Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Questioning UNESCO's Efforts on Culture and Development

Mapping Authority and Survival or Well Being.
Source: R. Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization

In a recent paper for the World Bank, Amartya Sen (Nobel Prize laureate in Economics) wrote:
(C)ulture interacts with development in many different ways. It is involved in both the ends and the means of development. But the acknowledgement of the importance of culture should not be translated instantly into ready-made theories of what works, what needs to be cultivated and what must be preserved. There are complex epistemic issues involved in identifying the ways in which culture may or may not influence development, and also deeply ethical and political issue of the social choice involved in accommodating diverse concerns.

Indeed, even the values that are associated with economic development can be interpreted in quite different ways, and may require more than simple admonitions to cultivate this or eschew that.
Indeed, notably in the work of another Nobel Prize winner, Douglas North, economists have recently emphasized the importance of institutions in economic development. That emphasis has come to complement earlier emphases on fixed capital and human capital and on economic policies. The institutions of concern to these economists, such as rule of law and markets, are important aspects of culture, and depend on a variety of cultural values.

Pippa North, a distinguished political scientist, and Ronald Inglehart, one of the founders of the World Values Survey program write, emphasize the importance of culture in democratization. They recently wrote:
A fundamental problem facing the worldwide process of democratization is the continued lack of gender equality in political leadership. The basic facts are not in dispute: Today women represent only one in seven parliamentarians, one in ten cabinet ministers, and, at the apex of power, one in 20 heads of state or government. Multiple factors have contributed to this situation, including structural and institutional barriers. But what is the influence of political culture? Are attitudes toward women as political leaders a significant barrier to their empowerment? In particular, how important is culture as compared with structural and institutional factors? These are the questions that our study seeks to address.
In short, the interaction of culture and development is of critical importance in the world today. Understanding that interaction is important in ameliorating poverty and in the social and economic development of poor nations as well as in managing the transition from the industrial society to the knowledge society.

The Potential Role for UNESCO

UNESCO's middle name is "Culture". Since its creation after World War II, UNESCO has been the lead agency in the United Nations system for culture. It provides a unique forum for intellectual leaders from all over the world to come together to discuss cultural matters. It is uniquely empowered and equipped to be a clearinghouse for information and analysis of the role of culture.

UNESCO has been guided by its member nations for decades to focus its programs heavily on development and on the needs of poor people in poor nations. It has been asked to play an important role in achieving the Millennium Development Goals set forth by the United Nations. At the World Summit for the Information Society, UNESCO was given a leading role in the UN system in catalyzing development of the knowledge society.

UNESCO has played an important role in raising consciousness of the importance of preservation of cultural heritage. The World Heritage Center, perhaps UNESCO's flagship unit, has encouraged UNESCO's member states to preserve and protect hundreds of world heritage sites all over the earth. The Memory of the World program is helping to preserve mankind's documentary heritage, and UNESCO is a partner in the development of the World Digital Library.

UNESCO has negotiated seven Conventions which form the body of international law controling the protection of tangible and intangible cultural property. The looting of art from conquered countries and the distruction of archaeological sites have been greatly reduced since the creation of UNESCO because of UNESCO's ability to bring the nations of the world together to negotiate these treaties.

The aforementioned UNESCO efforts in the protection of the world's cultural heritage illustrate the role that it can play in promoting productive cultural dialog among its 193 member nations. Its Culture of Peace Program is another example of the way in which UNESCO can help its member nations come together to address a critical international issue from a cultural perspective. UNESCO's Anticipation and Foresight Program (adminstered by the Social and Human Sciences program within its Philosophy portfolio) further illustrates the ability of the Organization to serve as a laboratory of ideas, bringing the best thinking from the global intellectual community to the service of UNESCO's member states.

UNESCO does work in the field of Culture and Development. It has been a useful agency in creating knowledge about and interest in emerging fields such as sustainable cultural tourism and cultural industries for developing economies. An independent World Commission on Culture and Development (WCCD) was established jointly by UNESCO and the United Nations in December 1992 and was active in the 1990s. UNESCO played an important role in the Stockholm Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development in 1998.

Still, UNESCO's efforts in the field of culture and development seem less extensive and less effective than those in the field of preservation of cultural heritage. One wonders whether in the 21st Century UNESCO should redouble its efforts to bring together the leaders of the world's inellectual community and serve more effectively as a laboratory of ideas on Culture and Development. Indeed, if UNESCO can catalyze the creation of a consensus on culture-based appoaches to promote social and economic development and on cultural objectives of social and economic development, should it not then embark on a program of capacity development to assist its member states to utilize the knowledge of that consensus?

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