Abdul Sheriff, historian and former director National Museum Zanzibar

Culture is the fountain of our progress

July 2006 -

I have argued that culture is the total and distinctive way of life of a people in which the economy is also embedded. However, we know that in practice, and in terms of policies pursued by many governments and world financial institutions, it has often been assumed that they are distinct and separate. By development many often mean only economic development, measured in terms of a rapid and sustained expansion of production, productivity and per capita income. Many of us were raised on Rostow's Stages of Economic Development, a single, uniform, linear path. We hardly need to say that this model was obviously based on the specific Western experience. However, economic criteria alone cannot provide a programme for human dignity and well-being. A narrow economistic interpretation of development is sterile, and has failed to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor within and between nations.

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Professor Abdul Sheriff: 'Culture is in a constant state of flux'

Culture's role in that model was seen as an instrument that may help promote or hinder economic development. When cultural attitudes and institutions seem to hamper economic growth, they are to be discarded or eradicated, e.g the pastoral culture of the Maasai. Culture enters into this analysis not as something valuable in itself, but as a means to the end of promoting and sustaining economic growth.

Ingrained in this conception is the assumption that so-called 'traditional' culture is something fixed and unchanging. But cultures do not come out of the ground at one time and place like an inert mineral, and remain static through the centuries. It has always changed with new circumstances and influences - e.g. changes in the environment, contact with other peoples, or conquest.

Sometimes they have changed gradually, with the initiative of the local people and within acceptable boundaries of the local culture, perhaps pushing them at the peripheries gently. They may be seen as acceptable improvements to the way of life of the people to meet local needs. Sometimes they are imposed from without, e.g. by foreign conquest, or the enormous media invasion with foreign films, TV, etc., and they may threaten to overwhelm the local society. In this case they may provoke resistance to a foreign culture.

In either case culture changes, grows and develops. It is in a constant state of flux, influencing and being influenced by other cultures, either through voluntary exchange or through conflict, force and oppression. A country's culture therefore reflects its history and attitudes, its conflicts and struggles, and its power relations, internally and in the world at large. Culture is dynamic and continually evolving. It is not a museum piece, and should not be given an excessively conservationist meaning.

To put in a nutshell, should culture be an integral part of development cooperation? To this question the UNESCO report on Our Creative Diversity in 1995 gave some very bold answers. It states that culture is the fountain of our progress and creativity. It is not a means to material progress: it is the end aim of 'development' seen as the flourishing of human existence in all its forms and as a whole. I could not put it any better.