Culture and International Development: Rethinking the Relationship

 Dr.John Clammer(Institute of Advanced Studies in Sustainability, United Nations University)

Korean National Commission for UNESCO

International Forum on International Development Cooperation in the Field of Culture

Key Note Speech

Shortly before his untimely death, the distinguished scholar Edward W. Said, author of such well known books as his now classic Orientalism, urged his readers and students not to give up on what he called “culture work”. By this he meant that while the field of development seems to be largely dominated by economists, and perhaps to a lesser extent by social policy specialists and political scientists, culture remains a vital element in determining both what we mean by the controversial term ‘development’, and helping us to realize the means to get there once we have decided what it is we want to reach as that ideal future state. This is particularly important for two main reasons, one negative and the other positive. The negative one is that, as we reach the end of almost two decades of the Millennium Development Goals, we realize all too clearly that many of those goals have not been met, and indeed in some cases there has actually been a regression from the situation of the year 2000. Poverty, conflict, child mortality, maternal health and other indicators, show us that despite the technological and scientific advances of the past decades, we are, as a global community, still very far from reaching even half way respectable results. Conventional, growth driven and purely economically measured models of development have simply not delivered the expected satisfactions that they promised. They have in fact contributed to the other pressing problems that our planet and civilization now faces: global warming, pollution, loss of biodiversity and new forms of inequality that have accompanied the spread of globalization.

The positive reason is more encouraging. If almost any of us were to be asked to define what we would want from the process of development (and empirical studies show this to be true) it is by no means only the increase in our material wealth, but rather the expansion of satisfactions of a quite different kind: freedom of expression, good quality relationships, happiness as understood in our particular society, and participation in a rich cultural life. Development, understood in a holistic sense, inevitably involves culture. If one goes back a decade or two to the “basic needs” theories which were popular in development discourse of the time, it is significant that in every list of such needs known to me, while material ones played a part, others such as leisure, aesthetic pursuits, the pursuit of spiritual goals, and the freedom to create forms of expressive culture, are always higher on the list. Fulfillment in other words can never be purely material: without the riches of culture, “development” is an empty concept.

In our present multiple (and humanly induced) global crisis the links between sustainability and culture need to be understood and strengthened. And here we face several challenges: the paths to creating sustainable cultures out of the ruins of our old dysfunctional ones (ones indeed that have contributed directly to the creation of the crises that now confront us), and how to ensure that those future cultures are ones of justice, allowing equality, promoting access to cultural riches, and nurturing creativity in its many forms. The goal must be the development of culture, not just the analysis of development and culture (that of culture simply as an instrumental means to some other developmental goal), and hence of the importance of cultural policy as well as social policy.

Reimagining Development

In one of his books, the well known critic of corporate capitalism and its associated globalization, David Korten, has written that “To create a just, sustainable, and compassionate post-corporate world we must face up to the need to create a new core culture, a new political center, and a new economic mainstream” in pursuit of what he calls the shift to “a new integral culture that affirms life in all its dimensions”. I think he is right. The problem is that he, like many other writers in the field of what might be called “alternative development”, while indeed discussing the political and economic dimensions of a sustainable future, does not in fact elaborate on what this new “core culture” might look like. But any discussion of “development” must surely raise this question: not only of the political changes desirable (no doubt in the direction of democratization and participation), and the economic ones (in the direction of social justice, solidarity and environmental sustainability), but also of the cultural forms that are both important in themselves (forming the fabric of our everyday lives), and which accompany and support such political and economic initiatives, neither of which exist in a social vacuum and both of which are deeply informed by cultural values.

Some would even go further and argue that the roots of our current planetary crisis are to be found in our dysfunctional cultures and civilizations, ones that are out of touch with nature, have severed themselves from their traditional spiritual roots, and which manage, despite their technological sophistication, to create endless new forms of alienation, inequalities, and social exclusion, and which seem to be committed to the blind belief that endless consumption and growth in quantitative terms can be sustained forever. But if we stand back for a moment and ask ourselves what role culture should actually play in development – understood as the best practices that we can devise to bring about human and ecological security, meaningful lives and well-being for the greatest number – and what a new “core culture” compatible with the sustainability of our planet might look like, we can ask fresh and interesting questions, and through them suggest new methodologies for approaching development.

In the past “culture” has often been seen as a way of delivering “development”, the two seen as being quite different things. Cultural knowledge, often derived from anthropology, was in this paradigm considered useful in understanding how best to impose a set of policy decisions on a target population in such areas as health, agriculture, population planning and so forth. This is legitimate up to a point – reasonable policies (if they are such) do indeed need to be implemented. But it also has fundamental weaknesses. The purely instrumental approach to culture can easily lead to the ignoring of the intrinsic value of the particular culture in question, and the failure to recognize that there is a feedback loop between new policy initiatives and changes in culture. A new health system in a village does not just “deliver” new therapeutic and pharmacological goods, it also changes conceptions of illness and its appropriate treatment, alters traditional links between religion and illness, and profoundly changes what the medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman has called “illness narratives” – the ways in which people make sense of their own illnesses and explain them both to physicians or other health-care professionals, and to others in their own community. Cultural change, an important part of the total development process, is as a consequence not only driven by direct assault of other cultural forms (although of course this happens with the advent of TV, foreign movies, new fashions and the spread of alien popular culture for example), but by changes in the context of the original culture – its new relationships to itself refracted through wider national, governmental or developmental policies and which begin to change the subjectivity of its members.

One quite natural response to this is to jump to the defense of “traditional” culture, and to try to shield it from the erosive effects of globalization and other social changes. In practice this is difficult and overlooks the fact that “traditions” themselves are constructed and have a history. By a new “core culture” what I assume Korten is recommending is not a new single global culture of uniformity, but the identification of a set of core values. Before trying to identify what these might be we should briefly understand the framework in which I would like to discuss culture. Culture is not an essence – it is inherently dynamic and changing, and is often the site of struggle rather than the acceptance of a single body of beliefs, practices and institutions. It is as a result at the same time the depository of our historical experiences and as such the main source of our collective and social imaginations, and also a tremendous resource for conceiving and mapping humane and viable futures for our planet. Culture is not just what is, but also what can be. One piece of contemporary evidence for this is that, in the light of our looming world- wide ecological crisis, almost all the major religious traditions have now begun to re-examine their own scriptures and practices, to begin to both question how those might have contributed to causing that very crisis, and how they might re-orient their teachings and practices in a more ecologically responsible direction.

To return then to the issue of cultural values as they pertain to development –what might these be? Let me suggest the following as the starting point for discussion:

The search for non-violent means of cultural expression (and development has often been very violent in its processes and effects).

The promotion of positive relationships between humans and nature and the seeking for a notion of human identity that transcends anthropomorphism.

The recognition that culture contains and often conceals inequalities, hierarchies of power and domination and traditionally justified patterns of gender, age or ethnic discrimination, and that these need to be recognized and overcome.

That culture cannot be separated from economics, but must overcome the strange contemporary situation in which economics has become the master of culture, rather than its servant.

The promotion of a culture of responsibility rather than of rights and entitlements.

The encouragement rather than suppression of cultural and linguistic diversity.

That if development should mean the enhancement and protection of life it is through positive cultural values (those that themselves enhance life) that this will primarily be achieved.

Development has come to be regarded as a technical and managerial process, and one dominated by economics. I would prefer to argue that it is an art, one that involves a continuous balancing act between preserving existing cultural and biological diversity and drawing from them in the attempt to conceive of better and more humane and sustainable futures on the one hand, and developing culture itself as the actual desired content of our everyday life-worlds. We may overcome material poverty (although we are still very far from this goal), but without overcoming our cultural poverty through close and critical examination of the manifestations of that culture (for example its consumerism and addiction to violence in its films, stories, video games and other media), any future state of “affluence” may prove to be simply another form of spiritual poverty. As a patient of the anthropologist Arthur Kleinman mentioned above so clearly put it in words that are as applicable to development as to medicine, “We have powerful techniques, but no wisdom. When the techniques fail, we are left shipwrecked”.

Culture and International Development

We have then hopefully established the general significance of culture in relation to development. Let us now turn specifically to the question of its relationship to international cooperation. As I am sure you are all aware, next year will be the anniversary of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. That document recognized several very significant aspects of culture in relation to international cooperation, including the idea that, just as biological diversity is essential for the health of our planet, so is cultural diversity, but that that very diversity is also under threat, not least from the forces of globalization. As the Convention puts it “Noting that while the processes of globalization, which have been facilitated by the rapid development of information and communication technologies, afford unprecedented conditions for enhanced interaction between cultures, they also represent a challenge for cultural diversity, namely in view of risks of imbalances between rich and poor countries”. It also notes that while we should celebrate the importance of cultural diversity in promoting human rights and freedoms, it is important locate culture within a larger framework. That framework as defined by the Convention is that “Cultural diversity, flourishing within a framework of democracy, tolerance, social justice and mutual respect between peoples and cultures, is indispensable for peace and security at the local, national, and international levels”. This of course is true in principle, but not always unfortunately in practice. It should be our role I believe, as specialists working at the interface of culture and development, to understand the UNESCO Convention not as a statement of what is, but as an ideal situation that we need to work towards bringing about. For unfortunately those conditions of tolerance, social justice and mutual respect still do not obtain across much of our troubled planet.

In this far from ideal situation, we should reflect on the tasks that we might undertake to bring it about, and here I will if I may, suggest what some of these might be.

  1. The recognition that culture is not only a solution to many of the tensions that currently afflict the world, but is the source of them. Racism, sexism, ageism, negative forms of religious fundamentalism, and amazing lack of knowledge about each other’s cultures, or even where each other’s countries are, is still widespread. Given the current concerns about the rise of militant forms of Islam, I have often asked my students how many of them have read the Koran. So far, with the exception obviously of some Muslim students (but not all!), not one has done so, including those interested specifically in the Middle East. This being the case the root of the problem is presumably education. We hear a lot these days about “ESD” – education for sustainability – but in the syllabi and proposals that I have seen few if any include the issues of firstly, the ways in which our existing cultures may have contributed to non-sustainability, and secondly, means of promoting sustainable cultures or cultures of sustainability. This is an issue that I think we must address, and it will be an exciting and creative one to think about the ways in which culture (which cannot and should not be “planned” or “managed”) might be nurtured and encouraged in ways which are both fulfilling and contribute to long term sustainability.
  2. Many of the discussions that I am aware of concerning “culture and development” utilize a highly abstract concept of culture, and one that in many cases is closer to issues of social structure than they are to culture proper. Culture in a concrete sense involves multiple levels of our everyday life experiences – foods, clothing, manners, language, our customs of gift giving, the layout of our houses and a myriad other things, many of them small, but which collectively constitute our daily reality. In addition to these mundane but vital practices, there are also what we think of as ‘culture’ in some’ higher’ sense – notably the arts in all their manifestations – music, dance, theatre, design, decoration, fashion, painting, sculpture, architecture – all of which both form the expressive or performative aspects of our lives, but which also shape those lives in ways that we often do not even recognize. If you read the writings of architects you will find that they are full of utopian ideas about how space shapes our daily lives, interactions, levels of efficiency and happiness. And indeed space does this, especially the built environments that architects and planners design, but usually not in the ways that they envisage. Yet we rarely reflect on the ways in which buildings – cultural artifacts – do shape our happiness, health and social interactions, which they most certainly do. When those architectural ideas are translated across cultures, they in turn deeply influence the subjectivities of those on whom they are imposed. All colonialist cultures know this – think of New Delhi as the capital of British India, with its huge scale, massive avenues designed for processions and military parades, not for ordinary human movement; or of the old Seoul City Hall and its recent re-building; or of the ways in which one of the first acts of the newly independent Indonesian government was to set about the transformation of the old Dutch capital of Batavia into the new capital of Jakarta through radical re-planning of the city. Culture is not abstract at all – it is the fabric of our everyday lives, and in considering the question of culture and development it is vital to remember this. Changing people’s culture is in a sense changing the “DNA” of their lives – the basis of their world views and patterns of living. It cannot be done lightly.
  3. This is where the issue of globalization becomes significant. As the UNESCO Convention rightly points out, globalization is double-edged – while it in principle creates the conditions for more cultural dialogue, in fact in so many cases it takes the form of a kind of cultural imperialism. I do not know the situation here in Korea, but in my local video rental shop in Tokyo, more than 50% of the movies are Hollywood, less than 30% Japanese, and the remaining 20% divided between Korean (I am sure you will be pleased to hear!), European and other origins. I have only however been able to find three Indian films, no Southeast Asian ones and only three or four of Middle Eastern (mainly Iranian) origin. A large number of literary and professional works are translated into Japanese from English each year, and some from French, German, Chinese, and Spanish, but few from other languages. And as we all know, a huge percentage of the data available on the Internet is available only in English and very little or almost none in many other languages. The issue here becomes that of the management of globalization in such a way that it does actually promote rather than retard genuine mutual cultural exchange. To some extent this does happen by way of the spread of popular cultures, but even then these tend to favor certain producers over others (British pop music, Japanese comics and animated movies, and perhaps now K Pop?). To recognize the importance of cultural factors in globalization as well as economic ones is vital, and also their interrelationship, as it is often economic domination that leads to cultural domination: with patterns of trade come the foods, music and fashions, a process that one sociologist has termed the “McDonaldization” of the world.
  4. One means to manage this is through the recognition of the importance of cultural policies as well as social policies. Most states and many international aid and development agencies have social policies of course – plans for alleviating poverty, promoting maternal health, bringing clean water and so forth. But how many have any cultural policies? It is very difficult indeed to name any major international agency other than UNESCO that has plans for developing art, promoting local theatre or dance, supporting writers, subsidizing orchestras, building cultural centers, translating local literatures so that they become better known internationally, or creating exchanges between artists and performers across international boundaries. Yet all these contribute to the development of culture, and as such to the enriching of lives and the preservation of cultures, many of which have long established or represent sustainable links to the environment, to health physical, mental and emotional, are forms of self-respect and have grown out of the soils and historical experiences of those peoples. When seen from this point of view, culture is not a “luxury” to be added when economic growth has taken place, but is one of the essential ingredients of any holistic development, and may indeed be thought of as the goal of development. What else is it really for but the enhancement of life, the pursuit of individual and collective fulfillment, the establishment of identity and the cultivation of means of expression and creativity?

Some broad general conclusions can be drawn from this. Cultural diversity is an inherent part of the make- up of the social world. When this is ignored major mistakes are made in development policies and practices. There is no “one size fits all” kind of approach in development. Rather the cultural specificities of particular societies always need to be taken into account in development planning, and this can be a controversial area. Very few societies have one single, homogeneous culture, but in fact a plurality of cultures depending on ethnic, religious, age and gender differences, all of which are equally worthy of respect. Cultures as we know are also dynamic, and it is equally necessary to avoid the error of a kind of static essentialism – assuming that is that a culture always remains the same and can be dealt with on the basis of that assumption. Culture is in fact a set of practices, and hence always strategic, shifting, instrumental and oriented to the achievement of certain goals on the part of the actors, and anthropologists have long known that what people do and what they say they do are often two different things, that should never be mistaken for one another. Some societies cannot even answer the question in the abstract of “what is your culture”? and may have no specific word for the concept as it exists in English and many other languages. What all this means is that in using the concept of “culture” at all, it is necessary to maintain a comparative, critical and reflexive attitude. Cultures after all can contain elements that many of us find disturbing. They are also multi-layered and contain within themselves links to such ideas as identity, the emotions, local conceptions of nature, creativity and futures, possible or desired. They are constantly shifting under the impact of new technologies, social movements and cultural changes taking place in surrounding societies.

Culture in other words is complex and always carries with it the danger of being substituted for a critical and analytical history in which the layering of culture is understood as emerging not from a purely or indigenous trajectory, but from the experience of colonization, slavery, exiles, persecutions and other far from positive experiences, all of which have shaped what is now understood to be ‘the culture’ of a particular group of people, who may for the same reasons not actually be a homogeneous group at all, but are now considered a ‘nation’ as a result not of natural anthropological processes, but of the way in which states as part of their political project have historically shaped social subjects. This leaves us with two final thoughts. The first is that, while culture is essential to any holistic or humane conception of development, the term itself must be fully understood in all its subtlety, and handled with great sensitivity given that the values, emotions and world-views of people are involved. The other is to recognize that culture is not just ‘discovered’ it is not only ‘out there’ external to us, but is constantly being shaped by all of us. The pursuit of a culture of sustainability is a project. Such cultures may not yet exist, or exist only in a very small and limited form. It is our task to bring them into existence, but to do so drawing on the endless positive riches of our existing cultures.

Let me end with a few brief comments on the role of Korea in this process. Korea has many things to contribute to the creation of such cultures of sustainability. It is a nation with a long and rich cultural tradition, not widely enough known globally. It is also a society that has experienced what I might call one of the most compressed development experiences in history, having risen in half a century from the ruins of war to becoming one of the world’s leading and strongest economies. Korea has experienced colonialism, cultural negotiation over many centuries with its powerful neighbors, and in particular China, and rapid exposure to the forces of globalization and global cultures. Yet my impression is that throughout all of these upheavals, Korea has managed to retain its cultural integrity. As a society which has never been a colonizer, and which is itself learning internally to cope with the effects of rapid and intense development, nowhere is better placed to both show how development might be achieved while maintaining and hopefully enhancing not only traditional culture, but also its contemporary artistic, performative and literary expressions on the one hand, and on the other to be a mentor to other developing countries that face the same dilemmas and themselves struggle with the problems of achieving material growth while not sacrificing the very values which for holistic or integral development should be the very goal of those sacrifices and struggles.

Thank you.



BA (Hons) University of Lancaster in Politics, Philosophy and Modern History
Master of Studies in Anthropology, University of Oxford
D.Phil. University of Oxford in Social Anthropology


メールアドレスが公開されることはありません。 * が付いている欄は必須項目です