Article Text


Decision making
Accommodating cultural differences of opinion
  1. Kimberly Wells


You work for an animal charity in a developing country. The organisation runs veterinary clinics and neutering programmes with the aim of improving animal welfare. Sometimes you find that differences in religious and cultural beliefs between you and the local staff employed by the charity lead to disagreements over the best course of action to improve animal welfare (eg, concerning handling, pain management or euthanasia). How far should you accommodate these differences when making decisions about individual cases and practice policy?

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Kimberly Wells is a behaviour and welfare adviser with The Brooke, an international equine welfare charity. She facilitates training workshops and provides technical advice across The Brooke's global programmes in Asia, Africa and Latin America. She is a committee member of the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute's Ethical Review Committee. She is a certified veterinary nurse and holds a master's degree in applied animal behaviour and welfare.

Issues to consider

What a boring world (and column) it would be if we all thought and acted the same! Different opinions and the process of learning from others can be strong drivers of change in best practice and policy. Charity work occurs on the basis that change is required. However, there are often differences of opinion between stakeholders in the way the goal is reached and the way the activities are carried out.

People and countries have different histories and different cultures, so it can be difficult to get a balance between respecting equality and diversity and doing the right thing for the animal. Changes in society happen slowly and require a great deal of trust. It is worth considering whether you (or the charity) have set expectations of others that are too high to be achievable and whether these expectations have been communicated fairly, with support available to facilitate discussion and agreement on the way forward.

People tend to use a mixture of deontological and utilitarian rules in everyday decisions. Determined and passionate go-getters may prefer to act immediately to ‘fix’ situations they find atypical or upsetting, while others may feel fearful or powerless and rely more on legislation or organisational strategies and policies to support moral actions. People also have to balance personal, professional and charitable obligations in the decision-making process and these obligations will differ in line with cultural and religious beliefs. It may not be immediately clear how another individual reached their decision on the best course of action, but taking these factors into consideration helps people to respect and understand the views of others.

It is worth bearing in mind that everyone who works for an animal charity should have the same professional and charitable goal: an improvement in animal welfare. Each individual therefore has a right to express his or her concerns and to respond to the concerns of others, even if they have a religious or cultural basis.

Building and maintaining rapport with those who can directly benefit animals is important. Studies have demonstrated that ‘technical skills and knowledge, job motivation and commitment, and job satisfaction of the individual are all important human characteristics that are likely to affect animal welfare’ (Hemsworth and Coleman 1998). If you proceed with what you consider to be ‘normal’ practices and fail to recognise how your actions are perceived, you could confuse, upset or intimidate others, and even damage their confidence or motivation. Animals could potentially pay the price.

Possible way forward

It is important to ensure that your approaches to communication and action are justified and that any accompanying ethical issues are identified and mitigated. Regular readers of this column will be familiar with other authors' rightful suggestions to use tools to aid decision making, such as an ethical matrix or ‘four principled ethics’, or to minimise the impacts of decisions, such as the ‘three Rs’ or a SWOT analysis.

These tools have the benefit of documenting your thought process, which allows you to justify your decisions if they are challenged by others. They also act as a checklist of important points for consideration in the decision-making process (eg, benefit to animals, fiduciary responsibilities).

Remind yourself that you are a guest in the country and on the programme. There will be a learning curve to understand contextual differences in, for example, welfare legislation, behavioural norms, language, and how feedback is communicated and received.

It may not be your intention to upset local staff or communities by challenging their cultural norms, but this risk is present if communications are not well executed. Try distinguishing the cultural differences as best you can, take note of them and share your experiences with your peers.

Skilled professionals rarely enjoy being told what to do, but, when motivated and ready, adults tend to enjoy opportunities to learn. Adults learn and engage best when they are actively involved in relevant conversations and when they can see that they are achieving something, so cooperation is very important.

How well you package and deliver your argument and get everyone involved in discussions will be a test of your relationship management skills. You could initiate activities such as icebreakers, brainstorms, case studies or simulations. If well designed, they can provide insights into shared beliefs, views on ethics and case outcomes, and whether the charity's policies and procedures are designed to represent and protect everyone universally. The results of these discussions can help set expectations and guide decisions on a way forward.

Ultimately, the charity's objective is to improve the welfare of animals. If welfare is being compromised, so is the reputation of the charity and the staff. What constitutes ‘harm’ or ‘benefit’ will often differ between cultures. Sometimes, in the short term, you may have to agree to disagree, which is okay provided animal welfare is not truly compromised. A longer-term plan can be to reach a shared agreement that may influence practice policy.

Charities that work overseas should foster an environment of open communication, ethical discussion and debate to ensure animals are kept at the centre of any decision-making process and all staff feel supported.

Any comments?

Readers with views to contribute on ‘Accommodating cultural differences of opinion’ should e-mail them to inpractice{at} so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue, or fax comments to 020 7383 6418. The deadline for receipt of comments is Friday, June 1. Please limit contributions to 200 words.


THIS series gives readers the opportunity to consider and contribute to discussion of some of the ethical dilemmas that can arise in veterinary practice. Each month, a case scenario is presented, followed by discussion of some of the issues involved. In addition, a possible way forward is suggested; however, there is rarely a cut-and-dried answer in such cases, and readers may wish to suggest an alternative approach. This month's dilemma, ‘Accommodating cultural differences of opinion’, was submitted by a reader and is presented and discussed by Kimberly Wells. Readers with comments to contribute are invited to send them as soon as possible, so that they can be considered for publication in the next issue. Discussion of the dilemma ‘Repeat vaccinations’, which was published in the April issue of In Practice, appears on page 311.

The series is being coordinated by Siobhan Mullan, of the University of Bristol. It is hoped it will provide a framework that will help practices find solutions when facing similar dilemmas.


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