Will a ‘cultural gap’ prevent English-French partnerships for global development?

Flags of England and France. Photo by: OliBac / CC BY 

At the English Channel’s narrowest point, less than 50 kilometers of water separates France and England, but cultural differences between the French- and English-speaking worlds can be an impediment to effective development cooperation, according to one business leader.

Participants at last week’s Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Forum in Paris highlighted partnerships as an essential tool for putting the sustainable development goals into action in 2015 and beyond.

Partnerships between large development institutions, government aid agencies and private sector actors will be critical to expanding influence and assuring results in the developing world.

But what happens when cultural differences get in the way of effective collaboration for global development?

Private sector leaders in both the English- and the French-speaking worlds see themselves as critical players in the global development arena. But entrepreneurs from the two sides often don’t see eye to eye, resulting in an unmet potential for cooperation in developing countries, according to Cyril Zimmermann, CEO of the French company HiMedia Group and president of the digital economy association known as ACSEL.

“I think that for the moment there is a kind of cultural gap between the Anglo-Saxon world and the French world,” Zimmermann told Devex on the sidelines of ACSEL’s annual award ceremony for French entrepreneurs in Paris last week.

Zimmermann explained that entrepreneurs in the English-speaking community see France as an aging country struggling to adapt to the digital age and tied down by complex administrative regulations. On the other hand, French entrepreneurs tend to see the Anglo-Saxon private sector as a “nirvana” that is naïve and unrealistic in its approach to the world.

Such preconceived notions make communication between the two groups difficult, said Zimmerman, but he added that there are a lot of French companies and entrepreneurs going abroad to England and the United States and learning from the Anglo-Saxon model while teaching best practices from a French perspective — like private sector ambassadors.

Zimmermann said this is a positive development and that this type of learning and collaboration opens the door to joint action in developing countries.

“It will happen, it’s just a matter of time,” Zimmermann said. “When people are opening windows and trying to see what’s happening outside, then they bring back some good externalities, they bring back some great assets. … And I think that’s the way that communication and civilization just can mix.”

Partnerships are part of AFD’s identity

While the private sector in France may be struggling with cultural differences that make partnerships hard to come by, the public sector has had some more success in the partnership agenda.

The French Development Agency, or AFD, for instance has infused partnerships into its model for development.

Notably, AFD has a history of working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, conducting joint studies and organizing events such as the Maternal Health and Family Planning Conference in 2009. Currently, the agency is partnering with the Gates Foundation on an initiative worth 100 million euros ($110 million) to improve vaccination and immunization programs in the Sahel region.

Yves Guicquéro, head of development agenda and international partners division at AFD, told Devex he’s sure this partnership will grow, adding that partnerships and co-financing are “part of our identity.”

Guicquéro said that 40 percent of AFD activity is co-financed. Most of the co-financing is carried out with European actors such as the European Commission, but other actors such as the World Bank are also co-financing with AFD. And now new promoters of innovative financing mechanisms such as the Gates Foundation are playing a bigger role.

Since the majority of the funds AFD provides are through loans, Guicquéro explained that partnerships allow for an increase in available grant money, which notably provides capacity building among other advantages.

Guicquéro said AFD hopes to replicate the partnership forged by the Gates Foundation and the Islamic Development Bank while working on polio vaccinations in Pakistan.

Under this model, IsDB provided the loans while the Gates Foundation covered all the financial costs, resulting in a “zero rate loan” — of which Pakistan only had to repay the principal amount with no financial cost.

When looking for new partners, Guicquéro said the AFD looks for organizations that bring innovative ideas, and a willingness to take risks.

What do you think about the ‘cultural gap’ between the French- and English-speaking private sectors and how can development professionals facilitate the collaboration of all stakeholders, whether public, private or multilateral?

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.