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Decision making
Comments on the dilemma in the May issue: ‘Accommodating cultural differences of opinion’
  1. Gabriela Olmos Antillon
  1. Bristol, UK


The dilemma in the May issue concerned cultural and religious differences of opinion during veterinary work overseas (In Practice, May 2012, volume 34, pages 310–311). While working for an animal charity in a developing country, there were disagreements between you and the local staff employed by the charity over the best course of action to improve animal welfare. Kimberly Wells commented that you should try to accommodate these differences when making decisions about individual cases and practice policy, remembering that everyone working there should have the same professional and charitable goal: an improvement in animal welfare. However, it could sometimes be difficult to find a balance between respecting equality and diversity and doing the right thing for the animal. People needed to balance personal, professional and charitable obligations in the decision-making process, and these obligations would differ in line with cultural and religious beliefs. Taking these factors into consideration would help people to respect and understand the views of others, and differences of opinion could actually be strong drivers for positive change. It was important to communicate effectively with everyone involved with the care of the animal and to recognise how your actions were perceived. Cooperation was key, and activities such as icebreakers, brainstorms and simulations might provide insights into shared beliefs, help to set expectations and guide future decisions. Using an ethical matrix would also help inform decisions and allow you to justify them to others if necessary. Ultimately, you might have to agree to disagree, which would be fine as long as animal welfare was not truly compromised.

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Gabriela Olmos Antillon comments: The point made – that being aware of people's and countries’ historical and cultural differences when communicating inside animal welfare organisations is crucial to success – is a very important one. Kimberly Wells's refreshing suggestions for a way forward are not only applicable when working in international organisations, but in any organisation.

It is important to mention that the depth of the suggested techniques, and their translation into conversations, discussions and decision making, evolves during the building of rapport with the community.

As Ms Wells points out, charities are guests in the communities they visit. However, guest charities have an underlying freedom to opt out of particular aspects of the work they have been deployed to do if they are uncomfortable with the circumstances that surround it. Also, as their cause is to improve something, they may have a self-perceived sense of righteousness, making it easier for them to justify their actions.

On the other hand, locals find themselves in the difficult situation of separating themselves from their everyday circumstances and assessing the array of options under a novel ideology that may or may not find roots in their moral upbringing.

This reality, coupled with polarised economic drivers, can create scenarios of unnecessary patronisation or learned self-helplessness. Hence, guest charities and locals have intangible biased dilemmas that a general awareness of cultural differences often underestimates.

Guest charities ought to understand the social cost to an individual of challenging their traditional actions, views and/or opinions. Moreover, they should have an active approach to sharing the load; not only expecting to be challenged, but being prepared and willing to change personal views and/or opinions and to recognise these changes by sharing them with others.

This last exercise is important as it recognises that there are no feel-good blanket solutions or actions when working in complex environments. International organisations – especially those dealing with animal welfare – cannot be blinkered into thinking only of the animals. They must engage with the relationship between animals, owners and the community to determine how best to reach a win–win scenario.

Have you faced a dilemma that you would like considered in a future instalment of Everyday Ethics? If so, e-mail a brief outline to inpractice{at} We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.


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, ‘Offering neighbourly advice’, is presented and discussed by David Williams. 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 ‘Accommodating cultural differences of opinion’, which was published in the May issue of In Practice, appears on page 367.

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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