Culture, Development and Human Futures
In one of his major 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 centre, and a new economic mainstream” in the pursuit of what elsewhere in the same book (his 1999 volume The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism) he calls the shift to “a new integral culture that affirms life in all its dimensions”. And I think that he is very right. The problem is that he, like many other writers in the field of what might be called “alternative development”, while indeed discussing in detail 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 might accompany and indeed 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 crisis – persisting poverty, conflict, ecological degradation on an unprecedented scale, loss of both biological and cultural diversity, and a cascading multitude of other problems, are to be found in our dysfunctional culture(s) and “civilizations”, ones that are out of touch with nature, have in many cases in practice severed themselves from their traditional spiritual roots, create endless forms of alienation, inequalities and social exclusion amongst their own members, and which seem to be committed to the blind belief that endless “growth” and consumption can be sustained forever.
But if we stand back from this situation for a moment and ask ourselves what role culture actually should play in development (understood here as the process designed in principle to bring about human and ecological security, meaningfulness and well-being for the greatest number), and what a new “core culture” compatible with the sustainability of our planet might look like, very fresh and interesting questions arise, and with them potentially new methodologies for approaching development in general.
In the past, “culture” has often been seen as a way of delivering “development” – as a body of knowledge often derived from anthropology, useful in understanding how best to impose a set of policy decisions on the target population – whether these be in agriculture, health, population planning, or whatever. This is legitimate up to a point: reasonable policies do indeed need to be implemented. But it also has fundamental weaknesses: the purely instrumental approach to culture, and with it the ignoring of the intrinsic value of the particular culture in question easily leads both to the subtle denigration of that culture, but also 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, of its appropriate treatment, alters the links between religion and illness, and profoundly changes what the medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman has called the “narratives of illness” – the ways in which people make sense of their own illness and explain it both to physicians or health-care professionals, and to others in their own community. Cultural change is, as a consequence often driven not by direct assault by other cultural forms (although of course this very much happens with the advent of TV, foreign movies, new fashions, the spread of alien popular cultures, for example), but by changes in the context of the original culture – its relationship to itself, now refracted through wider national, governmental, or developmental policies designed to “uplift” it and in which the old meaning systems of the original culture no longer quite make sense or seem “old fashioned” when compared with the new world views being promoted, and which are of course often collectively called “globalization”.
One quite natural response to this is to jump to the defense of “traditional” cultures and to try to shield them from the erosion effects of globalization. But this is not only in practice difficult, but overlooks the fact that “traditions” themselves are constructed and have a history. Another danger is to accept an implied uniformity in Korten’s conception of a new core culture. Note that he uses the word ‘culture’ in the singular. What he is no doubt implying is not a new and subtle form of cultural colonialism, but the identification of a set of core values held across a wide range of cultures and compatible with a wide range of actual cultural expressions, and which when applied would eventuate in a sustainable and socially just future for the majority of humanity. Assuming this to be the case, I would like to discuss what these values might be. But I would like to do so within a certain framework, which is that culture is the source of our collective and social imagination, both the depository of historical experiences, but also a tremendous resource for conceiving and mapping humane and viable futures for the planet. Culture then is not just what is but also what can be. One piece of very empirical evidence for this is that with our looming ecological crisis, almost all religious traditions have begun to explore their own scriptures and practices to begin the process of re-orienting themselves in a more ecologically responsible direction.
So what are these values? I would suggest the following to begin debate: the search for non-violent cultural expressions (and development has often been very violent in its effects and a high percentage of popular culture most certainly is); the promotion of positive relationships between humans and nature and seeking of a notion of human identity that transcends anthropocentrism; the recognition that culture contains and often conceals inequalities, hierarchies of power and domination, traditionally justified patterns of gender, age or ethnic discrimination and that these need to be confronted 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 the suppression of cultural and linguistic diversity; the recognition that in a very real sense culture means life, and that if ultimately development means the enhancement and protection of life, then it is through culture that this will be achieved.
Development has come to be regarded as a technical process, and one furthermore 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, drawing upon them and their component parts (in the case of culture for example religion and modes of spirituality) in the attempt to conceive of better and more humane and sustainable futures, and developing culture itself as the actual content of our everyday life-worlds. We may overcome material poverty, but without overcoming our cultural poverty, our future in a state of “affluence” may be simply another form of spiritual poverty. As a patient of the anthropologist and medical practitioner 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”.
“The Monday Morning Question” is intended to be a forum to communicate diverse perspectives on reimagining development. Although this conversation began as part of the Center for Poverty Analysis’s (CEPA) annual symposium in 2012, the ideas that are presented via the column are not limited to CEPA’s ideological stand on development. Today we invite John Clammer, a visiting Professor in the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan. Professor Clammer’s principle interests are in the sociology of development and the sociology of culture as applied to development issues. He has worked extensively on these issues both in theoretical terms and in the field in Southeast Asia, Japan, Europe, India and Latin America. He is the author of fifteen books on aspects of culture and development and has one in press; he has edited eleven others and is the author of over a hundred articles in books and professional journals and is on the editorial boards of several leading journals.
The article was first published in The Island on 23.09.2013
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