The international development sector is composed of institutions and policies
that arose after the Second World War to alleviate poverty and improve the
living conditions in ‘developing countries’. In such projects, people from dif-
ferent countries work together. The international development sector is, thus,
by default ‘cross-cultural’ and, therefore, relevant for Cross-cultural manage-
ment (CCM) theory and practice. However, it is seldom considered how inter-
national development projects involve a specific cross-cultural configuration
which, as this case suggests, creates hierarchies in terms of the interrelated
aspects of power and knowledge.
Specifically, international development projects involve the cross-cultural
cooperation between organizations and individuals from developed countries
(‘the Global North’) and from developing countries (‘the Global South’). The
terms Global North and Global South refer to the obser vation that those coun-
tries that rate the highest on development indexes—e.g., education, income,
life expectancy—are mostly located in the Northern Hemisphere, whereas
those countries that rate lower, tend to be located in the Southern Hemi-
sphere. However, there is more to these terms. For instance, the countries of
the ‘Global North’ are often the former colonial powers, whereas the ‘Global
South’ is comprised largely of former colonial territories. In terms of culture,
there is also the idea that the countries of the Global North are implicitly
‘Western’, in contrast to the presumably ‘non-Western’ regions of the Global
South ( Mahadevan, 2017 : 121). The aforementioned hierarchies are thus partly
‘real’ (economic indicators of development) and partly rooted in commonly
held ideas about the world—for instance, the assumption that ‘Western culture’
as implicitly ‘developed’ ( Jackson, 2013 ; Pr imecz et al., 2016 ).
GLOBAL NORTH AND GLOBAL
Frameworks of Power in an International
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Global Knowledge Hierarchies 175
From the aforementioned perspective, we should view certain aspects of the
international development sector as problematic. Although many development
projects can have an immediate impact on improving the livelihood of the
beneficiary communities, scholars who are critical of the development sector
highlight how development aid has its own perils. For instance, it is argued
that the foreign aid is unsustainable since it creates a chain of dependencies
( Cardoso, 1982 ). In particular, post-colonial research—the academic study of
the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism—maintains that the dis-
course of development has depicted an image of the South as backward, and a
part of an inferior culture ‘whose deficit can only be compensated by taking
over Western ideas of rationalit y, productivity and modernity’ ( Ziai, 2016 : 31).
This literature has also discussed that the discourse of development can and
will recreate hierarchies between North and South which can be seen as the
continuation of the colonial economic regime ( Escobar, 2011 ; Ferguson, 1990 ).
These hierarchies bet ween North and South can also be reproduced in devel-
opment projects, as they are funded by powerful donor organizations in the
North which have their own perspectives on development. This has implica-
tions on what is perceived as legitimate knowledge ( Mahadevan, 2017 ), wh ich
in turn could reinforce existing hierarchies. Postmodern and post-colonial
thinkers have discussed the close relationship between power and knowledge
extensively (e.g. Foucault and Gordon, 1980 ; Bhabha, 1994 ; Frenkel, 2008 ).
Their argument is that existing relations of power render certain discourses
(e.g., the expression of a set of ideas) possible, which in turn support a certain
regime of truth or a certain knowledge claim. They also argue that knowl-
edge created within a dominant discourse is likely to engender and support
relations of power ( Foucault, 1978 : 97). These scholars further maintain that
such power imbalances are normalised through the working practices that are
accepted as a part of the normal discourse and therefore often remain invis-
ible and rarely addressed. Despite the cr ucial importance of these matters, we
know little about how these structural power asymmetries are reproduced at
the micro level in development projects and how it affects the work practices
in multicultural teams or the difficulties of addressing these issues at the micro
level. To help answer these questions, I present a case study of a rare incident in
which such implicit power asymmetries were openly discussed in an interna-
tional development project. I analyse this event with the help of Clegg’s (1989 )
‘frameworks of power’, which suggests that power effects and how they are
experienced are shaped by intersecting f lows of power, namely structure, rules
of practices and agency.
This chapter employs a case study approach ( Yin, 2003 ) to the members of a
funded research project in the area of international development. The divide
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176 Hamid Foroughi
between Global North and Global South is visible in this team on both organi-
zational and individual level (see next section), and this made this team an ideal
setting to study the interrelated effects of power on cross-cultural cooperation.
My aim was to understand how team members make narrative sense out of how
they experienced the Global North and Global South divide when working
together. To this end, I conducted semistructured interviews with six research-
ers (three of them from the Global North and three of them from the Global
South) between July and September 2018. The interviews were 60 minutes long
on average. The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Because the
topic of divide between the Global North and Global South in terms of power
and knowledge already had been raised by some researchers from the Global
South during an internal team workshop, a reflection on this event and the
topic itself became a major focus of the inter views. Also, I got access to internal
documents and memos which were exchanged by the researchers on this topic.
Out of this information, I reconstructed the actual events during the workshop.
The Governance and Development Research Consortium was a research proj-
ect funded by a European donor agency. It involved North–South collabora-
tion for research on themes related to governance in developing countries. The
project was led by Worldwise (pseudonym), a reputable UK-based research
organization with the experience of producing evidence to support interna-
tional development policy. Partner organizations were based in four countries
in the Global South (South Asia and East Africa). Together, this team should
come up wit h ‘scient i f ic’ ev idence of wh at it t a kes to i mprove upon g overna nce
in these countries of the Global South.
What is notable about this setting is that countries of the Global South
involved in the project are former British colonial territories. Furthermore, the
researchers representing Worldwise in this project originate from the Global
North (most of them were in fact Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-American). In the
following, I use the term “UK-based ” to indicate this group of people who are
internally diverse in terms of their nationality but nonetheless similar in the
sense that all originated from privileged Western European or North Ameri-
can contexts. Finally, the researchers representing the partner organizations in
the Global South originated from these countries of the Global South (mainly
three South Asian countries; one researcher originated from an East African
countr y). So, when I use the term “East African” or “South Asian researcher”
in the following, I do it to indicate their individual countr y of origin but also
their organizational aff iliation and, thus, their current place of work.
Nonetheless, the team members were quite diverse in terms of gender, social
class, age, work experience, internationality, nationality, country of origin and
societal culture. Worldwise and partner organizations had been collaborating
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Global Knowledge Hierarchies 177
on this research project for several years. The research focused on understand-
ing the difficulties of improving governance and development indexes in devel-
oping countries. The donor organization in the United Kingdom was pleased
with the progress of the work and granted Worldwise additional funding to
extend the work of the consortium by conducting complementary research to
investigate the validity of the previous findings and shed light on some of the
In preparation for this new phase of the research project, Worldwise orga-
nized a research workshop where researchers from all parties involved could
come together to ref lect on the previous findings, discuss how to present the
research, and plan how to proceed. To facilitate the participation of partners
from the Global South, it was decided to hold the meeting in a non-European
countr y where it is easier to obtain an entry visa for team members with a
non-European passport. A conference centre in the outskirts of an East African
capital was chosen, as it offered competitive prices and a secluded place where
the team could spend a full week working together. The chosen conference
centre was in an old heritage state, surrounded by lush tea f ields. The consor-
tium leaders at Worldwise thought that what they perceived as “the natural
surroundings” of the conference centre would provide a peaceful environment,
in which team members could work on the project and plan their future work
in a relaxing environment, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The
rural location of the site was also deemed advantageous to an effective use of
the limited time available, so that participants would not be distracted by side
activities. Participants were encouraged to stay onsite to maximise the amount
of time the team members spent together, hoping it would forge a more col-
laborative work environment.
When the Worldwise staff arrived at the hotel, they were pleased to have
found the old historic hotel in its beautiful surroundings. The complex con-
sisted of many classic heritage bungalows in an early colonial pavilion built in
the early 20th century. They were all quite excited to meet their partners, with
whom they had been in regular Skype conversation but had not met in person
for some time. In fact, since many Worldwise staff members had recently joined
the project, it was going to be their first time meeting their research partners
from the other organizations.
In the f irst two days, the project team gathered and started to work on
various issues. The team made good progress, and the discussion was generally
unruffled, if not uneventful. However, some tensions were slowly building up
as the meetings progressed. It turned out that some of the team members from
South Asia and East Africa were unimpressed with the venue and expressed
their discontent about being restricted to the insulated hotel. They started plan-
ning on how to leave the conference centre to enjoy the evening elsewhere in a
more relaxed environment. On the third day, they organized a taxi which then
transported some of East Afr ican and South Asian researchers to a bar near the
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178 Hamid Foroughi
conference centre. Meanwhile, the UK-based team members worked on their
research designs or caught up with other projects that they were working on.
The next evening, when a minibus parked outside the hotel, the UK-based
researchers learned that most of the partner researchers had arranged to visit the
city centre, while none of ”them” (UK-based researchers) were told about this.
Because of this, tensions rose which were interpreted along the lines of
Global South and Global North by the researchers themselves. It seemed that,
somehow, the idea of an identifiable group of researchers ‘from the Global
South’ emerged, as opposed to a group of ‘White Western’ researchers who
represented United Kingdom -HQ and ‘the Global North’. This happened
despite alternative differences in terms of class, gender, age, experience, coun-
try and nationality which were also present in this team.
The perceived rift between members from the Global South and the Global
North escalated on the fourth day of the workshop. Although previously the
split was most apparent in the ways in which team members spent their time
after the work hours, the division became more noticeable during work meet-
ings. In their retrospective reflections during the interview, Worldwise staff
stated that they did not expect this level of tension in their relationship with
partner researchers. At times, even what they thought would be a simple tech-
nical decision about modifying the deliverables provoked strong resistance from
members of the Global South partners and resulted in a polarised debate. One
of the UK-based members recalled the growing tensions in the work meetings:
I can think of one example now. Our team leader had made a decision
that because of the limited budget for the second phase of the project,
instead of doing a country report that summarises the report for each
countr y, we can produce three thematic reports that look at the f indings
across all different countries. We did not think that this was going to be
a contentious issue [at the time], as the decision was made purely based
on the budget and time limitations. But when she brought this up with
our partners, one of the partner researchers strongly questioned why she
was making this decision. A couple of other researchers from partner
organizations backed her [the partner researcher] up and questioned why
Worldwise was taking the power away from the local countries. They felt
that we were somewhat manipulating the process so that the analysis can
be made by Worldwise staff rather than the local countr y experts.
The discussions at times got polarised, as project members started to pick a side
in the debates according to whether they were positioned as ‘Global North’
or ‘Global South’ team members. In several discussions, UK-based researchers
backed up the Worldwise project leaders, while several other researchers, based
in partner organizations in the Global South, questioned the rationale for the
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Global Knowledge Hierarchies 179
decision made by the project leaders. One of the UK-based researchers retro-
spectively recalled how the meetings became polarised:
You know some of the discussion got much more emotional than expected.
Some issues did not get resolved at that point. When I think back about
the dynamics of the disagreement, it [must have] felt like Worldwise white
researchers are arguing against coloured southern researchers.
Nonetheless, it appeared that the project team had made some progress in dis-
cussing their approach to research and planning the project. As experienced
managers who had worked in several North–South collaborative projects in
the past, Worldwise project leaders were not unfamiliar with such workplace
disagreements. They understood the discussions as a typical disagreement that
could arise between HQ and operations staff in any complex project involving
multiple parties. Yet, as they had sensed a growing sense of discontent among
the partner researchers, they thought it would be good to discuss this more
openly and directly, hoping that it could help mend the relations.
Consequently, the Worldwise project leaders addressed the group in the last
few hours of the workshop and asked whether there were any substantial issues
that the partner researchers wanted to discuss before they all left the conference
centre. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, a South Asian researcher
responded by criticising Worldwise management practices for a relative lack of
transparency. She also spoke about excessive control, and about how Worldwise
staff (in particular, project leaders) imposed their will on the partner organiza-
tions. This was backed up by other researchers from South Asia and East Africa,
who questioned existing power imbalances in the project. Another South Asian
researcher based in partner organizations resisted what she described as an exis-
tent “ knowledge hierarchy ” among the project members. She described this as
a context wherein Western employees and their (Western-based) theoretical
knowledge is deemed superior to an inside (emic) perspective to development,
based on the contextual knowledge of local project members.
Some of the criticism that was directed towards Worldwise went beyond
the work practices within the particular consortium and referred to a general
“extractive” nature of research in the international development sector. While
the researchers of the Global South stated that this was not the case in the latest
phase of the project, they also argued that in many instances local staff are pro-
viding the raw material—that is, the data collected from local respondents—
while the processing and generation of valuable goods—that is, the analysis
of the data and producing the reports—is done elsewhere (the Global North).
They suggested that such practices create and entrench a hierarchy of knowl-
edge, as the conceptual work, in which the intellectual and reputation rewards
lies, is left in the hands of UK-based researchers. As such, they argued that the
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180 Hamid Foroughi
existing practices in t he indust r y do litt le to foster the intel lectual advancement
of researchers in the partner organizations in the Global South.
In particular, one of the researchers based in a partner organization inter-
preted such power imbalances within the industry as the remnants of the
colonial system. This analogy with the colonial process was partly inspired
by the colonial heritage of the site of the workshop. In particular, a few of the
researchers perceived the choice of the venue as an affront to them and as a
sign of insensitivity of Worldwise staff members about such power imbalances.
The researcher from East Africa pointed out that she was uncomfortable in the
venue as she found it a blunt reminder of the colonial history in her own coun-
try. Another researcher from South Asia also made similar remarks, suggesting
that the venue reminded her of upsetting memories of her grandparents who
had worked as indentured labourers in a British colonial tea plantation.
A not her rese a rcher f rom South A sia t hen argue d that exist ing wor k pr a ctice s
based on the stated knowledge hierarchies between Global North and Global
South have real implications for the delivery of the developmental projects and
weaken their overall impact on the host countries too. He reasoned that the
general consensus that the Global North needs to develop the Global South is
flawed: “This means that development projects often builds on Western theo-
ries; as a result they are often implemented with little understanding of the local
context and the structure of the societ y”. In his view, the project structure and
practices which sustain this knowledge hierarchy between North and South
made it more difficult for researchers in the Global South to use their knowl-
edge effectively to inf luence the development goals.
The imposition from the North towards the South makes it more com-
plicated to give leverage, or room to manoeuvre, to local development
partners [so that they can] use their understanding of the local context
and their knowledge for tackling a particular development issue in the
best possible way. This knowledge hierarchy creates more discrepancy
between what are real outcomes of the research and [between] the expected
outcomes which are being driven from the North.
This direct and harsh tone of criticism was quite surprising for most UK-based
researchers. They understood the rationale behind some of the issues raised by
partner researchers and were sympathetic to their concerns about the power
imbalances in the international development world. Like their partners in the
Global South, UK-based staff had joined the international development sector
with the ambitions to help empower developing countries to tackle their devel-
opmental difficulties and ameliorate some of the unjust practices in the world.
The UK-based researchers acknowledged that they often drew on West-
ern theories rather than emic development perspectives, as the former was
more readily available to them. More broadly speaking, they maintained that
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Global Knowledge Hierarchies 181
comparatively fewer substantial frameworks are developed from an indigenous
point of view as so much of the ‘Southern’ work still draws on ‘Northern’
frameworks. They understood that this could create some power imbalances
in the research projects. They were, however, also aware that they had to work
with the requirements of the donors, who often brought in their own perspec-
tives and required the delivery of the project in a tight timeframe. This meant
that the structure of the work, agreed deliverables and time limitations often
restricted their ability to engage with alternative sources of knowledge. One of
the UK-based researchers explained it like this:
In theory, each researcher can bring their own framework and perspec-
tives. There are always alternatives. You could say there is a hierarchy and
criticise it, but you have to have a pretty robust and well-defined frame-
work before you start collecting data and analysing data. In the end, we
are limited by the structure of the project. There are always alternatives, and,
yes, you technically could have an enormous report to include all these perspective.
It is philosophically possible .
The discussion about this ‘knowledge hierarchy’ continued for over an hour. As
the initial antagonizing discussions subsided, different researchers, both from
the Global North and the Global South, pushed for a constructive and collab-
orative approach to address the issue. The Worldwise project leaders accepted
that some of the adopted practices might have caused a continuation of a cer-
tain knowledge hierarchy and vowed to f ind ways to tackle this issue. But they
also highlighted that power imbalances are not only limited to the hierarchies
between the Global North and Global South. For instance, they suggested that,
at times, younger female researchers might be disadvantaged due to certain
norms that associate expertise and authority to masculinity and seniority. They
called for ways to tackle all sort of dysfunctional power imbalances. To make
this more off icial, the project team agreed to assign a ‘knowledge hierarchy
whistleblower’ who should try to act as an arbitrator if and when future issues
Power and CCM
Working in a cross-country setting involves dealing with different implicit
forms of power asymmetries. We therefore need to carefully ref lect upon how
power and the categories of difference that seem to prevail at work intersect.
This is important because such hierarchies could have implications for the
participation of different actors in the process of knowledge creation. Knowl-
edge hierarchies can be understood as the result of ongoing ‘f lows of power’
at three different levels: structure, practice and agency ( Clegg, 1989 ). In h is
classic work, ‘Frameworks of Power’, Clegg suggests these f lows of power are
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182 Hamid Foroughi
interconnected and shape the experience of power (see also Mahadevan, 2017 ).
Ana lysing a phenomenon like ‘ knowledge hiera rchy’ t hus requ ire s u nderstand-
ing the relations of power at all above levels.
Analysing structural aspects of power means that we need to look at social
structures, discourses, norms and regulations that sustain certain hierarchies. For
instance, as discussed in the previous section, the dependency of development
projects on funds from the donor organizations, based in the Global North, have
implications for the nature of the relationship between the lead organizations,
based in the Global North, and partner organizations in the Global South.
First, this creates asymmetric power relations within international develop-
ment projects which are typically conceived and directed by staff members
from the Global North while staff members from the Global South implement
and manage the projects on a day to day basis. These power asymmetries are
normalised and legitimated—and, to some extent, compounded—through staff
members from the Global North having higher perceived cultural capital—that
is, the social assets of a person—such as degrees from well-known universities
and being affiliated with prestigious organisations and inf luential people (see
also Goxe and Paris, 2016 ). As such, staff members based in the Global North
are seen as having the ‘right’ education and contacts, and are perceived as f lu-
ent in using the language, the vocabulary and the theoretical frameworks that
donors are drawing upon and that they can provide the type of analysis that
donors are looking for. The dependency of the development project on funds
from the Global North thus works as a structural factor which can feed into the
knowledge hierarchies that were discussed in the case study.
Second, it can be also argued that such knowledge hierarchies are recre-
ated by the international development discourse which is closely affiliated with
the discourse of ‘help’ which depicts ‘non-Western countries or ‘the Global
South’ as undeveloped and in need of Western help and education ( Ziai, 2016 ).
This dichotomy often presupposes that it is only ‘the non-West’ or ‘the Global
South’ that can learn from ‘the developed West’, which implicitly undermines
the idea that ‘the non-Western Global South’ might also contribute to the pro-
cess of knowledge creation its own right ( Mahadevan, 2017 ).
We should also analyse practices that might contribute to knowledge hierar-
chies. Practices are procedures adopted by organisations which can strengthen
or reduce power imbalances and knowledge hierarchies. In this case study, I
discussed that the division of labour in the project could signif icantly inf luence
power hierarchies and enable or limit the contribution of the Global South in
the process of knowledge creation. For instance, when the research design and
conceptual frameworks are finalised by researchers in the lead organization
based in the Global North, the role of researchers in the Global South will be
restricted to data collection which can signif icantly limit the scope of their par-
ticipation in knowledge creation. The practices surrounding the process of data
analysis, that is who writes the report and which people will be named (e.g., as
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Global Knowledge Hierarchies 183
authors) on the produced outputs (e.g., reports), will also have implications on
power asymmetries in the international development projects. People and orga-
nizations who are named on the reports will often gain the intellectual credit
for the work and can use them as reputational assets to further their career and
Finally, knowledge hierarchies can be analysed at the ‘agency’ level; that is,
the extent to which individuals by their own capacity can overcome, influ-
ence or, in fact, strengthen systems of power. Individual researchers have some
degrees of freedom in inf luencing knowledge hierarchies. For instance, in the
meeting in East Africa, researchers based in the Global South attempted to
appropriate the power asymmetries by raising the issue directly with their other
colleagues in the consortium. Worldwise consortium leaders also made an
impact by allow ing the d iscussion to take place. They also attempted to i nvolve
partner researchers—based in the Global South—in the process of research
earlier, so they can contribute to the project design. As such, individuals can
inf luence (albeit to a limited degree) the dynamics of production of knowledge
hierarchies by amending the practices that were upholding a certain knowledge
hierarchy. Although in this case, Worldwise consortium leaders acted to reduce
knowledge hierarchies, we can imagine a scenario in which a manager takes
the opposite direction by initiating practices which further entrench power
In summary, this case suggests that structure, rules of practice and agency
come together in shaping actual power effects and how they are experienced. I
suggest that cross-countr y collaborations in general and international develop-
ment projects in part icul ar should create a space for to the discus sion of knowl-
edge hierarchies, so that project teams can empirically negotiate their work
processes to deal with different perceptions and biases.
As a researcher originally from the Global South, I sympathised with the view-
points put for wards by researchers from South Asia and West Africa. I tend
to share their view that overlooking local knowledge has contributed in the
failure of some of the progressive and developmental programmes in these
parts of the world. However, having worked and currently being employed
in the Global North context (United Kingdom), I also understood the chal-
lenges faced by Worldwise researchers which limited their capacity to delve
deeper in these issues. Writing this manuscript made me think about the role
of hybrid actors like myself in bridging these gaps. Although structural issues
exist, hybrid actors with awareness of different viewpoints can use their fluency
in both cultural domains to shape a constructive dialogue between different
parties involved to generate new insights. In what follows, I briefly outline the
recommendations that I draw from this case study.
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184 Hamid Foroughi
Recommendations to Students, Researchers
Working with the assumption that any cross-cultural experience can be analysed
from t radition al etic theories of culture—that is, study of cultures f rom a gener-
alised, predefined and universal set of cultural dimensions—is problematic and
could backfire. Based on this case, it is recommended that when one is involved
in a cross-country project, one should be attentive to the dominant discourses
that could marginalise or silence alternative interpretations and practices. In
other words, we need to problematize the common or dominant understanding
that has been taken for granted or has remained unchallenged, despite existing
evidence t hat suggests other wise. As em phasised by Mahadevan (2017 ), we need
power-sensitive tools to establish a non-discriminatory and non-stereotyping
CCM practice. As such, I suggest we should sensitise ourselves to different forms
of knowledge hierarchies by asking the following questions:
• What are the dominant discourses that shape attitudes and values in a par-
ticular industr y?
• How do such dominant discourses produce discontent or grievance among
those who are disadvantaged by them?
• How do existing social structures, norms and regulations negatively affect
an equal participation of a group of workers in a cross-countr y project?
• How can the adopted work practices impact the participation of different
groups in knowledge creation?
• How can our individual actions and attitudes appropriate the practices and
structures which are restricting the participation of certain groups of work-
ers in knowledge creation?
• What are other knowledge hierarchies or power imbalances—besides Global
North versus Global South—which might restrict workers participation in
the creation of knowledge?
• What is the role of hybrid actors—that is, those individuals who can bring
in alternative perspectives—in the reduction of knowledge hierarchies?
This case study shows that structural power asymmetries contribute to how
knowledge hierarchies are produced and maintained by different actors and
in different contexts. As they are normalised in everyday practice, they often
remain hidden, but it does not mean that they are not experienced by individu-
als or have no impact on the outcome of work processes. Recognising them as
substantial forces at work is the first step in paving the way to addressing them.
Future research should look into the diff iculties of addressing knowledge hier-
archies in more depth, in particular, it is important to explore how the existence
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Global Knowledge Hierarchies 185
of multiple relations of power and hierarchies of knowledge (not only Global
North vs. Global South) can complicate this matter further.
More specifically, this case study shows that practitioners in the interna-
tional development sector in particular should be attentive to such hierarchies.
One of the main challenges in overcoming cross-cultural differences is mak-
ing them explicit (Di Stefano and Maznevski, 2000). This is because team
members might have diverging perspectives of the risks of an open conf lict or
might presume that nothing can be done about it given the systematic nature
of such hierarchies. The time constraints set by donor agencies also means that
discussing power asymmetries is not a priority. This can be reversed if donors
pay specific attention to how a project tackles global knowledge hierarchies as
one of their criteria for assessing development projects.
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