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Human Development Report 2004 pleads for cultural diversity

Each citizen must be able to decide for himself what language he speaks, what religion he practices, and how he dresses. That is the message of the Human Development Report 2004.

The annual report of the UNDP, the United Nations development organisation, calls on governments to give priority to cultural diversity. The world has two hundred countries and 5,000 ethnic communities. Respect for the differences between each others' cultures is necessary if we are to live in harmony. As long as ethnic groups compete for cultural domination, there is less chance of resolving the problems associated with poverty, of providing education or of improving health care.

But the UNDP's plea is being made for more than just practical reasons. Being able to choose who we will be, without being disdained, punished, or excluded for that is an important development objective in itself, according to the report.

The report debunks all sorts of myths about the dangers of the multicultural society: for example, that people who dress in religious attire, or take lessons in their native language cannot be successful citizens. People have 'multiple identities'; they can be a part of different groups at the same time. Someone with a Mexican background can root for the Mexican soccer team and still be a part of the American army.

The UNDP also contradicts the notion of culture as a concrete phenomenon with a core and fixed features. Cultures change continually. Thus, according to the authors, it is improper to write a culture off as 'old-fashioned' or 'undemocratic', as some Western European politicians do with immigrant cultures. On the other hand, local traditions do not have to be indiscriminately protected against external influences.

Closing borders to foreign cultural products, out of fear that local production will be marginalised, is unnecessary according to the UNDP. 'Teenagers all over the world listen to rap, but that has not led to the demise of either classical or folk music.' A more diverse cultural offer benefits the consumer, because the range of choice increases, and with that, the consumer's cultural experience, as well. Governments can support their own culture with subsidies and tax advantages. The report offers the example of Brazil and Argentina, both of which maintain a 'healthy cultural sector' without trade embargos.

Annemiek Leclaire

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