What can be achieved with intercultural exchange?

Kaisa Vainio,
Ph.D. Scholar,
University of Eastern Finland,

Culture and business are said to go hand in hand if you want to reach eastern and Baltic economies. But how can municipalities build a success story of their own with intercultural exchange?

I have been following long-standing intercultural exchange of a small Finnish municipality Pudasjärvi with their partners in the Russian Republic of Komi. During this 16-year connection many cross-border projects and visits were made in the sectors of education, arts, libraries, tourism, administration and business. This example offers some lessons that can be relevant to other municipalities in their intercultural exchange.

Creating the long-term cultural relationships

Twin town relationships were established between soviet states and Baltic countries between somewhat similar municipalities. Nowadays, new connections are established in cross-border projects. These connections offer valuable networks and opportunities for municipal development.

Municipal cooperation started in Pudasjärvi by accident as a result of art project for youth. When receiving first guests from Komi, there was a surprise: In addition of group of arts teachers and young students, there was a municipal manager with them. He had joined the delegation out of curiosity. This led forming official connections. During the first years, the delegations represented the various sectors of the community: the participants were teachers, artists, young students, members of the municipal administration and representatives of local businesses. The goal was to get to know the partner and to involve the whole community into the network. Diverse delegations were seen to work like an icebreaker – it was easier for all the participants relax and come over cultural differences, when there were children and youngsters present.

Symbolic togetherness is the basis

Only after getting to know your partners, their values and interests, it is possibly to create long-distance goals and projects. To create deeper commitment, partners should find something which they share in emotional level. Symbolic togetherness – created one way or another – is an important tool when forming motivation and trust for the cooperation.

In the case of Pudasjärvi, the shared Finno-Ugric heritage was connecting partners. The theme was seen in the grass-root exchange in youth arts classes and exhibitions, locally in tourism development projects and even in municipal branding. It also affected the mindsets of the participants. For Finns it was easier to sympathize with the idea of Finno-Ugric sister nation, than with Russia, an enemy from the second World War. For locals it was easier to relate to people with whom they had something in common – having similar livelihoods, nature-oriented lifestyles, shared symbols of heritage and areas far from the national capitals. The cultural differences were left aside.

Continuity builds trust, resources create continuity

Creating the positive atmosphere needed for business cooperation takes time. Continuity is key to building and maintaining the crucial trust. Official cooperation agreements are good for building a long-term cooperation, but without actual, grass-root level interaction the treaties will fade. If various sectors are involved in intercultural exchange, there might be a need for long-term planning to balance goals and funding. In the best-case scenario cooperating sectors bring continuity for the whole cooperation – if different sectors are not fighting from the same resources.

Municipal funding is essential when maintaining the intercultural connections. Funding channels for cross-border projects exist, but they do not support ordinary municipal grass-root level cooperation. Basic cultural exchange with youngsters is relatively easy and cheap to do – and it’s proven to give good results. If there are plans to involve businesses into municipal cooperation, why then not involve them in the funding as well? Sponsoring cultural exchange events such as youth camps, arts exhibitions and concert tours, companies can become active participants of the exchange by showing their goodwill locally and internationally.

After financial benefits or driven by lofty goals?

Cultural exchange is said to be the key into foreign markets, but even to ever reach them is unsure. When seeking for financial benefit, the core of the cultural exchange may get lost. The real value of intercultural exchange is found elsewhere. Municipalities have similar problems all around the Baltics and Russia. Cultural exchange is a great opportunity to learn from others and to solve problems together. Most powerful change can be seen in individual participants: positive experiences, decreased prejudices, interest to language skills, stronger local identity and enriched cultural life.

Recipe for successful intercultural exchange in municipalities is to have long-standing cooperation, real grass-root interaction between partners, strong local interaction and shared values. Intercultural exchange does not necessarily bring any financial opportunities, but it is a good starting point to form them. Exchange can bring other benefits in the long run, if the municipalities are ready invest commitment, goodwill, patience and some resources for the interaction. This is how intercultural cooperation creates extra value for individuals and municipalities.

Expert article 2694

> Back to Baltic Rim Economies 1/2020