Celebrating cultural diversity

Print edition : August 13, 2004

Human Development Report 2004 Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World by the United Nations Development Programme, Oxford University Press, London.

NOW firmly established as a concept in the international policy discourse, "human development" was understood to have a broader and more elusive significance than the strictly economic construction of the growth process. The annual Human Development Report (HDR) has, in recent years, ranged over a wide range of intangibles in examining the performance of various countries - as also their potential - in promoting human development. Among other things, the annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme - now in its 15th year - has examined the quality of a country's political institutions, its commitment to gender equity, and its relative openness to information flows, as factors that have a bearing on the quality of human life. The report is in part about knitting together these diverse factors into a new synthesis. But its main thrust is in expanding the inquiry to a new frontier. And its exploration of the centrality of culture and cultural freedoms is particularly apt in a context when talk of a "clash of civilisations" enjoys a certain vogue. Indeed, it is a frontal challenge to this view and a riveting retrospective evaluation of the politics of nation building. With the 1990s having seen the collapse of several seemingly eternal state structures that had sought to harmonise different ethnicities into a common sense of nationhood, HDR 2004 is entirely topical.

The report confronts the primary question of why the definition of cultural rights has generally lagged behind in relation to social, political and economic rights. The answers are diverse. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was in its preparatory phase, a number of countries, including India and the erstwhile Eastern bloc, argued the case for the inclusion of minority rights. This was opposed by the United States, Canada and most Latin American countries. The report does not examine the reasons for this particular configuration of the ayes and nays on cultural rights. But it is an obvious inference that India and the Eastern bloc were multi-ethnic societies that were aware of the delicate sensibilities involved in seeking the participation of minority groups in a national consensus. Canada, the U.S. and Latin America, in contrast, had overcome the problem of indigenous people through the kind of brutality that they would rather have the world forget. Remnants of the indigenous traditions had been assimilated into a dominant English, French or Spanish cultural idiom, and there seemed little to be gained by bringing minority rights into a universal charter.

The unitary and centralising features of the modern nation state elicited certain reservations among minority groups. These were tackled in the extreme case through outright suppression. In the more enlightened alternative, cultural rights were subsumed under a broad rubric of civil rights. Societies and individuals granted the freedom of conscience, speech and association, it was argued, needed no special dispensation covering cultural rights. The nation state in the throes of modernisation was often apt to look at the plea for cultural rights as an effort to preserve the more regressive features of inherited traditions.

In 1966, a full 18 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognised that ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities "shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their culture, to profess and practise their religion, or to use their own language". This stopped short of being a strong affirmation of cultural rights, since it only trod the more cautious path of prohibiting their denial. Interestingly, the stronger articulation of the case for cultural rights came in the 1990s, the supposed decade of "globalisation", when national barriers and local specificities were ostensibly being broken down as economies integrated and cultures merged.

In part this is because globalisation has engendered deep insecurities in the more vulnerable countries and communities. What would seem "exciting and empowering" to some would be "disquieting and disempowering" to others. Economic opening-up has brought industrial-scale exploitation to traditional habitats, unsettling long-established ways of life. Where resource conflicts have arisen, nation states have failed to defend the rights of indigenous people. The vital life-sustaining purposes served by traditional knowledge have been eroded by the loss of access to these resources. Though recognised by the Convention on Biological Diversity, traditional knowledge is dealt with in an almost derisory fashion by international laws on intellectual property. Further, by according the corporate giants of the West the power to patent aspects of traditional knowledge, the intellectual property laws administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have been deeply corrosive of cultural rights.

HDR 2004 urges the explicit recognition of traditional knowledge in the intellectual property legal framework. It also proposes the documentation of traditional knowledge, which would diminish, if not eliminate "possibilities for (its) uncompensated exploitation". Asserting a community's claim over certain aspects of knowledge - as seen recently with the curative properties of the neem - could be a way of "preventing others from claiming it as their own".

Another area, in which HDR 2004 sees a challenge to the established consensus of the decade of globalisation, is in the case for a "cultural exception" to the free cross-border flow of goods and information. Countries should be free, in this perception, to regulate the inflow of goods and services that have a profound cultural impact. This argument has gained force in recent times because "cultural goods convey ideas, symbols and lifestyles and are an intrinsic part of the community that produces them". The "cultural exception" also implies that countries should have the latitude under trade and investment laws, to foster industries that have a potentially important cultural dimension. Free trade and the iron laws of comparative advantage, in other words, have no validity in the domain of human culture.

Outside the Presidential Palace in Taipei on July 16, members of the Tsou aboriginal tribe protest against Taiwan's Vice-President Annette Lu who argued that neither the aborigines nor ethnic Chinese can claim to be the island's first inhabitants.-WALLY SANTANA/AP

HDR 2004 records the argument but does not explicitly take a stand on the "cultural exception". It is easy to see why. The trade in goods and services - even those without overt cultural overtones - brings in its train the intangibles of marketing strategy and advertising that have immense cultural ramifications. These are adapted to suit local exigencies, because cultural sensitivity is often a powerful marketing tool. But it is widely recognised that Coca Cola and McDonald's are cultural and lifestyle exports with potentially greater social impact than Hollywood movies or the entire output of U.S. television serials. This makes the "cultural exception" a slippery downward slope for the powerful multinationals that dominate global commerce.

THE special role of migration in today's world is another aspect that HDR 2004 deals with at some length. "Driven by globalisation", it points out, "the number of migrants soared in the last decade, especially to the high-income countries of Western Europe, North America and Australia." This has excited deep anxieties in most of the countries of destination and, reciprocally, stirred up some disquiet in the countries of origin. Two kinds of methods have traditionally been used by countries receiving large numbers of migrants to promote the integration of the new arrivals into national life. A practice of "differentialism" - of preserving a separate but secure identity - was evident in the policy that Germany adopted with Turkish guest workers, and the oil-producing countries of the Gulf adopted with expatriates. A policy of "assimilation" was implemented in erstwhile imperial powers such as the United Kingdom and France, especially in relation to migrants from old colonial possessions.

Neither approach, HDR 2004 says, is adequate to the new circumstances that "need to build respect for differences and a commitment to unity". Rather, the challenge of authentic multiculturalism is to provide the migrants with a strong sense of belonging while allowing them to maintain their identity and emotional bonds with the country of origin. The challenge is especially acute in the adverse climate created by the global "war on terror". And in practical policy terms, the use of the Australian example as an illustration of multiculturalism is perhaps unfortunate. The practice of incarcerating economic and political refugees, which Australia has in recent times adopted is not the best advertisement for cultural tolerance.

Since the end of the Cold War conflicts have erupted for the most part within established nation states rather than between them. Conflicts over linguistic and cultural policy have often been an overt factor - for instance, the civil war in Sri Lanka. HDR 2004 seeks to argue that "cultural differences by themselves are not the relevant factor" in sparking off the violence. Indeed, it points out, "cultural diversity" could often reduce "the risk of conflict by making group mobilisation more difficult". And where conflict becomes inevitable, cultural identity is rarely the cause. Rather, it is used in an instrumentalist manner as a "driver for political mobilisation".

Another distinct type of danger arises from the attitudes of the state. The notion that there is an ineluctable conflict between the stability of the state and the recognition of multiple cultural identities has had a powerful influence. This has played itself out in several ways. At the extremity of the spectrum is the kind of ethnic cleansing that the Balkans witnessed in the mid-1990s. And though HDR 2004 tiptoes around the issue with customary delicacy, the continuing definition of nationality in terms of narrow ethnicities, most evident today in the Jewish state of Israel, has been the most powerful ideological ally of ethnic cleansing.

Indigenous women climb the archaeological ruins of Tonina in Chiapas, Mexico, during a meeting of traditional healers, musicians and dancers. Human Development Report 2004 demands the explicit recognition of traditional knowledge in the intellectual property legal framework.-EDUARDO VERDUGO/AP

Without quite going to this extreme though, there are nations that impose "formal restrictions on the practice of religion, language and citizenship". Also evident are tendencies to withhold appropriate respect and recognition for certain peoples and communities. Visions of social progress often animate such practices, with multiculturalism being dismissively viewed as "a policy of conserving cultures, even practices that violate human rights". The report puts forward a notion of cultural freedom that attempts to steer clear of all these pitfalls. The "defence of tradition" has nothing to do with it. Rather, cultural liberty is the "capability of people to live and be what they choose, with adequate opportunity to consider other options".

This does not quite address the latitude that societies can feasibly afford an individual or a people in choosing their modes of life. HDR 2004 makes frequent, and generous, references to the Indian experience, though the Gujarat riots of 2002 and the wave of sectarian violence that began in 1990 merit well-deserved condemnation. India's practice of affirmative action - or reservations - for the underprivileged has contributed to both a growing sense of participation and empowerment, it suggests. Again, the formation of linguistic States as units of administration with a high degree of autonomy, and the adoption of a three-language formula for instruction and governance, has engendered a sense of equality among regions. The care taken to include significant dates from all faiths in drawing up the calendar of holidays is again a practice that conveys a sense of respect for cultural diversity.

YET in all this, HDR 2004 seems to leave out of consideration the momentous question of how India's politics of secularism went disastrously askew well into its fourth decade of Independence, thanks to a state policy of seeking to generate a competitive dynamic between communities in demanding special favours. This phase of yielding to demands of competing unreasonableness from different communities was framed within the discourse of cultural diversity, of allowing communities to decide on the norms that should govern their social existence. But if yielding to the extreme demands of traditional community leaders is not an acceptable way of fostering cultural diversity, India is yet to find the optimal path in practice.

HDR 2004 urges certain policies on all nations for ensuring political participation. The example of New Zealand is cited, where, with the "introduction of proportional representation in place of the winner-takes-all formula, Maori representation rose from 3 per cent in 1993 to 16 per cent in the 2002 elections".

India, of course, has a much older history in guaranteeing political representation for marginalised groups, though the HDR does suggest that proportional representation could improve matters further. Language policies have an especially important bearing on the stability of multicultural societies, since "the choice of official language symbolises the national identity". Here again, the Indian experience draws much attention and approbation, but HDR 2004 perhaps would have been more effective if it had focussed also on where certain other multi-ethnic states - like Yugoslavia, for instance - went wrong in their language policy. By all accounts, Yugoslavia had an equally inclusive language policy and perhaps fewer social barriers to integration between different nationalities. But Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state was one of the principal casualties of the decade of globalisation.

This opens up the domain of socio-economic policies, where perhaps the feasible limits of multiculturalism could be located. With competition and free markets being the governing virtues in the economic realm, is a certain degree of rivalry between ethnic groups inevitable? HDR 2004 suggests that the state could play an active redistributive function in mitigating the disadvantages suffered by certain communities in the process of globalisation. But it is necessary to ask whether this redistributive role is still feasible when the fiscal capacities of the state are on the wane, under the influence of the reigning policy orthodoxy. Economic deprivation often has an ethnic dimension, but just as often cuts across cultural differences. The celebration of cultural diversity cannot conceivably be carried to excess. But it is necessary to be wary of the point at which it begins to undermine the consolidation of other forms of identity that may be crucial in addressing fundamental questions of life and livelihood.

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