INTERFACE OF CULTURAL
Unesco, as you may know, is the lead agency for the World Decade for Cultural Development which was launched on January 21, 1988, and will run through 1997. The Decade has four major objectives:
Just over five years after its inception, we are now at the mid-point of the World Decade. So this is an opportune moment to reflect on where we have come from, what has been accomplished thus far, and what still lies ahead.
Background to the Decade
First, allow me to situate this World Decade for Cultural Development in context, and to consider for a moment why the Decade was originally conceived.
Most development theories, as opposed to economic theories, are fairly recent, and date essentially from the period of post-World War II decolonization. In fact, for a long time, development thinking was based on our experience of the reconstruction of Europe in the late 1940s and 1950s, and on the success of the Marshall Plan. Or, in other quarters, on the Soviet model of a centrally planned command economy. These models left little or no room for consideration of the socio-cultural context in which development might take place. Economics was reality, culture was something else. Economics was tangible, culture was intangible — and the idea that culture could make an input to development strategies would have been considered far-fetched indeed. In fact, the implicit assumption was that all development would eventually conform to one model, as if existing in a cultural vacuum or inert human environment. At the time, little did we imagine how little this might correspond to the social, cultural and geographical realities of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
In fact, for several decades — yes, even into the 1980s — mainstream development thinking seemed blind to its shortcomings, and even its failures. Not necessarily ‘wilfully’ blind, perhaps just ‘hoping against hope’. But the fact remains that until very recently, development efforts have focused on economics, on the one dimensional abstraction of homo economicus, to the exclusion of all else. And the evidence is incontrovertible — such an approach not only neglects the enormous depth and breadth of our real nature as human beings, but it is also a failure in its own terms. Simply put, it makes for poor economics. And it is this missing element that is referred to in the first objective of the Decade — "strengthening the cultural dimension of development".
So how does the World Decade understand culture ? Culture, we may recall, comes from the Latin ‘colere’ and ‘culturare’, meaning "to till or cultivate" the land. At the same time, these words carried the sense of worship. Culture, then, is something elaborated by humankind: expressions of our creativity, including our language, architecture, literature, music and art. But past this, it is also the way we live, the way we think, the way we see the world: our beliefs, attitudes, customs, and social relations. Culture transmits to us its own intrinsic understanding of the way the world works, as well as to lead us to see what is important within that world — in a word, our values.
It is in this context that the World Decade for Cultural Development was conceived, and that led Federico Mayor, Director-General of Unesco, to say at its launching at Unesco House in Paris, in January 1988:
So culture, long regarded by policy-makers as something of an ornament or even a luxury, may now be said to have a place at the top of the political agenda of the international community. During the general policy debate at the last session of the Unesco General Conference, the heads of many delegations referred in their statements to the multifarious ways in which culture exercises a key influence in the contemporary world. Many examples were cited. Inter-ethnic relations, whether in times of strife or of peaceful co-existence, are clearly rooted essentially in culture. The worldwide movement towards greater democratization and freedom of political expression is at once universal but also culture-specific, differing in its form from continent to continent and from one society to another. To take a third example, the relationship between society and nature, or, if you will, between culture and environment, is at the very forefront of world concerns today. For while there are certainly important technical and political questions to be resolved as regards the environment, the issue is clearly not only a scientific or even a political one. More than anything else, the state of the planet’s environment is a reflection of our values and our attitudes — and any changes in our relationship with the Earth’s environment will necessarily entail a revolution in our attitudes, values and behaviour. In a word, the state of the environment is to an important extent a reflection of the state of our culture.
The Decade Thus Far
The first part of my address has been to situate the World Decade in the context in which it was conceived, but I ask you now to reflect for a moment on the enormous, almost unimaginable changes which have taken place in the world since the Decade was launched in 1988. Consider the situation then and now: in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; in large parts of Africa, including, of course, South Africa; in Chile and Paraguay; in Afghanistan and Cambodia. In 1988, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and Mr. Vaclav Havel was still a political prisoner in the country of which he was to become President. Nelson Mandela was also a prisoner, and his country still firmly under the sway of apartheid. The terrible threat of a nuclear war between the two superpowers was omnipresent. In nations all over the globe, totalitarian regimes that had ruled for decades were about to fall, to be swept away by the winds of freedom.
This new-found freedom has unleashed enormous potential — both for good and for evil. And nowhere more so than between neighbouring people of different religions or ethnicity. Old scores and rivalries, simmering for so long, are now being settled. . . and, moreover, new problems are emerging. Are we, the human race, willing to take up the challenge of living by choice in pluralistic societies? Are we willing to accept, and even to embrace, those of different colour, different religion, different language, and different culture — and not just in the country next door, but even in the house next door? The question is as crucial right here in Asia as it is in South Africa, in the former Soviet Union as in Latin America. How can we create a genuine culture of peace? But the culture of peace will not thrive without equity, freedom and justice. It will not grow if people are unable to express their distinctive creative faculties, if their hopes and the force of their spirit are not pooled in the quest for a common future.
On another front, ladies and gentlemen, think of what we have learned in the last few years of our natural environment, and specifically of the ozone layer in the earth’s atmosphere. Five years ago, the first reports of a then mysterious hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica were appearing. It is now clear that refrigerators, air-conditioning, aerosols, jet travel, as well as rockets and space shuttles are combining to tear a hole in our collective sun-screen, and that another hole has opened in the atmosphere over the Northern Hemisphere. While a moment’s reflection on the list of contributory factors leaves no doubt as to the cultural connection, it is only very recently that we have begun to face the implications.
I could go on at some length, but I am sure that my point is clear — the world we live in today is not the same as it was when the World Decade for Cultural Development was launched in 1988. Moreover, not only are events still unfolding, they are also clearly speeding up, and the radical shift in the world situation is far from accomplished.
It is for these reasons that I referred earlier to this mid-point of the Decade as being "an opportune moment for reflection". In one sense, the launching of the Decade was an almost prophetic act that foresaw the forces at work in the world even before the world at large became conscious of them. In another sense, events have already overtaken us, and we must now take fresh stock of where we are.
It is on this account that, in consultation with United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Ghali, Unesco Director-General, Mr. Federico Mayor, has recently appointed Mr. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to chair the newly created World Commission on Culture and Development. And in consultation with Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar, Mr. Mayor has recently announced the appointment of the other members of this Commission, including, from Asia, Ms. Chie Nakane from Japan, Mr. Mahbub ul Haq from Pakistan, and among the honorary members, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from Myanmar. The Commission’s members are all highly respected and eminent persons, with a wealth of experience indispensable for the implementation of such an undertaking. Several Member States of Unesco have already pledged to contribute substantial sums to the financing of the Commission, and within the past few weeks, the Commission has begun its work in earnest — the task of preparing "a policy-oriented World Report on Culture and Development based on the collection and analysis of information from all regions and diverse sources". There is no doubt that this World Commission on Culture and Development will give new impetus to the Decade during its second half, and will strengthen our understanding of the crucial role that culture plays in the profound changes taking place throughout the world, and in the development process, wherever it may be observed.
At the same time, ladies and gentlemen, while many of us may recognize the role culture plays in the development of societies, we have not yet convinced the decision-makers — whether they be desk or field officers in the major bilateral or multi-lateral development agencies, or Ministers of Planning, Development, or Finance — at this realization must be put to practical use. It is not enough, then, for us to proclaim the need to take account of culture in the development process. We must also progress on the scientific and theoretical level, in order to be able to identify and, to the extent possible, to quantify those factors which are instrumental to the outcome of development strategies or projects. In a word, we need to provide the practical tools — a methodology, if you will — whereby socio-cultural factors can be integrated into development planning and project implementation.
This task is among the most important practical contributions Unesco can make in this area, and we have set ourselves a plan of work whereby over the next two years a tentative methodology, including specific guidelines, will be developed. We are working and consulting with several other actors in this effort — in Africa, for example, we are working closely with UNICEF and the World Bank (and I would say as an aside, if we can convince the bankers, we will surely carry the day!); in Asia, with national planning authorities and research institutes; and at our head office in Paris, a series of consultations has already taken place, and has included representatives from US AID, British ODA, Canadian CIDA, la Coopération Française, the PANOS Institute in London, UNDP, OECD, the EEC, the ILO, and many grass roots NGOs both from the North and the South, among others.
Once this methodology has been elaborated, the next step will be to field test it, working in close cooperation with our sister agencies of the United Nations system, as well as with national authorities in the developing countries. This will have the dual effect of refining the methodology, and of already introducing its use into the major donor and implementing agencies in the UN system, as well as into a number of national development planning agencies. In other words, while we are refining the theory, we shall also be introducing the practice.
The third implement we have envisioned to help us carry through the Decade in its second half has been to institute a "World Day for Cultural Development", to be celebrated annually on May 21. Each year’s celebration will centre around a specific contemporary theme linked to the Decade’s objectives. In 1992, for example, we chose the theme "Culture and Environment", as a particular contribution to the run up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
In the years to come, we plan to continue this approach. This year, in 1993, we will explore the theme of "Culture, Education and Work"; in 1994, "Culture and Development"; in 1995, "Culture and Agriculture"; in 1996, "Culture and Health"; and in 1997, "Culture and Technology: Arts, Science and Communication".
In looking back, we must admit that this World Decade for Cultural Development has taken time to be understood, and to take root. In its first few years, "cultural development" was understood — misunderstood — to relate to culture as the arts, music, sculpture, painting, and the like. Many of the activities undertaken by Unesco’s Member States, or proposed by Unesco’s traditional partners, were of this rather narrow nature. And to be frank, our sister agencies in the UN system, understanding the Decade in the same fashion, were lukewarm at best. Now, however, we begin to see a perceptible shift in the kinds of activities being undertaken, and in the interest elsewhere in the United Nations, especially among agencies like the UNDP, UNICEF, FAO, and the World Bank, all in the front line of development work.
In this world of imbalances, contradictions and absurdities, as the North continues to consume more than it needs while the South is still trying so desperately to obtain the basic necessities, only one resource is shared equally — and what a wonderful one it is — the resource of culture and of human wisdom and understanding. For there is no culture in the North or South that has not preserved the most sparkling reflections — on life and how it is best lived — of individual thinkers among its ancestors, of the sages, village story-tellers, and wise men and women who began it all. It is this wealth and diversity of culture and of understanding that UNESCO is determined to make better known and place at the service of human development. In order to do this, UNESCO needs the help of all its Member States, not only at government level but at all levels of civil society. It has already done much to promote dialogue, but we still have a long way to go to persuade our world’s leaders that although culture is at the root of many of our conflicts, it also offers our only possibility of reconciliation.
©1996 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi