Intercultural Consultation and Participation: Ignore at your own peril!


The intercultural approach is founded on the belief that modern cities should be seen less as places of distinct communities, but rather as local public spheres with multidimensional connections, which overlap and may conflict. Policy makers and planners may ignore the following implications at their own peril. They must ensure that consultation cannot be a one-off standardized exercise but a continuous process of informal discussion and engagement.


How does the intercultural approach to public consultation differ from the multicultural approach? This is the subject of a thematic paper prepared after a consultation with cities in the context of the Intercultural cities programme.


Central to the intercultural approach to public consultation is the notion that citizens cannot easily be ascribed to one homogenous group. In mark contrast the multicultural approach to public consultation requires that communities are defined by their ethnicity and consulted in isolation.


Research has pinpointed a number of limitations to this approach:

it overlooks the internal diversity of specific ethnic communities;

complex intercultural views are not anticipated, and therefore not sought;

it is overly prescriptive in nature and does not take into consideration complex intercultural relations between people;

it prioritises speed and efficiency over quality and respect;

and most importantly it views race and ethnicity as the determining factor. Take a person of Bangladeshi parentage but born in London. They might identify themselves as a Muslim but of equal importance might be that they are female or disabled, work as a lawyer, or are in mixed race marriage.


Best practice recommendations concerning intercultural consultation and engagement were drawn from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. This local authority has been awarded Beacon Status for community engagement. Best practice recommendations stemming from this experience include:

conducting consultations in "intercultural spaces" rather than "mono-ethnic" ones;

providing interpretation to communities rather than bringing communities to interpreters;

questioning existing norms relating to concepts such as "safe" and "aesthetically pleasing".


As far as processes and structures of local governments are concerned, foreigners right to vote in local elections is of paramount importance. Allowing foreigners to be elected on consultative bodies, even when they have nor right to vote in local elections, can be the first step forward towards full citizenship rights.


In many countries cities have set up consultative bodies to help immigrants voice their opinions on issues which are relevant for them as residents. The aim of such bodes is to represent immigrant communities in the municipality. Even though they are only consultative in nature they promote discussion and dialogue. Barcelona, Madrid and Oslo have set up such assemblies, councils and associations.


Ethnic community and migrant organizations play a vital role in providing advice and support to newly arrived migrants, and ensure the preservation of the language, culture and traditions of ethnic communities. Many cities provide support to NGOs and ethnic community organizations. Funding projects or structures enrich the groupís bonding capital and ensure the preservation of the language, culture and traditions of ethic communities. The risk of such organisations is that they could maintain too strong a grip on individuals, prevent interaction from occurring with the host communities and thus have a negative impact on both integration and social cohesion. However from an intercultural point of view, there neednít necessarily be an opposition between ethnic and generalist organizations, neither need the success of ethnic organizations lead to segregation.


Finally the paper points to examples of results-based accountability, as practiced in Tilburg, the Netherlands. It involves large scale consultations to allow residents decide on priorities for their neighbourhood. Data is collected on crime, school absenteeism, teenage pregnancy and plans of actions are then developed. Annually evaluations are carried out to decide on adjustments necessary. This is a a wonderful example of empowerment at the local level.


By Thomas Pavan-Woolfe