Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
Een nieuwe mondiale ethiek
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
Recasting cultural policies

Book Review
for the European Journal of Cultural Policy

Adriaan van der Staay

Writing about the report of the World Commission of culture and development poses a difficulty for this reviewer. He was involved in the early stages of the project and will inevitably judge the result by the measure of initial expectations, which were high.
Perhaps it is therefore wise to go back to the origins and make explicit certain expectations.
Since the Mexico World Conference on cultural policies (MONDIACULT) in 1982 the idea has gained hold that development should be oriented by culture. As the aim of development seems to be human betterment, which can be expressed in terms of values, and values are a core part of culture, this is not a completely unreasonable point of view. Alas, great difficulties arise as soon as one turns from theory to reality and asks oneself how this basic insight should be translated into policy and practical measures. Even if global agreement could be reached on a series of values to be implemented in development, would development listen and automatically change its course? The answer would be rather in the negative, as development is increasingly driven by market forces and not planned. So, if one needed some form of global governance to steer development in the direction of these global values, it would have to be extremely strong, and it would perhaps resurrect the idea, much discredited, of total planning on a world level. This clearly would not work. The world community, and especially UNESCO as its lead agency in this matter, had only one viable option: to try to convince existing powers in the market place and in public policy to become more value oriented.

This was one of the reasons why UN created the World Decade for Cultural Development (1988-1997) with UNESCO as its lead agency. It was to be supervised by an intergovernmental committee, with a new chairman, representing the main cultural areas of the world, every two years. I was elected chairman, representing the European region, for the period of 1990-1992. Already then the intergovernmental committee recognized the danger of failure in its main task, that of convincing the international development community of the importance of culture. Various strategies were chosen to influence world (economic) opinion, such as a better presentation of culture in Ecosoc meetings, drawing into the discussion the other specialized agencies of the UN family, the proclamation of a World day on culture and development and so on.

But the main question remained unanswered. What exactly would be the common message to be sent in all these directions? What priorities should be given, what chances and channels explored? Out of this need the idea of a World Commission on Culture and Development arose, an idea was strongly supported by the Scandinavian countries and by the Netherlands. I hasten to add that a World Culture Report had previously been proposed, which aimed to follow cultural development as such and give it more visibility. Both wishes, that of a sectoral report on cultural development and of an intersectoral report on culture and development now fused, and out of it resulted, after adoption by UNESCO and the UN, the independent commission on culture and development, chaired by Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar. Their task was to prepare a World Report.

Now what does the Report (1995) of this commission say? In his introduction to the Report Mr. Pérez de Cuéllar states that there is a clear need today to transcend economic reality without abandoning it. The concept of development has broadened as people have come to realize that economic criteria alone cannot provide a programme for human dignity and well-being.
It is indeed in this light that UNDP elaborated the concept of human development, used to signify a process of enlarging people's choices. These choices relate to a wide range of values. The word culture is used increasingly as a shorthand term for various value systems in international reports. Culture in this broad sense is a frame of reference that can be used to test economic development as well as function alongside it. The values which should feature in this international frame of reference are, and should ofcourse be, the subject of international debate.

A global ethics?

A merit of the Commission is that it did go beyond stating common places, and tried to draw up a provisional baseline of core values, that can count on world- wide acceptance at the present time. The basic belief of the Commission is that these core values are present in all world cultures or world religions. This carries some weight as the high-level Commission was recruited from a diversity of cultural backgrounds and held discussions and meetings all over the world.

The principle of equality is combined by the commission with the principle of respect for human diversity. This dual, but not simple point of departure leads to the idea of a global ethics. These should embrace the following:
- human rights (including environmental rights);
- democracy and civil society;
- recognition of the rights of minorities;
- the peaceful solution of and a rational approach to conflicts; and
- intergenerational responsibility.

I think that in this idea of a global ethics the commission has made its most important contribution, and that perhaps it should have concentrated and elaborated on this idea, which now gets only a somewhat sketchy treatment.

The Report in diplomatic parlance can be described as comprehensive or wide-ranging. Out of the enormous variety of other topics I select only two additional subjects that struck me a being very relevant to the future of cultural policy, either on the national or the international level. First the media, where the world market and culture often pull in different directions, and second minorities and pluralism.

The media

The Commission states the obvious in assuming that a combination of technological and economic developments are creating a truly global information and recreation market through the media. National regulations no longer provide adequate guarantees that trends can be guided. Nowhere perhaps is the tension more evident between what is actually taking place and what governments wish or what is morally desirable. It should be said that the Commission does not view the current trends as wholly negative. The media for instance are helping to redress disadvantages, and in the audio visual realm at least the North South divide is diminishing. Nevertheless the Commission is concerned about the pronounced trend towards homogeneity and concentration in the world market, which runs counter to its fundamental advocacy of diversity. International cooperation is deemed urgent to preserve the diversity of values and traditions in the media. Publicly owned media constitute an important instrument here to supplement and correct market forces.

Publicly owned media are constituted on different principles than the commercial media, namely to serve the interests of the community rather than those of particular interests. The Commission refers here to a Global Commons, by analogy to the village common that was once the hub of village life. In this context it is not only the diversity and quality of what public media provide that is important but also whether it is accessible in principle to all sections of society. Clearly the Commission views support for a public role in the media, both on a local and a global scale, as a prerequisite for sound development. It proposes two studies, one on the feasibility of imposing a levy, or tax equivalent, on the commercial media, which could be used to fund the publicly owned media on a world wide basis, and another on media legislation and practice in UN memberstates. The aim of this latter study would be to produce a public media model that could be used world wide.


The Commission views cultures as changing and dynamic conglomerations of values, which are constantly influenced by other cultures. Cultures cannot be furnished with clear boundaries in terms of space and time. The Commission views the diversity of cultures - provided they do not conflict with minimal global standards or global ethics - as being beneficial to development. This view was in part inspired by the idea put forward by the Brundtland Commission that bio-diversity is a value in its own right.

The Commission sees the lukewarm attitudes to diversity in politics as a crucial problem. Cultures tend to view themselves as more homogeneous than is in fact the case, and they are therefore insufficiently imbued with the importance of heterogeneity.

National states, of which there are nearly two hundred, tend to see the thousands of cultures which they have to accommodate as a problem and a disadvantage. A fundamental change in attitude, based on pluralism, is called for. The world needs tolerance of cultural as well as of individual diversity.
Referring to the international movement of populations, the Commission points to the importance of emphasizing the diversity rather than the homogeneity of culture. A pluralist attitude is not only desirable but also realistic if futile but dangerous conflicts are to be avoided. The worst conflicts today take place within rather than between states. The Commission supports the Human Rights Commission in its aim to have the UN adopt a declaration on indigenous peoples.
The Commission draws attention to the undue emphasis placed on group identity, on an ethnic or religious basis, for example. This too leads to an undesirable drive towards cultural homogeneity and ultimately to conflict. In addition to making proposals for legal instruments, the Commission urges greater awareness of the complex nature of societies and of the need for a more tolerant attitude to cultural diversity. There must be scope for cultural differences between individuals and between groups: cultural rights should be seen as human rights.

Annual Report on Culture and development

At the end of its Report the Commission presents an agenda for future action.
Among its policy suggestions the first item stands out: an annual report on culture and development. The World Commission recommends that UNESCO sponsor an independent team to produce and publish an annual Report on World Culture and Development, beginning in 1997. The report would be an independent statement addressed to policy makers and other interested parties, and financed by voluntary contributions from the international community, including foundations and governments. This Annual Report would survey recent trends in culture and development, drawing on a research programme, contain cultural indicators, highlight good and bad cultural practices, and present an analysis of specific themes.

These themes might include global ethics, cultural and ethnic violence, new forms of cultural expression, etc.

In fact, what the commission proposes is a continuation of its work in a more scientific form. This is a highly interesting but also very avant-garde proposal, in view of the development of world politics in general and UNESCO in particular. It firmly distances itself from postmodern beliefs in the unreliability of scientific discourse or the relativity of culture, as well as from the idea that governments or politics should meddle with the contents of scientific reports.As an independent assessment of the situation of culture and development it clearly places itself at a slight angle to the universe of politics. This will inevitably raise suspicions in quarters not accustomed to objective scrutiny.

After the initial very favourable reception of Our Creative Diversity by more or less informal gatherings at UNESCO, doubts have been voiced by diplomats and work has been done by experts on the proposal. My view of the present situation is in short that the Report is scientifically feasible, after a trial period. Expert meetings at Royaumont have established that the question of indicators can be solved. In view of the delicacy of the task it would not be a bad idea to go for a biannual report. An independent team of experts could be mustered and at least one government has shown a willingness to fund. If UNESCO will not take up this challenging task, UNDP should, but this would be a pity. It would leave UNESCO with the unenviable duty to end the World Decade for cultural development with an admission of having failed in its core business.

General assessment

If one divides cultural policy into on the one hand specific cultural policy concerned with education, science, the arts and the media, and on the other hand general cultural policy concerned with the promotion of certain values, the report of the World Commission situates itself in both fields.
In doing so it reflects its aforementioned double origins: a world culture report that would be sectoral and a report aimed at influencing development, which would be intersectoral. The originality of the Report is that it links both types (which it does not distinguish as such) together and gives full attention to the importance of common values that should lie behind day to day sectoral cultural policy. This seems a step forward, because it redefines the parameters of cultural policy discussion. Instead of the impasse between a general conception of culture coming from cultural anthropology, and a normative conception which come out of the practice of cultural policy, we now have two types that can interact more fruitfully. Both general and specific cultural policy have a normative as well as a more practical aspect.
As said before, the Commission has made a somewhat heroic attempt to sketch a consensus about general values (like equity and respect for diversity) that in the long run may give a framework to specific cultural policy. This discussion should be continued. One should bear in mind that the tendency of the Commission to link these general values to religions is somewhat lopsided, as many of the most interesting value systems, like Confucianism or the Enlightenment, are not based in religion. Nevertheless the discussion about some form of secular and world wide value system is gaining in relevance, and can only benefit from profound intercultural debate.

On this point of intercultural exchange the Commission is to be commended for its vigorous rejection of identity-mongering. It mentions the concept of cultural growth and constantly reminds us that this growth has taken place, and is taking place through intercultural contact. From the politically correct concept of multiculturality the Commission moves to a more dynamic view of culture in which hybridisation of culture is not only inevitable but fruitful. I think that in the European context this view is still underrepresented. If future general cultural policy shifts from multiculturality to interculturality, specific cultural policy will follow. It will make quite a difference for migrant culture if one no longer focuses on the first generation and the country of origin, but on the second generation and the growth of mixed allegiances.

The Report is rather weak on the scientific side. Compared with the Brundtland report, in which a great effort was made to marshall scientific knowledge, this Report is much less empirically based. I cannot wholly fault the Commission in this, as the political will to carry out this type of exercise was much weaker. Because of this lack of empirical evidence the Report carries a somewhat platonic flavour, and indeed in part seems more of a symposium, throwing ideas back and forth, than a result of a concerted research effort. I think the Commission would be the first to recognize these defects. Indeed the proposal of an annual Report to follow up its work can be seen as an admission here and as a way to remedy certain defects. It would indeed be a pity if this first opening could not be followed up.

Finally: does the Report send a message to the world of development? By firmly establishing the need for a consensus about values guiding development, the Commission points in the right direction. It also bravely enumerates its agenda for a policy of values against which not only specific cultural policy but development as such could be measured. This is of course a weak option, but it is one that is at the heart of much criticism of development. It also coincides with a new interest in the ethics of economic development, as analyzed for instance by Amartya Sen. In a world after ideology, ideological discussion of development has not disappeared and the Report may give a new impetus to a world wide debate.

Adriaan van der Staay

pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A new global ethics
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) Challenges af a media-rich world
our creative diversity