A Lack of Cultural Awareness and Competence Compromises Missions


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20141217

Cultural awareness does not always translate to cultural competence, but there can be no cultural competence without cultural awareness. Further, peacekeepers not only engage national populations where the societal and cultural norms are different from their own, but they may work alongside a multinational and multicultural contingent of peacekeepers who may experience “cultural miscommunications and conflicts” (Odoi 2005, 6). Therefore, it becomes imperative to understand both the cultural expectations of the local population and those of the peacekeeping operation (Rubinstein 2003).

The mission in Somalia highlighted how all peacekeepers wore the same blue helmet, but cultural competencies varied amongst the individual peacekeepers (Odoi 2005). That is, UN personnel and NGO workers in West Africa were reportedly accused of sexual violence and abuse against children and women. These reports were followed by additional allegations arising from Kosovo to the DR Congo. These occurrences compromised the legitimacy or integrity of UN peacekeeping missions by tainting the public image of the UN and blurring the line between “peacekeepers as protectors and peacekeepers as violators of the host population” (Odoi 2005, 11). Relationships with certain governments such as Eritrea were hampered as the peacekeepers were viewed as holiday seeking whores with no respect for the country, culture, or people of Eritrea (Odoi 2005).

It is important to note that such acts violate both international and criminal law in most cases and in no way fulfills the UN’S role in protecting human rights. Still further, it is important to examine the potential root causes of such behavior.

Higate postulated that UN personnel within the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo loss their sense of responsibility to protect after perceiving the Congolese citizen as guilty for worsening the conflict instead of recognizing the social and political structures at hand ” (Odoi 2005). This speaks to the age old and unfortunately normalized tendency to construct the “cultural other” as an enemy to one’s self.

Laye &Kammhuber postulated the same regarding the German soldiers deployed as part of the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNISOM II) who perceived themselves as helpers of backwards, peace-less, and helpless  people (Odoi 2005). Once the differentiation has been made, abuse and discrimination is more probable and could offer an explanation as to how the soldiers may have discounted their behaviors towards local women in contrast to women back home (Odoi 2005).

Conclusively, the operations in the DR Congo and Somalia demonstrate how a lack of cultural awareness can compromise a peacekeeping operation. The aim of developing cultural awareness should not be to highlight differences in order to transport them into “cultural other” constructs, but to cultivate a cultural competence that allows for behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enhance cross-cultural objectives (e.g., peacekeeping operations).




Odoi, Nana. Cultural Diversity in Peace Operations: Training Challenges. KAIPTC Paper, Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, 2005.

Rubinstein, Robert A. 2003. Cross ‐ Cultural considerations in complex peace operations. Negotiation Journal 19, (1): 29-49.


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