Cultural Rights, Sustainability and Development: are they related? If so, how?

Author:Clammer, John
Position:Cultural Rights and Global Development


The notions of Rights, Development and Sustainability are now very much part of the contemporary discourses of politics (both national and global), environmental policy (like managing the effects of climate change), and society (social or community movements, calling for justice, equality and recognition). Yet, these three notions vary and are often contested as to their meaning and viability, but all three (perhaps along with a fourth notion, 'globalization') now frame the way in which both social scientists and policy makers approach the world which they attempt to both understand and influence. But leaving aside for a moment the question of their precise definition, and of the ideological baggage that these (as with most social science concepts) carry. A significant issue also arises--whether they are related, and if so, how? Are they three quite separate approaches to the contemporary social, political and economic aspects of the world, each valid in its own sphere, but with no organic links between them? Or can a case be made that a more holistic approach to positive social transformation (and hence potentially a more powerful and effective one) might be envisaged--if these three primary terms are brought into a working relationship? This paper will take the latter as its starting point, for an approach that will argue that by identifying their interconnection, and by strengthening them where they are currently weak, a new theoretical model and a workable policy framework can be created and utilized.

But first, so as to briefly comment on the semantics of the debate: the notion of 'development' has of course attracted a vast literature and many voices contesting its nature, and indeed contesting whether it is a good idea at all (or simply the latest phase of Western imperialism in a more attractive package). One area of agreement is that its relative failure still very much exist--(given many of the problems that development purports to address, such as poverty, inequality and social exclusion)--and one reason for this has been the neglect of the cultural aspects of development in favour of over emphasis on economic aspects. The somewhat belated recognition of this lacuna has begun to give rise to a burgeoning literature to bring culture and development back into fruitful dialogue with one another (Schech and Haggis, 2000; Radcliffe, 2006; Clammer, 2012). Likewise the recognition of the unsustainable nature of contemporary patterns of 'development' (and their historical and continuing patterns of industrialization, consumption, transport, energy use and urbanization), and the growing acknowledgement that these cannot continue without courting disaster for the eco-systems on which all life depends, has rightly become a major preoccupation. But what of Rights? While as a recognition of certain inalienable dimensions of the relations of human beings to one another, the principles set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are not widely contested (even if some of the details are). In fact, it was quite quickly recognized by the UN and many of its constituent agencies and adhering governments that the scope of the UNHR was not wide enough, and in 1966 two additional treaties were adopted--the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). But although the latter does indeed contain the word 'culture' in its title, it does not clearly indicate which of its provisions specifically relate to cultural rights, nor does it actually define such rights. The relationship between human rights and cultural rights, if such there be, is consequently left vague in the principle international legal instruments.

Yvonne Donders attempts to clarify this confusion by both defining cultural rights and indicating their scope: 'Cultural rights can be broadly defined as human rights that directly promote and protect cultural interests of individuals and communities and that are meant to advance their capacity to preserve, develop and change their cultural identity' (Donders, 2015: 117). She expands this minimal definition by arguing that such rights not only include those that specifically mention culture (e.g. the rights of minorities to practice and enjoy their own culture), but also those broader human rights that have a direct link to cultural freedom, such as the rights to self-determination, to education, to free expression and freedom of religion, and to those principles embodied in such international instruments as UNESCO's 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity--in which cultural rights are noted as required for the full expression of cultural diversity. Seen in this light, cultural rights can be identified as a sub-section or extension of general human rights. At one level, of course, it is odd to talk about culture as being a 'right' at all: everyone already has a culture (or a mixture of several of them). The key issues are not those of a 'right to' or by logical inference of 'possession', but of the tragic fact that in so many cases cultural rights are threatened by censorship, suppression, erosion, exclusion or displacement. This is the case with those who desire to practice their culture, but find themselves, for example, in refugee situations (Balfour, 2013). The question then becomes, how are cultural rights related to either or both of development and/or sustainability?

Culture and Development Revisited

As noted above, there has been a considerable swing towards the idea of systematically relating culture and development. This has taken a number of forms. One has been the more familiar argument that culture contributes to the 'delivery' of development goods. Examples indeed abound of the necessity of taking culture into account in many contexts--health provision (where local ideas of the body, gender, disease causation and witchcraft and magic may have a large impact on the successful implementation of well-meaning but culturally inappropriate health care plans--see Samson, 2004), agriculture (including the adoption of crops that are new to indigenous diets), housing and architecture (for example post-disaster reconstruction--for examples see Aquilino, 2011), and many other situations (for a slightly dated but still excellent set of case studies see Dove, 1980).

In these cases, culture has a primarily instrumental role: it is not necessarily valued for itself. This weakness implies a more comprehensive approach in which culture itself is seen as an intrinsic value, and hence what might be called not so much 'development and culture' as the 'development of culture. This again has a number of possible dimensions, including the encouragement by UN agencies such as UNESCO and UNDP of 'creative industries'--particularly drawing on indigenous cultural production (music, performance, crafts, visual arts) as an important economic resource for income generation in 'developing' communities (UNESCO/UNCTAD 2008; Kabanda 2014). This approach is different again from the older 'human needs' approach, in virtually every list of which aesthetic needs and the needs for expression and leisure are always prominent (Dube, 1984). This is reflected in recent discussions of the role of the arts in development, which not only argue for the utility of the arts in income-generation, but for their essential role in actually constituting culture as well as their role in establishing dignity, identity, imagination and creativity (Clammer, 2015). All this points to a holistic conception of development that takes into account sociological, economic, political and cultural elements, not only as parts of the totality of a rounded image of development, but also as defining the goals of development. What should development look like? What are its ends and what kind of future society do we envisage that is the outcome of the whole process?

But what then of sustainability? Does it relate in any coherent way to the notion of cultural rights? Here again, I will argue that it does, if we consider four possible dimensions of the relationship between culture and sustainability. The first is the relationship between cultural diversity and biodiversity. Here two levels are relevant. One is that local notions of ecology are encoded in local languages and cultural practices (including methods of farming, foraging, hunting and conservation, embodied in turn in symbolic practice such as systems of taboo), and with the loss or erosion of such cultures and languages, such knowledge is lost. Societies that have maintained sustainable relationships with their environments have obviously got something right, and the loss of their 'know-how' weakens the whole body of human knowledge and experience when dealing with the crucial issue of the environment which we are so rapidly despoiling. The second is that it is widely recognized that biodiversity strengthens the entire biosphere. We often do not know the role that a creature or a plant plays in this total system, and how it contribute to the maintaining of the whole. But when we do, we see the principle clearly at work: the humble bee for instance, populations of which are becoming seriously depleted (probably because of human over-use of insecticides), are the major pollinators of many plant species, and without them many such species could not reproduce; and without bees themselves reproducing, human food supplies will greatly diminish.

It is not unreasonable to extend the same line of reasoning to human cultures: that the loss of cultural diversity diminishes the whole as knowledge, alternative lifestyles, long sustained relationships with the environment and forms of music, performance, cuisines, language, technologies, cosmologies and kinship structures, are lost for ever. Even such an arguably staid body as UNESCO recognizes this, and in the preamble to the 2005...

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