feels entitlement for all kinds of privileges. This is accepted by the less powerful. This trust is valid inside the in-group. A superior from another in-group is not automatically trusted as he is also supposed to be loyal to the people of his in-group and not to outsiders.

A few micro examples from my practice as a consultant.

–  The Western CEO of a company active in Nigeria was married to a Yoruba woman.

In private talks, Nigerian employees from other tribes confessed that they mistrusted all his actions because of his affiliation to the Yoruba community

  • Recruiting people for the same company was a balancing act. Recruiting from the same tribe had one advantage: accepting (informal) leadership was clear-cut. Trusted locals warned me about one disadvantage: the employees were loyal in the first place to their in-group and not to the company. There was no reluctance to help others with extra money or even tools. Hiring people from different tribes had the advantage that people were watching each other in terms of favors and privileges. The disadvantage is that informal leadership was unclear. Age was respected, especially inside the in-group. Conflicts between people from different tribes were more difficult to solve Decision making and the “common good” The superior has the prerogative of decision-making and is supposed to make clear-cut decisions. Others wait for the powerholder to decide before they can act. The implicit expectation in these cultures is that the person at the top has a complete overview of what is happening and can decide the right thing to do. This means that the top person has the “right” to define the common good in the political environment.
  • Delegation: When the decision has been made, it is the task of the boss to delegate downwards by giving people clear instructions about what to do, how to do it, and with what level of authority. When things are happening that were not foreseen in the instructions, the subordinates are not supposed to act first and explain it afterward. They are supposed to go back to the boss for further instructions before taking action.                                                                                  
  • Meetings are meant to give the superior a platform to inform others about decisions and ensure in-group harmony. The superior can invite participants to a meeting to discuss. The superior will end the discussion by concluding: I heard what you said. This is my decision. If such a conclusion did not happen, no decision was made in the eyes of the participants.
  •  Rules: In-group rules are important and rules set by the system or boss. The rule of law is to be understood in this way. A distinction should be made between a broad and narrow definition of the rule of law
Broad (or formal) definition Narrow definition
  • Attributes of the broad definition are:
  • The rules should be clear
  • No retroactive action
  • Not too many changes
  • Consistency
  • Independent judges
  • Fair trials
The rule of law also encompasses:

  • a chosen parliament
  • a democratic system
  • human rights are recognized and respected

Many Pyramid countries adhere to a broad definition of the rule of law. The narrow definition is found mainly in individualistic countries. It includes human rights. Including human rights in the Pyramid is possible in the context of nation-building. It requires, however, a strong commitment by the powerholders to defend these rights. For example, to protect the equal rights of men and women against the possible resistance of the “tribal” cultures involved.

Reflections on nation-building in multi-ethnic countries.

Governance in Pyramid countries is not an issue, if the tribes, religious entities, ethnic groups, and language groups are independent with their own leadership rituals (law system), heroes, and Symbols. The challenge starts when multi-ethnic nation-states are supposed to accept a centralized power structure with a unified legal structure and often with a dominant in-group. As we already discussed above, initially, nation-building referred to the efforts of newly independent nations to reshape colonial territories that colonial powers had carved out without regard to ethnic or other boundaries. These reformed states would become viable and coherent national entities (Opio, 2000). This required constructing or structuring a national identity using the state’s power to unify the people. Building and structuring a shared national identity or imagined community should be based on generally accepted rules, norms, principles, and common citizenship. Institutions such as the judiciary, universities, civil service, and an army are created to symbolize the political entity. To be effective, it must address value preferences and the consequences for democracy, functional structures, and the rule of law

The separation of powers, as proposed by Montesquieu in 1748, is always difficult in Pyramid cultures. One lesson that emerges is the aversion many parties in power and their leaders show to the principle of coalitions and power-sharing. Yet, for producing political stability and democracy, it is a necessity. These have their downside, but, on balance, coalitions fare better than the elusive single-party majorities many parties in Africa continue to seek. There is a crying need for parties, leaders, and governments to appreciate this.

Political unity and dominant groups. After independence, new nation-states were frequently expected to develop political systems styled after Western democracies. It was assumed that ideology and class alliances would counter the potentially harmful effects of tribalism. However, voting behavior in the new Pyramid countries follows ethnic lines. Political parties rarely represent more than one or two cultural groups. As different parties came to power, they ruled with their own group’s interests coming first. As a result, plural societies did rarely develop. To create the appearance of political unity, dominant groups in countries in transition sometimes begin to ban other political parties. As a result, one-party states and military governments are sometimes the norms. (Batty 2011; Bratton et al.2012))

Democracy and in-group identity. There is little evidence that tribal identity is disappearing. On the contrary, many elections in the new nation-states are marked by ethnic voting. Voters choose their co-ethnic candidate before candidates from other ethnic groups. As an example: Cho (2012) found across Africa strong support for patterns of voting along ethnic lines, confirming an earlier analysis of Horowitz’s (1985), who described African elections as mere censuses for ethnic support, where ethnic groups maintain homogeneous preferences and compete for scarce resources in a zero-sum game.

Traditional democracy in multi-ethnic societies. The big tent ‘democracy.’

The aim of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was, as President George W. Bush put it in October 2001, “to bring al-Qaeda to justice.” Nation-building was not part of the original strategic plan. What happened was that the intervention took the shape of a transfer of power to local clans and power holders. Tragically it ended up in a transfer of power to corrupt warlords.                                                                                                                                             It is interesting to analyze the function of a long-existing instrument for involving different “clans” and power groups in decision making: the Loya Jirga. It can be seen as an attempt to create democracy in a multi-ethnic, tribal society. It combines elements of the tribal political culture with the Afghan court’s ceremonial ideals of Western parliamentary democracy.                                                                                                                          Continuous research by the Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN 2020) gives an insight into the functioning of the Loya Jirga. They write: “The Loya jirga – or grand assembly – has been used as a political instrument by almost every Afghan king and president for the last century, with the first held arguably in 1915 and the last, for now, in August 2020. These jirgas typically bring together hundreds, sometimes thousands of delegates from the various ethnic and social groups from across the country. King Habibullah convened the first such gathering in 1915, “when he ‘invited 540 delegates from all parts of the country to Kabul to explain[!] the reasons for Afghanistan’s neutrality during the First World War,” as one of our reports says.                                                                                                                                          The Loya jirgas were then institutionalized by the reformer-king Amanullah, who, in 1921, for example, convened a jirga that led to the country’s first quasi-constitution. Later on, the Loya jirga became a quasi-parliamentary body. Today, it is enshrined in the constitution as “the highest manifestation of the [will of the] people of Afghanistan,” convened to “take decisions on the issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and supreme interests of the country.                                                                                                                                     The question is: what authority did they have?  The research by Afganisthan Analyst Network (AAN 2020) provides some answers. The greatest focus of their reporting is on Loya jirgas held after 2001, following the fall of the Taliban regime. The conclusion is that, to some degree, leadership in Afghanistan acknowledged that involving at least Afghan elders or elites through Loya jirgas could help secure and legitimize their power. But participants had little room for decisionmaking. AAN authors have pointed out that critics have regularly criticized Loya jirgas, including some of those held since 2001, as undermining the democratic institutions of the country. Looking back, one author concluded that:

1. All too often, the outcome of jirgas is “designed in advance, making them essentially rubber-stamp bodies with a bit of (tribal-)democratic window-dressing.”

2. Another analyst takes a different argument: governments since 2001 have “undermined the institution of the Loya jirga.” It could, he said, play a much stronger role in times of national crisis, were it held properly.

3. AAN writes: “Actually, all the Loya jirgas convened since the introduction of the constitution in 2004 have been unconstitutional. The constitution prescribes who must attend a Loya jirga and they include members of district councils, elections for which have never been held.

4. All the gatherings held since 2010 have been called ‘consultative,’ ‘peace’ or ‘traditional’ Loya jirgas – another indication of their actual lack of authority. One analyst wrote, “For the time being, the government… must limit itself to convening quasi-Loya jirgas.” Often, these gatherings have provided the Government with political cover for difficult decisions. Occasionally, delegates have come to a different conclusion than the president had planned. Either way, however, their resolutions can be heeded or ignored by the president at will”.


Identifying the characteristics of the Pyramid countries and stating the purpose for Nation building, it is evident that the Pyramid Mental Image with large Power-distance and specifically Collectivism creates a real challenge for the unification of heterogeneous in-groups.

Particularism and the clash of clans.

In his famous book, Samuel Huntington predicted a “Clash of Civilizations” (Huntington1996). In his opinion, religion is the dominant cultural issue. Increasingly, there will be a power struggle between religions, especially between Christianity and Islam. The problem with his approach is it is difficult to explain in this way that in Muslim countries in the Middle East, Sunnites are fighting Shiites and visa-versa, and both are fighting Kurds. Indeed, a better explanation is found on the level of cultural dimensions. The cultural dimension “collectivism” explains why this fighting is happening. Collectivism makes people, in the first place, “loyal to their “in-group” (clan, religious faction, region, ethnic group), and in return, expect help and support from this in-group. Collectivist people put the interests of their in-group first, and some rules and values are valid for dealing with your in-group. But these rules and values are not automatically applied to outsiders. This “clash of clans” is making nation-building in Pyramid cultures difficult.

Consequences of high acceptance of unequal distribution of power.

Significant in the internal characteristic of states is the organizational effectiveness and discipline of the military bureaucracy and the judiciary (Pei and Kasper, 2003). Where these institutions are strong, nation-building becomes a less difficult task, but where they are weaker than the individuals, nation-building becomes extremely difficult. In ethnically fragmented and heterogeneous societies, the distribution of political power often assumes a rational arrangement among the ethnic group. With the conviction of non-exclusion in the power equation by the ethnic groups, the tension would be lessened, and nation-building gradually begins.

 Building and maintaining trust is an ultimate priority.

A few years ago, the American author Fukuyama (1996.) wrote a book on trust as a crucial element for development. He made a distinction between high and low trust cultures. The criticism was that the distinction was too general. Trust is taking different shapes in the various cultural dimensions (Wursten 1999;  Finuras 2013)

High-power distance: In Large PDI cultures, trust relates that superiors take their moral competence seriously. The superior will take care of you like the father/mother of a family in return for the loyalty of the subordinate. In Multi-ethnic societies, leaders must continuously show their moral competence for other in-groups than their own.

Implications of the individualism/collectivism dimension for trust

In collective cultures, people derive their identity by belonging to the in-group. The expectation is that the in-group will support the members of the in-group. This frequently leads to particularism: the core values apply to a specific in-group.  In multi-ethnic nation-states, trust must be established and maintained that all in-groups are treated the same way by the law. This means a consistent “broad rule of law” as defined above. If the restricted rule of law is adopted for nation-building, including equal rights for women, the Government should also be trusted to defend these rights if a regime changes.

Implications of the masculinity/femininity dimension for trust

In “masculine” societies, the emphasis is on being competitive. The system is orientated to accepting the attitude of “winner takes all.” In principle, one can speak of a reward system that focuses on materialistic things. Trust is based on the feeling people should have in a fair system of winners and losers. Meritocracy is expected.

In “feminine” societies, the keyword is consensus. Trust is gained if the in-groups involved feel that they are “seen” and can participate in decision-making processes focusing on “shared interest.” Conversely, mistrust in society grows if governments appear to act from a one-sided view of what is important for only one segment of society and fail to consider the needs of diverse other groups.

Trust and Uncertainty avoidance “. It is a dimension that indicates people’s need for predictability and shows the extent to which they are willing to take risks. Countries that score high on uncertainty avoidance have a strong need for formality in social interaction. Clear rules are expected. High value is again given to a consistent application of the rule of law.

Understanding History is important.

William Faulkner (1950) once said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,”. It is usually interpreted as a reflection on how the evils of our history continue to shape the present. Faulkner also added that the past is “not even past” because what happens in the present changes how we remember the past.

At an intercultural workshop for U.N. peacekeepers, one of the participants told me the following cruel joke: During the Balkan war, a Croat asked a Serb: why are you doing this to us? Killing our men and raping our women? Says the Serb: but you did the same to us. You killed our men and raped our women. But, the Croat says that was 200 years ago. The Serb replies, yes, but I only heard about it yesterday.

Understanding the historical sensitivities is utterly important for building the “Imagined communities.” What never should be acceptable is what happened in 2001. Richard Armitage, then the U.S.  deputy secretary of state, by his own account, cut off General Mahmood Ahmed, the head of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence, who was trying to explain to him who the Taliban were: “I said, “No, the history begins today.”(Fintan O’Tool 2021)


AAN Dossier XXVI (August 31, 2020): Big Tent’ Democracy’ – Afghanistan’s Loya jirgas, 1915 to 2020

Anderson Benedict (1991), Imagined CommunitiesReflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-0-86091-546-1

Aviv Efrat (2016) Millet System in the Ottoman Empire Oxford Bibliographies LAST MODIFIED: NOVEMBER 28, 2016 DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0231


Batty Fodei 2011 Do Ethnic Groups Retain Homogenous Preferences in African Politics? Evidence from Sierra Leone and Liberia Author(s): African Studies Review, APRIL 2011, Vol.54, No. 1, pp. 117-143 Published by: Cambridge University Pres

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Beugelsdijk, S., Maseland, R. and van Hoorn, A. (2015), Are Scores on Hofstede’s Dimensions of National Culture Stable over Time? A Cohort Analysis. Global Strategy Journal, 5: 223–240. DOI: 10.1002/gsj.1098

Cho, W. (2012). Voting behavior in Africa: Ethnic voting vs. economic voting. Review of International and Area Studies, 21(4)

Faal Courtney (2009) The partition of Africa.

Faulkner William, (1950) Requiem for a Nun. Published 1975 by Vintage  ISBN0394714121 (ISBN13: 9780394714127

Finuras, P. (2013). O dilema da confiança. Lisboa: Editora Silabo

Fintan O’Toole (2021) The lie of Nation building. New York Review of Books. October 7, 2021

Fukuyama Francis (1996) Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity  Free Press; ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0684825252 ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0684825250

Horowitz D. (1985). Ethnic Groups in Conflict. California: University of California Press

Horowitz, J. (2019). Ethnicity and the swing vote in Africa’s emerging democracies: Evidence from Kenya. British Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 901-921.

Hofstede Geert: Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations, 2nd Edition. 596 pages. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications, 2001, hardcover, ISBN 0-8039-7323-3; 2003, paperback, ISBN 0-8039-7324-1.

Hofstede Geert, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov,(2010) “Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind”, Third Revised Edition, McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-166418-1.

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Ignini Mevayerore Daniel (2020)The Challenges of Nation-Building and Peace-Building in Nigeria Journal of DanubianStudiesandResearch Vol.10 No.1 2020

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Markus and Kitayama (1991) in arkus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2),224–253

Martin Adina (2020) Political Information & Ethnic Voting A study on the impact of political information on ethnic voting behavior in Africa Adina Martin Bachelor thesis Department of Government, Uppsala University Political Science

Montesquieu (1748) De l’esprit des lois

NGWOH Venantius Kum (2017) Evaluation of nation-building policies in Cameroon since colonial times. Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences Volume VIII, No II. Quarter II 2017 ISSN: 2229 – 5313 1 AN

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Journal of language, identity, and education.

Opio, Peter John. (2000). “Economic Development & Nation-building in Africa: In Search of A New Paradigm,” paper presented at African Nation- Builders Workshop in Minnesota on June 25

Pei Minxin, Kasper Sara (200)3 Lessons from the Past: The American Record on Nation Building Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Scholving Soren (2011) The Failure Of Nation-Building In Iraq  World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, Vol. 15, No. 3 (AUTUMN 2011 (JULY—SEPTEMBER)), pp. 48-70 Published by: Kapur Surya Foundation Stable URL:

Spark Notes: Nations and states (

Huib Wursten, Mental images . The influence of culture on (economic) policy (1999)

Wursten Huib. The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized word (2019)ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347



Huib Wursten is specialized in Intercultural management. Since 1989 he has been working in this field with Fortune’s top 1000 companies, and private and public organizations in 85 countries on all continents.

He has experience in translating global strategies and policies into practical consequences for management.  In his work with complex worldwide organizations  Huib Wursten developed a tool to differentiate fundamentally different value systems,  leading to 7 “culture clusters” These clusters can be seen as cultural “grammar systems” with different approaches to political behavior, societal arrangements,  educational systems, leadership styles, business approaches, and even sports. He recently published a highly rated book: “The 7 Mental Images of national Culture. Leading and managing in a globalized world.” Huib also authored 26 papers on the impact of culture. Ranging from customer service and Marketing to recruitment and outsourcing.

He is fluent in English, German, and Dutch. He has also run courses in French (with a little bit of help)


So, you want to build a nation

By Fernando Lanzer


The recipe for nation-building is easy: just follow the same core process that you might use to change an organization, or to change an individual. Simply describe the current situation, describe the desired situation, and make a detailed plan of how you intend to go from the former to the latter. Anyone (or any group of powerful and influential people) should be capable of carrying out the recipe, as long as they have the discipline to address these three aspects with enough depth of analysis and broad vision. The difficulty begins with being aware of your own bias as a potential nation-builder. Sadly, most politicians and public policy designers involved in nation-building are completely clueless about culture, its impact, and their own biases. Using Huib Wursten’s Mental Images (1) as a reference can prove to be very helpful to understand the key issues involved.

João (a song written by Arnaldo Antunes) (2)

São tantos e tão poucos tem noção

De como se inaugura uma nação

Não é bem com monumentos

Ou com balas de canhão 

É quando uma brisa bate na respiração

E entra no juízo de um João

Que dedica todo empenho

E amor ao seu engenho 

Para arejar os cantos da canção

E dar sentido a nossa sensação

They are so many, but so few have the notion

Of how you can inaugurate a nation

It’s not exactly with monuments

Or with cannon balls and ammunition

It’s when a breeze hits your respiration

And gets inside the judgment of a Joe

Who dedicates all his efforts

And love his endeavor

To breathe air into the corners of a song

And give some sense to our sensation

Key Words: Culture, Contest Cultures, Democratic Institutions, Social Change, Social Pyramid, Individualism, Power Distance.


Let me try and manage your expectations a bit. Nation-building is not easy at all. Some people would argue that it is simply impossible… and perhaps you should just give up altogether.

Let’s assume that it is possible, at least in theory; and let’s also accept, at least for the sake of argumentation, that we might even find one or two cases in history when it actually happened (Singapore comes to mind).

Let’s review your thinking process by going over my favorite analytical tool, my very own “Eternal Triangle of Change” (3). Using the triangle, let’s examine the three basic questions it proposes as a way of structuring our analysis and discussion:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. How do we get there?

In terms of nation-building, this means looking at:

  1. Which nation are you trying to build? What is the current situation there? How did they get where they are? And, most importantly: why do you want to change that? Do they, the citizens, want to change the current situation? Who else wants to change it, and why? Who opposes the change, and why do they favor keeping things the way they are?
  2. What kind of nation are you trying to build? What does success look like? What are your criteria for concluding that “we have reached our objectives; the nation has been built and now looks the way it should?” How will you measure success?
  3. What is your change plan? How will you get from A to B? What is your estimated time frame for building the nation you want? What are the foreseen obstacles to doing that, and how do you intend to overcome them? What are the allies and resources that will support the implementation of your plan?

Answering these questions should keep you busy for a while. In the meantime, let’s look at the main factor behind the many failed attempts at nation-building: culture.

Starting at the beginning: where are we?

The core values of each culture influence the behavior of everyone in that culture, so naturally, they also influence government officials, policymakers, intellectuals, and media professionals.

When we discuss nation-building, who are we typically talking about? The US (supported by its “parent culture” UK) decides that some nation in the developing world needs building. Rather than “live and let live,” the underlying notion is that there is something wrong with the target nation; and it is the responsibility of the US/UK to fix it. There are a set of values that underpin that mindset.

Wursten (1) has described “Contest cultures” as characterized by high Individualism (IDV), low Power Distance (PDI), high Masculinity (MAS), and low Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI). I would like to add that they also score low on Long Term Orientation (LTO). Both the US and UK are Contest cultures, and they are also characterized by a mindset that sees life as a constant clash between opposing forces. Out of that clash, a positive outcome is expected. In such cultures, conflict is not avoided, but rather it should be embraced and managed to obtain the expected positive outcome. Confrontation and standing your ground are accepted as part of daily life and also a necessary component of geopolitics.

When it comes to nation-building, the mindset of “we have to save them, whether they want it or not,” is supported by high Individualism and high Masculinity. The combination of these values, together with low UAI and low LTO, creates a feeling of righteousness and a bias for action.

“We have to do it, not anybody else” is a mindset supported by high Individualism, a value dimension that is linked to taking responsibility, rather than “passing the buck” to someone else.

“There is something wrong with them” is supported by the normative aspect of low LTO (as opposed to the relativism that characterizes high LTO).

“We need to do something about it” is supported by high Masculinity combined with the previous two dimensions mentioned (LTO and IDV).

It is worth noting that there is a bias for action involved, as in “shoot first, ask questions later.” This is supported by the short-term perspective that characterizes low LTO, enhanced by the high Masculinity. “It is better to err by doing, than by standing idle” is a popular expression that illustrates this attitude.

To save someone who perhaps does not want to save is supported again by Individualism and the combination of the other dimensions cited. “I know what needs to be done and I will do it regardless of your opinion” is a way of summarizing this mindset.

Low Uncertainty Avoidance supports the notion of acting without necessarily a lot of planning and taking the risks inherent to that.

When you look at these values combined, it is no wonder that both the US and the UK get involved in nation-building. On the other hand, in both countries, there have been significant dissenting voices. In the US, Trumpism supported the idea that the US Government should forget about nation-building, for instance in Iraq and Afghanistan), because America should come first. And in the UK the population voted to leave the European Union, rather than stay and try to fix its problems (as perceived from the British point of view).

Division and conflict are an integral part of Contest cultures. Often the bias is not only for action, but there is also a bias for disagreeing with whatever is being proposed, simply to show that you have your own opinion and will not blindly follow others. If there were no dissenting opinions these cultures would not be Contest cultures.

Yet, when all is said and done, the prevalent notion in the US and UK cultures is that one should not stand idly watching another nation becoming a failed State. Even when this other State is not actually failing, but merely is performing in a way that is consistent with a different set of values, there is a great difficulty in allowing other nations to behave as they please. The bias toward confrontation leads people to believe that it is valid to fight against those who behave differently, and the normative aspect of low LTO supports making a strong effort towards changing other people’s way of thinking and behaving. “Everybody must follow the (social) norm!”

What kind of nation are you trying to build?

From a Contest culture perspective, the response to this question is: “We are looking at nations that do not have institutions functioning according to the standards of the Contest culture, and trying to change them to be more like us.” Therein lies the problem: when you look at the world through your own culturally biased filter, everybody else needs building.

When Americans engage in nation-building they are basically trying to make a slightly modified version of America, and that is in itself the biggest obstacle since the target country’s culture typically is dramatically different. Nation builders tend to attempt to reproduce their own culture when they engage in building another nation. This is understandable, but it is also a huge mistake. Plus, it is by far the single most important reason nation-building failed in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, and is likely to fail anywhere else where the local culture is not taken into account.

When the US invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan, the people involved in building a new nation in those countries were trying to recreate institutions that would function according to the parameters of the American culture. Basically, that included a governance structure consisting of three powers (Executive, Legislative and Judicial), with democratic elections and two opposing parties, plus a free press and freedom to worship any religion. None of this was supported neither by the culture of Iraq nor the culture of Afghanistan… and the efforts failed miserably.

If you want to build a nation, do discuss with the local people exactly what kind of a nation would they like to build. And if they say, “we want to be like America,” don’t believe them! They are saying that just to please you, or because they do not really understand what it means “to become America” in terms of cultural values. It’s OK to admire the American culture, just like many Americans admire the Danish culture, but you should not try to turn Afghanistan into America, just like you should not try to turn the United States into Denmark. These dramatic transformations will never work.

You cannot turn a Social Pyramid culture (such as Afghanistan and/or Iraq) into a Contest culture (such as the USA), just like you cannot turn America into Denmark. You can improve the way a Social Pyramid functions and you can improve how a Contest culture functions but be aware that the underlying values of culture prevail in the long term, so ignoring them will lead to failure.

Which brings us to address the third question mentioned at the beginning of this paper: how do we get there? How do you build a nation?

Building nations successfully (or, how do we get there?)

Start by discussing (with the local leadership involved) the two previous questions: (a) what is the current culture like, and what is not working; and (b) what is the desired culture (realistically) and how should institutions work effectively in this improved version of the current culture.

Continue by developing an action plan that is consistent with the desired culture, realistic, and includes the Exco Propolis approach.

This approach is an acronym for Leading by Example, Communication, Project Management, and Policy Review. These principles are the foundation of changing culture in large organizations, and they can be equally applied to building nations.

Leading by Example means that indeed the leaders of the new nation should behave in a way that is consistent with the desired culture. People follow the behavior (of leaders) more than they follow (they’re) speeches. Pick your leaders wisely and coach them as needed.

Communication is key and it is not just broadcasting. In order to build a nation, you need to establish communication channels that will allow people to voice their opinions and concerns in a way that they feel that they are being heard. You need to communicate the values, rules, and standards of the new nation and also allow people to voice their reactions, so that you may adjust accordingly.

Project Management will be necessary to monitor the implementation of your plans. There will be many programs and projects going on simultaneously and coordinating them will be quite a challenge.

Policy Review means overhauling the existing institutional and legal frameworks to make sure they are consistent with the new nation that is being built.

In order to ensure that the new nation develops sustainably, invest heavily in education. Focus your efforts on educating children aged 4 to 11; this is when they form their notion of right and wrong, and this sets the stage for everything they learn afterward. Nations are built by shaping the values of a new generation. Warning: that takes time.

One thing is certain: you cannot build a nation with machine guns and artillery. Whenever anybody tried to build a nation through force, using military power, they failed. Nations are built by unarmed forces. You need to understand these forces and use them. It’s not about “hard power,” but rather “soft power.”

Therefore, it requires participation and room for discussions. And all of that does require a lot of time. Participation, by the way, works as a motivator in any culture. It needs to be organized and conducted differently (more direction from the top in high PDI cultures, more structure in Well-Oiled Machine cultures, more focus on competition and results in Contest culture) but it can be a very powerful engagement tool, as long as it is done in a way that is consistent with each culture.

When Contest culture leaders engage in building a nation that is currently a Social Pyramid or a Traditional Family culture (1) (3), one of the first shocks they face is the difference in time perspective. Contest cultures value short-term results and expect things to happen rather quickly. When the Arab Spring began in early 2011 and spread across North Africa, the ensuing situation in Egypt illustrated this point. Political leaders, pundits, and the media in Contest cultures (notably the US, UK, Canada, and Australia) called for a swift change from a centuries-old autocracy directly into a democratic regime. I was frequently in Egypt at the time working with local companies. People often asked me how the transition from military rule had happened in Brazil. I told them it had taken about a decade and a half, so they should lower their expectations. They were disappointed. They wanted it all to happen in a maximum of two years.

I argued that the military should stay in power for a few years after Mubarak was ousted. They should call for electing a General Assembly with the purpose of writing a new Constitution over the next two or three years. After that, a general election should be called for one or two years later in order to form a new Parliament. That Parliament, once elected, could vote to elect a country’s President, in a so-called indirect election. At the end of a five-year mandate, direct voting by the people would elect the next President. The whole process would take seven or eight years, half the time it had taken in Brazil. This would be incredibly fast, considering that Brazil had already had periods of democracy alternating with military governments since the 1890s. By contrast, Egypt had never before had an election for President in its entire history as a nation.

As it were, elections were called for just months after Mubarak was removed from power by a military coup. That, of course, was way too soon. Society was not yet ready for that. There were no political parties prepared for such a dramatic change, so quickly. As might be expected, the two existing political forces that were already reasonably organized emerged as two opposing forces in a Contest-culture-style runoff election: the military on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.

The whole process was hurried and messy. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamad Morsi won and was inaugurated with little time to form an effective and efficient governing structure. His government lasted for about a year and was a disaster. There was another coup and the military came back to power, proceeding to lead the country in an autocratic fashion. The culture had not been ready for the transition to democracy, especially to an American style of democracy.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, it was even worse. The Western occupation failed to implement sustainable changes for the better in both countries. To this day there are many people saying that the population was better off in the 1990s, before the failed democratization attempts.

Nation-building takes time. It requires engaging the people in a long-term process that will retain the core aspects of the existing culture and work on consolidating institutions that will function in a way that is coherent with the culture. It’s the only way nation-building might work.


  1. Wursten, Huib – The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized word ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347; 2019
  2. Antunes, Arnaldo: João – Album O Real Resiste, Rio de Janeiro: 2020.
  3. Lanzer, Fernando – Organizational Culture and Climate: Understanding, Maintaining and

       Changing – CreateSpace, New York: 2018.

Nation Building: Applying Frames of Analysis a Case Study of Afghanistan

Nation Building: Applying Frames of Analysis a Case Study of Afghanistan

By Chris Taylor Cartwright, MPA, Ed.D.

Sultana Parvanta, Ph.D.


We live in a time where the peoples of the world are both highly interconnected, interdependent, and fraught with uncertainty. This makes us all aware of and even engaged in the trauma occurring so frequently in the world. It also brings us viscerally, morally, and emotionally close to the myriad of differences that societies inculcate. In crises, when a nation has suffered greatly it may need support, guidance, and even blueprints to reorganize or reform the nation’s vision, mission, and trajectory in order to rebuild as a nation. Many take up the call, and with good intentions extend themselves in support. But do they (the nation needing support, the agency, and the people offering support) realize the layers of complexity they are about to engage? Are they prepared to find the nature of their involvement and parameters for partnership, much less negotiate for reciprocal outcomes? In this essay, we explore an example of a successful nation-building endeavor that was enacted in Afghanistan and examine it from several frames including the contexts of complex geo-political issues, and internal atmospherics, as well as trust, culture, and cultural competencies, and leadership. Using appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) as an entrée to the work, we examine this case of success and then share the challenges for this work based on the frames noted above. Our goal is to offer the reader some points of reflection points to consider as they may embark in this ever-present dilemma in a world full of crises.

Key Words/Phrases

  1. Afghanistan,
  2. Nation Building,
  3. Crisis,
  4. Trust,
  5. Culture,
  6. Intercultural Competence,
  7. Leadership,


At the core of any society is the construct of belongingness; as social beings, humans require relationships with others. We need each other in order to survive, meet our basic physical and emotional needs, and ultimately thrive and find our purpose or agency in life. We form civilizations and create sets of norms that govern our relationships with each other and how we govern ourselves. Looking at history, this connects to our core as humans; our humanity is what ultimately matters.

“Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said. “We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.” (Byock, 2012)

This passage emphasizes the importance of human connection, care, and compassion. In the case of nation-building, we face the challenge of supporting people who may have lost this foundational level of connectedness. Afghanistan society had experienced over 50 years of wars, turmoil, and raw human trauma before the United States launched its nation-building endeavors in 2001. There had been coups, civil war, and invasions by the former USSR, a fundamentalists Islamic regime, that toppled long-standing rulers and upset the order of governing and societal norms. The US intervened to fight the terrorism that had contributed to the 9/11 attack in 2001 and attempted to free Afghanistan from a medieval Islamic Taliban regime 2001 and assisted its devastated people; their environment, cities, infrastructure, economy, homes, and families – all were in ruins. The metaphorical femur that needed tending was a people without hope, and with limited trust that their fellow humans had their best interests at heart when proposing to reestablish order.

A civilization is a collection of people who have joined in a sense of community to mutually benefit or care for each other. Nation-building then must consider what this means to those involved in the endeavor and, where necessary, support rebuilding this sense of community. Theologian Richard Mouw framed this idea as follows:

“… to be civil comes from “civitas” and it means learning how to live in the city. The origin with a guy like Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said early on, as little children, we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are blood relatives, my mother, my father, sisters, brothers, cousins, and the like. And then as we grow up, we have some of those same positive feelings that develop toward friends. So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn’t just based on blood relative stuff.

But he said to really grow up, to be a mature human being, is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, people who are very different than yourself. And that’s not just toleration, but is a sense that what I owe to my mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to my friends because of shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they’re human like me and I have got to begin to think of humanness as such as a kind of bonding relationship.” (Mouw & Tippet, 2011)

In Afghanistan, the metaphorical ‘city’ is an ancient and culturally complex civilization that has stood at the crossroads of Asia, between the Middle Eastern and Mesopotamian cultures to the West; the Indo-Aryan cultures to the Southeast, the East Asian and Mongol Cultures to the East, and the Turkic and Slavic cultures to the North. Alexander the Great of Macedonia pushed his empire through the territories we now identify as Afghanistan and died in the region. Alexander’s chroniclers remarked on the cultural and linguistic complexities of the peoples of this region in 223 BC. Stitching together a sense of community in a culturally complex metaphorical ‘city’ and with a population suffering physical, emotional, and financial ‘broken femurs’, Afghanistan in the 2000s was fraught with challenges that required deep thought and profound patience to engage.

There are as many perspectives on where and how an agency ought to initiate and engage in nation-building endeavors as there are waves in the sea. This article, like the others in this volume, posits that a focus on culture, the norms, and values form to create a sense of belonging, is an appropriate starting point to navigate the unpredictable currents and shorelines that such a voyage will inevitably endure. The proposed starting point of such a sojourn is cultivating empathy rather than sympathy for the nation and its people. In the Christian Bible, Matthew 7:12 states, “Therefore for all things what so ever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”. This is commonly referred to as ‘The Golden Rule’. An agency operating from this sympathetic perspective assumes they can step into the shoes of the people and see the city as they see they do. This naïve mindset minimizes the cultural richness of those who are to be served and assumes that it is possible to comprehend what this devastated ‘city’ of people with ‘broken femurs’ needs or wants. This ethnocentric perspective is rarely true or even sustainable. Conversely, if the nation-building agency can move beyond sympathy to empathy, they can participate in the healing work that is needed as co-authors or collaborators of a new chapter. With this more ethnorelative perspective, nation-builders are more likely to respect that what the people need is different from their own experience and to affirm that those in need know what is best. This is defined as ‘The Platinum Rule, “Do onto others as they would have done unto them” (Bennett, M.J., 1979).  Conceptually this shift from sympathy to empathy is simple, but operationally it is difficult.

We share a story in nation-building as a case study of success as an endeavor completed in 2015 in Afghanistan called “Mobile Public Awareness and Drug Prevention Exhibit”. This project was funded by the DEA Educational Foundation [DEA-EF] (DEAEF, 2013 & 2015), based in Washington D.C., with support from the US State Department, and managed by Sultana Parvanta, Ph.D., an Afghan expatriate who returned to her home country in 2003 to participate in the rebuilding of her homeland. I interviewed Dr. Parvanta 5 times over several weeks, and the data gathered in those interviews (Parvanta, 2022) with additional readings is the foundation of this article. We are employing an appreciative inquiry approach (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005), in that we are focusing on what occurred that was positive or contributed to a positive outcome, rather them on what was a deterrent to success. With this approach, we hope to highlight what was successful, and what we are still learning, and then share questions to be asked when considering nation-building work.

The Case Study

The “Mobile Exhibit for Public Awareness and Drug Education and Prevention” (DEAEF, 2013 & 2015), (‘Exhibit’), was an initiative in nation building designed to raise awareness and educate young people, (including adults, with a particular emphasis on children and women), about the dangers of the opium and addiction. When this project had begun in 2011, Afghanistan had become the world’s largest producer and exporter of opium. In 2012 this trade was worth about $65 billion and was selling 80 percent of the world’s raw ingredients for the production of heroin. In 2010, it was reported that 8 percent of the adult Afghan population were users of opium and its derivatives — twice the average for other nations in the world. While these numbers are staggering, this trade devastated families, communities, the economy, and the culture of Afghanistan. To nurture citizens who could engage in the civic life of a reemerging country, required people who can access own their faculties and make conscious and considered decisions that benefit their society. But this was not possible so many in the society were incapacitated by addiction or terrorized into surrendering their rights and lives to propagate the drug trade. Many families were overwhelmed trying to mitigate the impacts of drug use on themselves, their children, and their communities. Under such conditions, it was difficult to foster trained and competent citizens to unite in rebuilding their nations – there were just too many with ‘broken femurs’.

Dr. Sultana Parvanta was contacted by the DEA-EF to develop an educational curriculum and campaign to keep young people away from drugs. As an Afghan expatriate and educator with experience advocating for deprived and at-risk children, the project spoke to her heart. She admits that at this time, she had only a cursory understanding of the national and geopolitical problems associated with drug production, trade, and use in Afghanistan and the region; as well as issues related to addiction, prevention, or recovery. She asked for and was granted time and resources to research the situation in a nine-month recognizance and needs assessment period with fieldwork throughout the country. She meet with communities, officials, and individuals that had overlapping interests and jurisdictions. She formed a diverse team of experts and co-created multiple sets of mobile exhibits that could barely fit in two large trucks accompanied by two 16-passenger vans that carried the exhibit and the exhibit teams of approximately 45 people around the country over a 5+ year period. During this time hundreds of thousands of people visited the Exbibit in the major provinces of Afghanistan with an immeasurable impact of educating youth and their families to avoid or get off drug use. Being a somatic educator (interweaving spirit, mind, and body) Dr. Parvanta included elements of how we think can impact our decisions and quality of life – encouraging behaviors that can foster and maintain healthy bodies. Topics of good nutrition and exercise were also included in the Exhibit curriculum. Street Theater performances, as an ancient art form of public education and discourse in Afghanistan, offered supplemental information and awareness-raising mechanisms to further the aim and goals of the Exhibit. This project no is no longer active.

The link to the DEA Educational Foundation:

Context, the Socio-Political Frame:

To begin the analysis of the Exhibit as an illustration of nation-building, we consider the socio-political milieu that Afghanistan faced at the time of the US occupation. After five decades of turmoil, a majority of the Afghan population had never known a time of peace, or order, of relative security. Coups and the succession of wars had devastated every aspect of their lives. Although never rich, before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan provided a relatively stable life for its citizens. They tended to live in compounds encircling a courtyard with expended family members, brothers,s, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts, and grandparents all looking out for and after each other. The streets of the capital of Kabul were lined with flowering and fruit trees, whose beauty and produce were free to all who came to enjoy or sit in their shade. Vibrant expressive arts throve, including painting, music, culinary, literature, and poetry.

Afghans aligned with the Suni sect of Islam predominantly, and with other sects in smaller subgroups: Shia, Sufi, Wahabi, and a few Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists all lived in relative tolerance and harmony in different regions of the country and were represented in the capital city. Boys and girls attended schools, usually separated by gender, and both were encouraged to pursue higher education to seek professional careers. The economy was largely agrarian and was able to produce the diverse foods necessary to support its populace. The central government, while not strong, was able to maintain a level of law and order as well as external relations with the rest of the world. Local and region tribal governing bodies, usually headed by regional Islamic clerics, managed law and order within their regions so that most people could survive and even thrive. Afghanistan was considered a poor country by international standards, with poor transportation, infrastructure, and uneven health care services. Many practices in societal transactions, governance, commerce, agriculture, and so on, were simple and even antiquated by world standards. Straight forward and trust-based interactions were fruitful and sustainable, however. A discernable civilization thrived for thousands of years, building on trial-and-error and bartering systems with a clear level of belongingness that the environment fostered and provided.

The coups and protracted wars were destructive and damaging to the people, as they can only be; annihilating their society, values, and ultimately their humanity.  People were often left without proper housing, adequate or reliable food sources, and poor if any healthcare services. Families had been torn apart; it was rare to find a family that could not name 5 to 10 family members killed by some soldiers, suicide bombings, or drug-related events. Drug traffickers typically passed out free heroin to teenagers as samples to try and quickly them addicted to drugs; then they were recruited to work in selling or farming the opium. By the time these mostly young men were about 28 to 30 years old, their bodies had been ravaged by the drugs and they were no longer valuable to employers and the drug lords. These abandoned lost souls were abandoned created additional challenges for their families and communities; giving birth to a new cultural sub-set with associated norms and demands.

The Afghan people’s love and appreciation for artistic expressions had been denied to them for generations and many were lost. For example, the preparation of many once common foods is no longer taught and they are gone from stores and family tables. Law and order were rare, brittle, and undependable. Local circles of clerics applied religious laws strictly to sort out local judicial and legal issues. Sectarian violence and extreme political ideologies had left the society fractured and intolerant of their diverse brothers and sisters, denying and depriving them of traditional channels of reciprocity and reverence. Without hope and suffering deeply from the multiple levels of trauma, the Afghan people were confused as to whom and how to trust and for how long.

Much has been written about the history and wars in Afghanistan, especially in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. Novels, plays, and movies that offer stories of suffering and/or redemption. Accounts of women, families, tribes or ethnic groups, religious adherents, and successive governments explain how they fought, lost, or possibly even rose up during these times. The socio-political perspective reveals for us now how Afghanistan had been devastated and its people were deeply scarred. They had been left as a people with broken femurs and no sense of belonging to a city. Any nation-building endeavor would need to take into account how the web of human connection and agency that forms a civilization had been unraveled. This loss of humanity would require attention before or at least simultaneously to the building of governments and infrastructure.

Dr. Parvanta explained that for the first couple of years after repatriating to Afghanistan, she spent most of her time simply listening to people as they told their stories; sharing the names of their lost family members and friends; describing their lost homes, farms, businesses, and basic sense of security; lamenting their loss of health, culture, and their sense of wellbeing. Trauma and shattered nervous systems were very prevalent; people were distressed in many ways and could not stop talking about the suffering they had experienced and endured.

During the 13+ years working for various local private agencies, as well as national and international organizations, with the Exhibit being one of her last projects, Dr. Parvanta kept in mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1968). She knew that attending to the basic needs of shelter and safety is important for the citizens of a poor and war-torn country. She made certain her Afghan compatriots in the Exhibit project were paid well so they could house and feed their families.  She also made their safety the highest priority, both within the project team and especially once they started touring the country. Traveling in Afghanistan in this period was exceedingly dangerous, especially for a caravan of 45 people with two trucks and two passenger vans. Every route was carefully mapped; each regional and provincial government, municipality, and community council were consulted. Formal approvals were sought to ensure her team’s safety and to obtain entry to each new school or a new venue such as mosques, municipal parks, zoos, regional military bases, provincial Women’s Centers, and so on. She worked to build a collegial culture of respect and cooperation, as well as a learning environment within her very diverse team. Members of the team were cross-trained so they could take over roles if another member was missing. She handled emerging conflicts, negotiated clear expectations, and fostered a sense of purpose and belongingness.  She shared the vision, accomplishments, and accolades for members’ work openly; and made certain they felt pride in their individual and collective work. Finally, she crafted a clear vision of the Exhibit project and saw to it that all of her constituents including, team members, local officials, Exhibit hosts, and participants understood its purpose and value. They were given the information and the tools to learn to protect themselves from drug addiction and the skills to choose a healthy and productive life. It was a slow, carefully crafted, and nimble sense of actualization that initiated healing from the individual and collective trauma that Afghanistan was suffering from at that time.


Consultant and executive coach Ted Baartmans (2022) has developed a model of Trust for an upcoming book on the topic that frames nation-building in Afghanistan. In this model participants in an exchange work through stages of understanding, acceptance, and respect in a serpentine pattern in order to reach a full stage of mutual understanding.

Figure 1; Model of Trust

Baartmans, 2022, De Presentatie Groep, The Netherlands.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

This illustrates how the deep cultural differences between the Afghans themselves and, more importantly, the US-centric nation-builders impeded and often prevented the mutual respect needed to facilitate their work. On a micro-level, Dr. Parvanta shared that she needed to recognize and negotiate these stages of trust within herself in order to understand her own motivations in returning to her homeland after a 35-year absence to help her nation rebuild. She had to recognize and accept what she knew and didn’t know about her homeland, its peoples, and her capacity to reengage it. Finally, she had to respect her own cultural foundations, her capacity to learn, and her vision of a better future for her people.

Many negotiations and consultations took place prior to the final version of the Exhibit in all aspects of its content, design, and delivery. Meticulous care was given to ensure that the educational and utility value of this project was viable, constructive, and empowering to the Afghans and provided a guiding principle of wellbeing. Both DEA-FE and Dr. Parvanta operated in an atmosphere of mutual trust, transparency,  collaboration, respect, and frequent communication. She trusted and understood the impeccable commitment of her US counterparts to the vision and the potential of this project.

She also recognized their interest and understanding of the people of Afghanistan, and the role that drugs played in their lives. This same trust-building via inner reflection was facilitated again and again as she built her team for the Exhibit project because they too needed to build trust in themselves, in the project, in each other, and in their varying constituents. They needed to find mutual acceptance of serviceable interventions to this complex crisis and mutual respect for the roles they would each play in this endeavor.

Once the research, recognizance, and initiatory processes were completed, the drug awareness and prevention curriculum was formed and the Exhibit was built with many drafts and discussions over late phone meetings and over many months. Then the team that would implement, manage the logistics, and disseminates information was assembled. Dr. Parvanta intentionally hired a team that represented the richly diverse ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and social environments that Afghanistan possesses. The team also reflected gender equity and intergenerational balance. Leadership and decision-making responsibilities were given to both female and male members of the team, as well as to the younger men and women. The process of team building clarified how much cultivating trust and respect were needed.  Special attention was given to acknowledging and addressing conflicts and taking the time to work through them thoroughly, so the team members could depend on each other as they traveled through dangerous zones. The time and diligence needed to get the team to work well were never considered excessive or inappropriate. Trust, mutual respect, and reciprocity were essential to the project’s success as were fostering a sense of well-being, belonging, and joy team members felt for their service.

To ensure her team’s safety and security as they traveled the country, Dr. Parvanta carefully negotiated trust with and articulated the reciprocal benefits of this project to various regions, municipal, and district-level governmental agencies, including the local educational and religious entities and diverse constituencies. This was more of a macro-level negotiation establishing vision and trust. Sometimes these negotiations required her to travel back and forth to Kabul to seek the central government’s blessing for the exhibit to enter regions where the local officials resisted or lacked trust in either the project’s US funding or in the work itself. This was a constant juggling of regions, permissions, agreements, and guidance, with safety being all-important.

As the work of nation-building progresses on a more macro-level, citizens’ capacity to trust governing bodies and to hold them accountable is required. In a country ravaged by war and vastly different ideological mindsets, mistrust of others was rampant among the Afghan people. For them, these recent waves of nation builders from various nations, cultures, and competing national interests had come too quickly; they had implemented changes without consideration of peoples’ concerns and inputs, their contextual needs, and culture. They had left abruptly, often without considering and establishing sustainable infrastructure to support their nation-building initiatives. Dr. Parvanta observed that many officials and directors in the new Afghan government installed by US agencies were highly distrusting of the American teams dispatched to support them. Most of these officials were leftover former personnel from the communist régime and they were resistant and skeptical about the US funding and the value of their initiatives. There were also other cultural and linguistic gaps that prevented the Afghans from engaging in a reciprocal manner. The US delegates generated technical, conceptual, and descriptive reports in English at governmental agencies where only a few employees could read and write in English. The US expatriates and their international cohorts were usually given short-term assignments and were paid exorbitant salaries by Afghan standards. Her first official assignment in the new Afghan government was as the third in command of the Department of Commerce and frequently she was asked to manage the non-Afghan delegates and also serve as a translator because she could speak English and might understand what they were doing, despite having other pressing responsibilities to fulfill.

As Dr. Parvanta shuttled between the offices of different US agencies charged with nation-building for over 10 years, sometimes as a representative of the Afghan government or as an employee of these agencies; she found that the ethnocentric attitudes of US and other nation’s staff often disparaged the Afghan people. Many US staff referred to the Afghans as ‘illiterate’ when the Afghans were quite fluent in their own language and possibly even 2 or 3 others, though not English. A great deal ‘was lost in translation due to cultural and linguistic barriers. The construct of ‘policy’ was foreign to most Afghans for there is no such exact word in Farsi. In most documents prepared by western experts policy formulation for this and that was common, and the US personnel’s constant referencing to a policy as well as pie in the sky type goals evoked a deep disconnect. It was common during meetings with their American counterparts, for the Afghan government officials to lean over to her, speak in Farsi, to complain that these Americans did not understand that they have a history and culture of thousands of years before the US had arrived and that they felt that they were being treated as if they were stupid children.

The temporal cultural difference was particularly profound; the US delegates often sought quick, short-term infrastructural solutions to deep problems that had festered for generations. Seasoned expatriates sent to Afghanistan often had only 6-8 weeks to complete a task and were uninterested in learning about the Afghan people, let alone forming trusting relationships with them. Dr. Parvanta shared a story of a US agency representative that she worked for early on who did not understand the complexity of the work to be done by the agency in Afghanistan. This agency director was focused on gathering and disseminating progress reports, no matter what was being accomplished in the field that week. So she would seek out Dr. Parvanta toward the end of each week and ask for what Dr. Parvanta jokingly referred to as the ‘happy bullets’ to send back to DC. Even those US delegates sent on longer assignments were given less than a 6-hour training on the country and were required to leave Afghanistan at regular intervals to recoup from the stresses of living and working in the country, thus interrupting and impeding their ability to reach deep mutual respect for what all the parties brought to the table.

Baartmans (2022) offers a second diagram that illustrates the levels of trust that can be negotiated, depending on the commitment and depth of the negotiations.

Figure 2; Trust Model Phase 2

Baartmans, 2022, De Presentatie Groep, The Netherlands.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

Dr. Parvanta had to negotiate different levels of trust for the Exhibit project to safely travel across the country. With some agencies with only marginally overlapping interests or jurisdictions, a simple memorandum of understanding-level of the agreement was necessary. But for communities and agencies that wanted to partner in furthering the drug awareness and prevention agenda, a coalition-building level of trust was necessary. At the deepest level — with the government of Afghanistan and its people — a full social agreement-level of commitment to eradicating the drug trade was required.

In conclusion, trust is both essential to the success of any nation-building initiative and simultaneously complex, often culturally bounded, and very time-consuming work. We encourage those interested in launching and maintaining nation-building work to consider trust-building as an essential foundation for their work.


Looking at nation-building through the lens of culture can be insightful. Many social scientists have learned to look at the phenomena of culture through what is called ‘cultural general dimensions’, meaning observing and then defining a dimension that is shared across most cultures but in an array or spectrum of highs to lows in terms of the holding of the dimension. Mead and Métraux (1962) initiated this level of analysis by uncovering the construct of cultural preferences for collective community wellbeing versus a more individualized preference for accomplishment. Hall (1959) looked at communication styles across differences. Triandis led a team to look at risk aversion (Triandis, Leung, Villareal & Clack, 1985). Trompenaars and Hampton-Turner (2011) looked at hierarchy or what interculturalists call power-distance dimensions. Hofstede (2001) completed the most comprehensive research in the 1980s, surveying 20 thousand employees of IMB from around the world. He noted that while they all did the work of IBM, they approached the work differently based on their culturally bound preferences. Wursten (2019) synthesized the 4 dominant cultural dimensions of Geert Hofstede and formulated 7 clusters of combinations of the dimensions, covering the global diversity of cultural groups. These clusters can offer a ‘Gestalt’  to expedite the analysis of their norms, values, and behaviors.

Dr. Parvanta describes the culture of Afghanistan as one that used be place greater value on loyalty, honor, compassion, reciprocity, and civility. The Kabul of her childhood and adolescence, before her family fled the Russian-backed invasion in the 1970s, was a gentile place. Families gathered, elders were loved and obeyed, and there was a structure to live, but it felt like a warm collective hug. Food, music, poetry, and art were enjoyed by many. Women moved freely and without a veil if they pleased and could choose to pursue education and careers.  There was law and order; parents, uncles, and councils of elders had to be consulted on big life decisions like marriage and infractions. But it did not seem oppressive.

Wursten suggested that the cluster named ‘The Pyramid’ might best describe the Afghan culture when employing his clusters of cultural frameworks and Dr. Parvanta agreed in our interviews. In the Pyramid cluster, hierarchy is preferred to an egalitarian sense of order; loyalty is highly valued, as unloyalty severs trust irrevocably. Dr. Wursten includes a preference for a centrality or central power place, and Dr. Parvanta explained that this is highly contextual in the Afghan culture. Some structures, like the building of infrastructure, originate from the central government and so are centralized; whereas the setting of behavioral standards is usually decentralized and monitored by the local council of elders from the mosque. Formalism is preferred, meaning that social order and engagement have a specific structure and cadence, dictated by the culture. Respect, especially for elders and people with high rank or position, is highly valued and maintained. Communication is often indirect, with back channels and conflict avoidance highly valued. But these cultural norms are difficult to navigate for the uninitiated, especially after 50 years of turmoil.

Returning 35 years later, Dr. Parvanta found a people ravaged by displacement and exodus from rural settings. They were often houseless, without familial or community connection in large urban centers, and deeply traumatized by the lack of order and safety. Learning to engage this new world with humility was a challenge and an opportunity to reengage with her people. Listening deeply and without an expected outcome was how she enacted the Platinum Rule (Bennett, 1979) we discussed in the opening section. Thus, without formal training in intercultural dimensions, she pursued establishing trust and respect for the individuals and their identified cultures.

We have already discussed the temporal differences that Dr. Parvanta experienced in negotiating the Exhibit project between the various US-backed agencies and the Afghan constituencies. Timelines, pert-charts with deadlines, and the need for immediate or short-term accomplishments displaying a task-over-relationship-orientation were antithetical to the Afghan cultural mindset. Not only was a time not held that way on a day-to-day basis, but in the context of nation-building, security, safety, stability, order, and healing took precedence over the tasks that the US and other overseas agencies supporting nation-building came prepared for to do. Dr. Parvanta pointed out that there is no word for ‘policy’ in Farsi. The fact that the US delegates kept framing their work as ‘forming policy’ confused her Afghan colleagues, linguistically as well as culturally.

Remaining humble and open to learning what might be the frame for the right action takes talent and practice. Dr. Parvanta often found her US-centric colleagues ill-informed about the people and cultures of Afghanistan; often even openly disparaging the Afghan people and their cultures. This judgemental and lack of open-mindedness, bordering on arrogance, served as a barrier to their nation-building efforts. She often found the more seasoned professionals to be the least open to learning about the people and culture of Afghanistan. They had a task and a way to complete their task and zeroed in on completing their work with laser focus, to the detriment of seeking sustainable measures that met the needs of the local people. In addition, Dr. Parvanta observed that young people being brought into agencies with excellent language skills, often had no grounding in the cultural norms of the Afghan people, so their interpretation of ongoing negotiations was often flawed. We used the term ‘House of Cards’ to describe the infrastructure left in place before this most recent retreat and takeover of the government by a resurgent Taliban in 2020. This Exhibit project with the DEA-EF in Afghanistan could not be sustained under a regime that is complicit in the drug trade. In conclusion, learning about the culture of a people can support the work of nation-building.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence played a role in the success of the Exhibit Project. This is defined by Janet Bennett as:  “a set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and characteristics that support effective and appropriate interaction in a variety of cultural contexts.” (Bennett, J. M. 2008). For this project to get built, launched, and deployed across Afghanistan, diverse constituencies had to be engaged effectively. Recently, the term ‘diversity’ has seemed to focus more on race and ethnicity in an almost ethnocentric desire to ignore the myriad of difference that the world presents. But in the case of Afghanistan, the diversity to be engaged was more nuanced and complex. Yes, there is some ethnic diversity across the country, with linguistic, religious, and tribal affiliations, as well as gender balance all playing a role in learning about the needs of the differing populations related to drug use and trade. When forming the teams and negotiating deployment for the Exhibit, this diversity was explicitly sought to ensure representation; with respect for this diversity clearly articulated and modeled. But other forms of diversity also needed to be considered. Ideological and spiritual perspectives could not be ignored when engaging people from across the country with differing views on communism verse democracy as a ruling order; for example, or the roles and responsibilities of a theocracy with strict Islamic caliphate verses a centralized government, verses a somewhat benevolent royal family form of government. The diversity of jurisdictional, organizational tasks or authority had to considered with agencies focused on commerce, health, education, transportation, safety (military and police), and their regional, national, NGO, or mostly US governmental backed organizations.

The Exhibit project was led by a woman, who received most of her higher education in the US to the level of a doctorate, and had returned to a country where, until the US takeover, the previous Islamic caliphate would not have encouraged her to move freely about, let alone to manage teams of people or a project of this scale and complexity. Thus the diverse cultural expectations of gender and education status also played a significant role in how the project moved forward. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights (1990) stated that:

  1. A woman is equal to a man in human dignity, has her own rights to enjoy as well as duties to perform, has her own civil entity and financial independence, and the right to retain her name and lineage.
  2. The husband is responsible for the maintenance and welfare of the family.

However, de facto, the practice of Sharia law seems to obfuscate this stance in Afghanistan. This situation, depending on the interpretation, could be quite binding to the point of breaking Afghanistan women’s metaphorical femurs, especially now that the Taliban has returned to power.

We should mention the diversity and sophistication of perspectives and the access to technology. Dr. Parvanta observed that although it was common to see Afghan farmers riding donkeys while talking on a cell phone, they were still bringing their produce to market as their grandfathers had done for centuries. She was able to collaborate with her US colleagues in late-night video calls and to meet with the Afghan youth and families using this technology. Communicating with international constituencies across the country and globe was facilitated with technology and helped Dr. Parvanta find allies for her work across all of these differences. This level of technological access, facilitation, support, and sophistication is uncommon and almost privileged in the nation-building space.

Mendenhall and Oddou (1985) have researched a model of intercultural competence based on expatriate adaptation that is illustrative of the work that Dr. Parvanta and her colleagues engaged in with the Exhibit project. In their model, the individual needs to be willing to learn about themselves and others in order to engage with humility and openmindedness; they need to learn to make and maintain relationships across difference in order to build and maintain the alliances necessary to be effective in diverse contexts; and finally they need to learn to self-manage in order to navigate in culturally complex contexts, as they inevitably find themselves off-balanced, feeling inadequate, and emotionally challenged in such circumstances.

Dr. Parvanta was clear about her purpose as an Afghan expatriate, having left her country as a young woman and being away from her homeland for over 35 years. She reentered Afghanistan with curiosity, trepidation, and anticipation as to what she would find and experience. She embarked on learning about the deeper underlying issues of drug production, consumption, and trade by conducting thorough field research regarding the need and value of the Exhibit project. She fully admitted that she knew little about the drug trade, addiction, recovery, or preventative education in Afghanistan. She knew that her US sponsors and collaborators, although they had expert knowledge about drug-related issues, were open to learning about and adapting to the Afghan context.  She was also aware that not all of her constituency partners shared her curiosity and she chose to engage at the level that met the needs of the project. Avoiding judgemental helped her find and form alternative alliances across different sectors.  She cultivated and recruited a representatively diverse project team; paying particular attention to their intergroup relations, so might be good ambassadors for drug prevention wherever the project was welcomed. But these relationships were extended to the broad constituencies mentioned earlier across the myriad of differences so that the Exhibit could be built and deployed to do its work. Finally, she had to face personal safety threats and dangerous circumstances to advance her work and prepare her teams to self-manage in such contexts. Learning to reframe such situations as learning opportunities for better future performance and relations is exceedingly challenging work that plays a major role in supporting this level of self-management. Thus we see how this model of intercultural competence supported the Exhibit project in its nation-building endeavor.

As mentioned earlier in this article, not all agencies (national and international and NGOs) engaged in this level of intercultural competency development. They were often sequestered in compounds for safety and security away from the Afghan people and contextual environments; often they were on specific task assignments that prohibited fruitful opportunities for cross-cultural relationship-building. Dr. Parvanta observed instances of judgemental and lack of openmindedness by some ex-pats. For example, they often imposed formal administrative procedures that required a level of sophistication inappropriate for the Afghan context. Identifying and developing intercultural competence is always a huge undertaking in any context. These competencies may not be an agency director’s mind when looking for staff to deploy to areas of the world in crisis; to rebuild a broken nation, however, we recommend it can be.


The Personal Leadership school (Schaetti, Ramsey, & Watanabe, 2008) offers a model and practice of deep self-reflection that can illustrate this concept and serve as the bridge to the final section of this paper. In the Personal Leadership model and practice, the individual is open to and even cultivates a sensitivity that ‘something is up, indicating that a challenge or opportunity, often cultural, has arisen and must be addressed. Then, relying on a clear alignment to their vision and mission, the individual ascertains what is the right action. By reframing difference as a learning opportunity, a leader remains nimble and responsive to diverse contexts. Dr. Parvanta, as a somatic educator and practitioner, found the integration of mind, body, and spirit embedded in the Personal Leadership model and practices, particularly valuable in her own journey into being an effective leader of the Exhibit project.

Leadership has an enormous role in nation-building. This construct is often impacted by the ways it is implemented across diverse populations. The Connective Leadership Model (Lipman-Blumen, 1996) serves as a way to analyze how the Exhibit project was led. In this model, 9 distinct leadership styles are identified and can be employed at various levels of capacity in response to constituents and contexts. Birthed from feminist research on why women were hitting the glass ceiling in leadership roles, the Connective Leadership Model has become foundational in uncovering and developing inclusive leadership behaviors. It includes 3 factors emphasizing completing and managing tasks (Direct); bringing oneself and others into the work (Instrumental), and engaging and supporting others to complete the work (Relational). Applying this model, we can analyze leaders’ ability to leverage their strengths and shore up or compensate for weaknesses, with the ultimate goal of becoming an effective leader through flexibility and strength. The diagram below illustrates this basic model.

FIGURE 3; The Connective Leadership/Achieving Styles Model

Jean Lipman-Blumen, 1996.  The Connective Edge: Leading in an Interdependent World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 112.  Copyright 1996 by Jossey-Bass.

Reprinted with permission © Connective Leadership Institute

In our interviews on the Exhibit project, Dr. Parvanta explained that the Relational Leadership styles were very important to her work. She needed to collaborate with many different agencies and people to design, launch, and deploy the Exhibit around the country. Some of her collaborators might be considered counter-intuitive to the expected partnership she might seek in drug prevention work. For example, the US and Afghan Military had recruited many young men to learn to become soldiers and police officers for the newly formed Afghan army and police force. These trainees had little or no exposure to drug awareness and prevention education and were themselves highly vulnerable to being recruited into the drug trade industry. For this reason, the Exhibit project was welcomed into military bases by both national and international forces such as ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces).  This counter-intuitive collaboration helped to both protect the caravan in its travels while providing a learning and skill-building opportunity for the recruits. Dr. Parvanta had her teams cross-train each other in their roles so that the Exhibit could be offered without waiting for absentee team members to arrive. This, she and her team members all learned how to deliver the curriculum in the spirit in which it was designed and implemented. They also learned to pack and unpack the exhibit, cook for each other, and to find housing for the team. The scope of work often required mentoring, skill-building, and leveraging the unique talents of everyone from the drivers to the educational specialists.

Next, Dr. Parvanta also found that the Instrumental suite of leadership styles was important. She often had to use herself as an instrument and a symbol of the vision of the project in front of officials and constituents at all levels of the Afghan and nation-building agencies and governments. She cultivated new team members, using her networks — both familial and professional — to recruit individuals who could be trusted to hold the project’s vision and then, empowered people who may not have been ready for new roles, circumstances, and associated challenges, to step up and take on the necessary and multi-layered tasks.

Finally, in terms of the Direct set, Dr. Parvanta’s personal vision and standards for an inclusive work environment that could reeducate the Afghan people to stay away from drugs and the drug trade became her passion. She lived this vision and mission and used everything in her array of tools to advance it. She saw little need to compete for resources or with other governmental agencies. Taking care of tasks required to build and deploy these exhibits was all-important. Recognizing that budgeting was not among her best skills, she cultivated a productive relationship with her colleague at the DEA-EF who provided guidance in managing the financial resources from afar and well. In this way, she chose to shore up a personal weakness by enlisting a colleague with the necessary skills. Still, there were many logistical and project management tasks that Dr. Parvanta assumed, shared, and leveraged in order to carry out the work of the Exhibit project.

In this section, we have discussed the personal and professional leadership competencies that were and can be engaged in order to form an inclusive environment and carry out the work of nation-building.


In this paper, we have offered a singular case study of a nation-building initiative in Afghanistan and then analyzed it from multiple lenses in order to clarify the interrelationships of context (socio-political circumstances, powerful human conditions, and influences) that emerge when viewed from the lenses of trust, culture, cultural competency, and leadership. We note that we are aware of numerous national building initiatives occurring in Afghanistan at this same time that also did very fine work. Most importantly, they worked directly with the Afghan people, listened carefully to their context and needs in order to build trusting relationships; learned about the Afghan culture, and developed their own cultural competency in order to work effectively in the country; and finally, they built inclusive leadership structures to foster shared meaning and value in their work. We recognize that with only a single case that our analysis may not be replicable to other national building endeavors. A future service might catalog and study the many nation-building interventions that took place in Afghanistan during this time to identify best practices to share. This would be the purview of another team, at a later date, and with greater resources for such an extensive study.

There are clear limitations to a single case study approach in examining the field of nation-building generally, considering the extensive history of such work having been done in Afghanistan over the past 20-plus years. Being unable to follow up with the Exhibit team or its constituency’s progress on the ground due to the takeover of the inhospitable Taliban regime recently is a huge limitation. A wise colleague counseled me recently after a beloved educational agency closed, that legacies are very rare in educative project work; we can only strive to serve those engaged at the time of the initiative to our highest capacity and hope that they, the learners, can carry the learning forward in their lives.

By using an appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2005) approach, however, and demonstrating what is possible in nation-building in this culturally complex context, we hope that the reader can reflect on and even apply any or all of these lenses for analysis in their own nation-building initiatives. In returning to the opening metaphors of this article, there are many broken ‘femurs’ that need to be healed in the world of ‘cities’ full of mistrust and disarray; but to be our highest and best as humans, we need to care enough to engage, and to do so with love and respect for the humanity of our fellow citizens.


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Chris Cartwright, MPA, Ed.D. is a consultant, and instructor supporting individuals and organizations in assessing and developing intercultural competence, global leadership, and inclusive leadership capacity. He has 40+ years of experience in multiple sectors. He recently completed three book chapters, as well as a peer-reviewed journal article on a longitudinal study on the assessment of intercultural competence and its impact on learning outcomes. He is an associate of Aperian Global, the Connective Leadership Institute, icEdge, and the Kozai Group.

He is an adjunct faculty for the Portland State University, in International and Global Studies. He is the 2022 recipient of the Academic Excellence Award for Adjunct Faculty.

He has also taught for Minerva, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, University of the Pacific, and Pepperdine University. He served as Director of Intercultural Assessment and Associate Director of the Graduate Program for the Intercultural communication Institute for 10 years. Prior to this work, he served as the Dean of Academic Programs for the International Partnership for Service Learning and Leadership.

Contact:, 503-901-9849

Sultana Parvanta, Ph.D. grew up in Afghanistan, and began as an educator at the age of 16, when at the urging of her mother, she taught Afghan languages to Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s in Kabul.

Following her studies at Kabul University, she traveled to the U.S. and earned her B.S. degree from Buffalo State College in NY, Master’s, Ph.D., and Specialist degrees, using a multi-disciplinary approach to studying ‘change process’ at the School of Education, Indiana University.  As a researcher, she served at Johns Hopkins University and taught at Emory University and California State University Monterey Bay.

In 2003, Sultana returned to assist in the rebuilding and re-development of Afghanistan which was both suffering horrendous wounds of protracted wars; while being faced with a new and tremendous opportunity for assistance in nation-building and redevelopment by many countries, international agencies, and individuals.

She served with numerous Afghan ministries, including Urban Development & Housing, Commerce & Industry, Finance, and Agriculture, and as the Economic & Business Development Manager for the Independent Board for building the New Kabul City, as well as serving on various national committees.

Sultana served as a Special Projects Assistant at the new American University of Afghanistan as it was being established in Kabul, and with other agencies, including NATO and USAID.  Dr. Parvanta, as a volunteer, was one of the founders and Chancellor of the first private Cheragh Medical University.  She also managed various initiatives and projects that directly focused on women, children, environments, health, and the arts.

Currently, she lives in Ojai, CA, and offers   Somatic and healing therapies.

For contact:    (816 808 9044)