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UNESCO Chair in Intercultural Competence pre-launch 14-15 August
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 31/08/2023

​​Stellenbosch University International (SU International) recently hosted two days of activities relating to intercultural competence, which culminated in the official launch of the UNESCO Chair in Intercultural Competence on the third day.

 The chair, which was awarded to Stellenbosch University (SU) earlier this year, will be housed in the Africa Centre for Scholarship (ACS) in SU International. The Chairholder will be Dr Darla Deardorff, an SU-affiliated distinguished fellow from the United States, and co-chair Prof Sarah Howie, director of the ACS.

 The two UNESCO Chair pre-launch events – a workshop and symposium on intercultural competences – took place on 14 and 15 August respectively. Prominent directors, researchers and academics from higher education institutions in South Africa, Africa and around the world as well as UNESCO chairholders and dignitaries were in attendance.

 Intercultural competences capacity development workshop – UNESCO train-the-trainer story circles

 On the first day, Dr Deardorff, who is also the founding president of the World Council on Intercultural and Global Competence (, facilitated the 'train-the trainer' workshop. The session featured a key intercultural methodology used by UNESCO, with personal stories shared in circles (UNESCO story circles) as a way to practise and develop intercultural competences such as listening for understanding, open-mindedness and empathy. The aim was to prepare participants to go out and facilitate this methodology themselves.

 “UNESCO story circles are grounded in one of the first research-based frameworks around intercultural competence," said Deardorff. UNESCO piloted the circles in all five UNESCO regions around the world as well as online, having used the methodology to train United Nations staff globally. Deardorff noted: “Circles have existed in indigenous cultures for centuries, but it is the first time that these circles are being used for the purpose of practising and developing key intercultural competences." Over 30 Stellenbosch colleagues along with global partners of the University participated in the workshop.

Intercultural competences symposium

 The symposium on the second day comprised hybrid plenary sessions, including talks by top SU scholars, panel discussions led by SU's international partners, and presentations by UNESCO chairs.

In her welcoming address, Prof Hester Klopper, SU's Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Strategy, Global and Corporate Affairs, said: “This symposium comes at the right time, not only in relation to our struggle for gender equality or peace, but also with regard to many other forms of injustice stemming from the us-versus-them mentality that we so often see. This mentality plays out in racism, xenophobia, homophobia, gender-based violence and, in the case of South Africa, the continuing legacy of colonialism, slavery and apartheid. These unfortunate experiences provide us with the opportunity to collectively search for a better future. I believe that the UNESCO chair will play an important role in promoting and integrating this system of research, teaching and learning."

Dr Deardorff's opening remarks emphasised the importance of intercultural competence on a global level. “Over the past three years as the world battled the Covid-19 pandemic, we were reminded of the power of human connection as we experienced isolation, confinement, social distancing, and even fear. The pandemic years provided an opportunity for us to reflect on what matters most, what binds us together, and what it means to be good neighbours. It emphasised that we are all in this together and that it becomes imperative for us to get along, and that is where intercultural competence comes in.

 “Over 60 years of scholarly work has been done around the intercultural competence construct. Increasingly, we are also seeing research about social emotional learning, emotional intelligence, and discussions around empathy and compassion. This, coupled with conversations around intersectionalities with justice, equity, diversity, belonging and inclusion, brings to mind further questions that need more research, in which this UNESCO chair can play such an important role."

 However, she bemoaned the fact that much of the existing work around intercultural competence has come from the global north. “That is why it is so important to have this UNESCO chair at Stellenbosch. With the chair being located in South Africa, we can work with scholars from across the continent around intercultural competence," said Deardorff.

 The UNESCO chair provides an exciting opportunity to work with colleagues at SU as well as across institutions, said co-chairholder Prof Howie in her opening remarks. “The intention is for the chair to be a think-tank that comprises a team in a bigger collaborative effort. It is a means to advance research, training and programme development around intercultural competence. The overarching goal of this chair is to contribute to quality education by exploring the intersections of intercultural competence with gender equality, climate action and peacebuilding, with a special focus on Africa, to create a more just, peaceful and inclusive society."

 Prof Howie added: “To do that, the chair has four objectives: The first is to curate and disseminate intercultural competence research and practice. The second is to engage in projects that are relevant to the African Union's Agenda 2063, where intercultural competences may be less robust as an opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration to address gender equity, conflict/peacebuilding and climate action. The third is to strengthen the network of cooperation between the various universities relating to intercultural competence work. The fourth is to engage in institutional development and capacity development to strengthen intercultural competences among relevant stakeholders."

 The three panel discussions at the symposium focused on the themes “Towards a better future in Africa", “Towards a better future globally" and “UNESCO chairs' contribution towards a better future globally" respectively.

 Towards a better future in Africa

 This plenary session consisted of three talks on the intersection of the UNESCO chair with gender equality, climate action and peacebuilding.

 In the first talk, Prof Amanda Gouws, incumbent of SU's SARChi Chair in Gender Politics, emphasised that intercultural competences need to be accompanied by a feminist ethic of care. “A feminist ethic of care has the following characteristics: attentiveness, responsiveness, responsibility and competence. A care ethic is relational and demands that we listen to the needs of those we care for. In a similar vein, intercultural competences should be located in relationality to enable us to understand the cultures of others and how we live in relationships with others. It belies the liberal notion of the autonomous individual because we are all members of communities, and we all live in relationality with each other. At the root of intercultural competences is the notion of ubuntu. It is only when we admit that we are all connected that we will be able to contribute to the prosperity of Africa."

 The second talk featured Prof Guy Midgley, acting director of SU's School for Climate Studies, who spoke about climate action and said that the UNESCO chair would be valuable in bringing about a better future for Africa in the context of climate change. “Southern Africa is approaching an era of sustainable development, with a healthy population demographic and economic outlook, if managed correctly. But our social ecological systems in Africa are at extreme risk of climate-related impacts as well as inappropriate adaptation and mitigation responses imposed upon us by the rest of the world, especially with regard to land use.

 “International funders severely under-allocate support to this region. Our region has to invest its own meagre resources to maintain a world-class contribution to global knowledge. It needs to be better rewarded because our science contributes to the global knowledge base on climate change and adaptation. Southern African science in particular contributes substantially to global knowledge on climate change."

 The third presentation by Ms Sarah Richmond, senior manager at SU International, addressed the theme of peacebuilding and the key role of internationalisation practitioners in developing intercultural competence. “One of the main tenets of UNESCO's work is to create a new social contract, specifically with regard to education, diversity and understanding. And that is why we, as practitioners at SU International, are so excited to host this chair. With our very specific interculturalism, multi-diversity and education, we have the ability to engage with different students, curricula, organisations and institutions on the very basic building blocks of mutual understanding, which will allow us, along with the UNESCO co-chairholders, to build a better future for Africa, with Africa," she said.

 Towards a better future globally

Some of SU's international partners who had supported the University's application for the UNESCO chair and will also be collaborating with the chair spoke in the second symposium session.

 Dr Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler, a professor of Psychology and director of the Centre for Research on Global Engagement at Elon University, United States, said her centre's aims were well aligned with the objectives of the UNESCO chair, as they were also fostering collaboration, building partnerships and establishing best practices.

 She specifically mentioned an American Council on Education initiative around mentoring, which she had led at Elon University. “Mentoring matters. It is a very important way in which we highlight high-quality undergraduate education. There has been a lot of research over the past couple of decades, and it has been proven that students who experience mentoring are much more likely to thrive and succeed in their jobs at a later stage.

 “We also convened two different think-tanks, which were very useful in trying to understand the layering of educational practices. Three themes emerged as key to the participants: to increase access to mentored, globally focused undergraduate research, to augment intercultural learning, and to address knowledge gaps."

 Mr Milton Nyamadzawo from the Institute for Economics and Peace in Harare, Zimbabwe, highlighted a collaboration with UNESCO in which intercultural competence played a part to address political instability. “The UNESCO initiative Enabling Intercultural Dialogue has been developed in partnership with the Institute for Economics and Peace to address the intercultural competence dialogue knowledge gap and support more effective dialogue. Following the launch of the Enabling Intercultural Dialogue framework, UNESCO now hopes to continue to grow intercultural competence dialogue through a dialogue support facility. It also plans a series of pilots with various countries to aid capacity building and policy guidance," he said.

 The session also featured Ms Orla Quinlan, a representative of the International Education Association of South Africa (IEASA) and director of the International Office at Rhodes University. As a partner of the UNESCO chair, IEASA will help build an intercultural network in higher education across South Africa. Quinlan noted the important role of international education in developing students' intercultural competence. She stressed the need to integrate intercultural competence into higher education curricula and to support academics' professional development around intercultural competence.  

UNESCO chairs' contribution towards a better future globally

 The final symposium session featured the work being done globally in relation to intercultural competence by some of the international UNESCO chairs who had supported SU's chair application.

 Prof Joanna Hughes, who holds the UNESCO Chair in Shared Education for Peacebuilding and Social Justice at Queen's University, Belfast, spoke about her work in shared education in Northern Ireland. According to Hughes, 'shared education' refers to a policy and practice that encourages and facilitates collaboration and the sharing of resources between schools from different religious and cultural backgrounds. The goal is to break down barriers between different communities, reduce segregation, and improve community relations. It is seen as a way to promote a sense of reconciliation and create a more inclusive and harmonious society in Northern Ireland.

 “A number of educationists came together around 2004 to think about what they can do in the education system to try and provide opportunities to bring kids together, and this idea for shared education was born. Shared education is done through schools coming together in various partnerships, such as joint extracurricular activities, shared teacher development activities, and teacher exchanges," she explained.

 Prof Marion Keim, incumbent of the UNESCO Chair in Sport, Development, Peace and Olympic Education at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), said she used her passion for sport as a tool for peacebuilding and development. She chairs the Centre for Sport Science and Development at UWC, which “is the only sport centre in Africa that does not focus on high performance or sports management, but on the concept of development and peace". In this capacity, she has initiated projects such as The Case for Sport, a study that explores the impact of sport on a country. “We have been able to prove that sport in the Western Cape brings more money into the province than tourism. This got politicians to pay more attention and to pump more money into sport and peace initiatives. This is an ongoing study that we are doing with the provincial government," said Keim. She added that they also started the Sport and Development Policy in Africa project with UNESCO in 2014, which maps African countries according to their sport policies.

 Other international partners who took part in this session were Dr Jorge Gonzales, holder of the UNESCO Chair on Intercultural Dialogue at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and Prof Helena Marujo, the incumbent of the UNESCO Chair on Education for Global Peace Sustainability at Lisbon University in Portugal.

The UNESCO Chair in Intercultural Competence was officially launched at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies on 16 August, along with the UNESCO Chair in Complex Systems and Transformative African Futures held by Prof Rika Preiser and Ms Tanja Hichert.​