Culture is the essence, it defines any civilised society or individualPhoto Els van der Plas


Prince Claus Fund

The Prince Claus Fund was a birthday present the Dutch government gave to Prince Claus in 1996 in recognition of his major contributions in the field of development cooperation. In his opinion people’s own ideas and ideals are the driving force of development and culture and development are inextricably linked together. People’s dignity and their power to direct their future form the basis for change and development.

Biography of Prince Claus

on the website of the Dutch Royal House


Speech by H.R.H. Prince Claus at the occasion of the symposium 'Cultural Dimension of Development' in the Vredespaleis in The Hague,
19 september 1985

I approach this vast subject with some trepidation. No doubt, as a layman, my own perceptions of the subject are influenced by hidden cultural assumptions, by a vision of the world resulting from my position as a member of a twentieth-century industrialized society. Therefore, I would like to open these remarks by exploring some of the dilemmas to be faced by those of us from the industrialized economies when we participate in any discussion of culture in an international context, such as is the concern of this conference.

It is natural, for example, and perfectly appropriate that as Europeans we should see the virtues of modern European society, and also hopefully understand some of its weaknesses. We are aware of our material success and have reason to be satisfied by many aspects of our social system. A society works because many of the values on which it is based are widely shared and rarely questioned. We understand that such concepts as universal education, individual freedom of religion, thought and speech, democratic institutions based on universal suffrage even if they have not been with us throughout our history, are now fundamental aspects of our culture, the achievement of which reflects the progress our societies have made. But if we see these values as desirable, how do we react to societies which do not share them? This is not a simple question and the difficulty to be faced in answering it poses a considerable dilemma for this conference. I therefore wish to explore a number of aspects of the question.

Universal rights and morals

The first point is that we do assert some of the values which have emerged in our societies as universally applicable at least as desirable goals. If we support Amnesty International when it campaigns against political imprisonment in all countries, or War on Want when it campaigns against famine, we are actually supporting the view that some human values, and the rights flowing from them, are universal. Yet at the same time we do understand that societies differ and that some practices which we value at home would not be acceptable elsewhere.

Where do we draw the boundary of universal rights and morals which we now see as defining a world culture, and those rights and morals which we see as specific to particular societies?

When we admit the relativity of certain values and practices, are we saying that there are different ways of doing things which are equally moral or acceptable? That is, are there cultural differences which have no more moral significance to us than, say, differences in fashion? Or do we believe that relativity in beliefs which we hold as important in our own societies may be inevitable and understandable but still represent a difference between a better and a worse practice?

Reflection on our culture

Our Western attitudes change in this regard. Today, we would be less likely than the nineteenth-century missionary to assume the superiority and universality of our own customs regarding dress, sexual mores, matrimony or religious belief - or perhaps we are less sure of what our own mores are in those areas, and certainly see them as less a matter of public concern than our forebears. Today, we are more likely to see certain political values as being of universal validity.

Surely, the belief in the universality of certain human values and of the rights flowing from them is a positive feature of the postwar world - an assertion of human solidarity which has given rise to international development cooperation and to a sense of There are values which we claim to be universal and by which we do judge cultures. Indeed, not to do so would be to deny the humanity of the members of the societies in question. But we must be cautious in so doing and not make such judgements a vehicle for a sort of cultural imperialism.shared social and political responsibility transcending national boundaries. At the same time, we have to be aware of how shadowy is the boundary between that concern and paternalism, and we need to reflect on the degree to which our own culture reflects our own circumstances, and, indeed, has changed as a result of our own history and the evolution of the conditions of our society.

The industrial countries are rich and powerful. We have also social achievements of which we should be proud. However, even in our own histories we do not see a picture of universal progress. Without wishing to engage in social nostalgia or seeking to paint a false picture of a rosy past, we can all see that the material and social achievements of our modern world have not been without costs in terms of alienation and the loss of desirable social characteristics of earlier times. Our own societies are not in all respects necessarily better than they were one or two centuries ago, when admittedly economic conditions were worse, and political and social institutions less developed. Likewise, our own current material superiority over the so-called Third World does not tell us that our societies are in other respects superior. The complicated conclusion has to be that there are values which we claim to be universal and by which we do judge cultures. Indeed, not to do so would be to deny the humanity of the members of the societies in question. But we must be cautious in so doing and not make such judgements a vehicle for a sort of cultural imperialism through which we impose on others our own peculiarities. We must also be ready to recognize the merit of quite different ways of behaviour.

Inhabitants of an African village society, with the mutual obligations of the extended family with an active communal life and without the extreme division of labour of industrial society may suffer material deprivation, but may also enjoy the merits of integration into a lively and worthwhile community.

Opportunities and dangers of modern technology

The impact of the industrial countries on the Third-World societies is not, however, primarily a matter of conscious efforts to change or improve social institutions or implement cultural change. The most important cultural impact from the West comes about as the side-product of the economic and technical influences. Even within the West, technical change has been a potent source of social and cultural transformation - we see that today in effects ranging from the impact of modern information technology to the spread of fast food. Modern technology is a liberating force, increasing leisure, increasing the options open to the modern consumer, and a disruptive force, rendering old ways obsolescent and imposing on the individual and the small community the requirements of The most important cultural impact from the West comes about as the side-product of the economic and technical influences.the mass society.

Within the industrial societies, technical change can be seen as responding to our needs. Also, we have some experience in handling technical change, even if we have not fully solved the problems of social disruption resulting from rapid innovation. However, it must be evident that for developing societies, technical change poses even greater cultural and social problems. Transfer and acceptance of technology is never culturally neutral. Technical change comes from abroad, much of it geared to the contemporary needs of the industrialized countries.

The local capacity to control and modify imported technology is limited. Modern technology holds out great hopes for Third-World development, but also real dangers. Let us consider some of the risks of technologically induced cultural change.
One danger is that external technology can mould the tastes and consumption habits of the Third-World consumer in a way which have unfortunate consequences. We all know, for example, of the dangers associated with the discouragement of breast-feeding.
The availability of a Western life style, necessarily limited to the few, given the levels of national income, can become a source of elitism and of misallocation of a nation's resources. Western technology can become a vehicle for the concentration of resources on the satisfaction of the needs of an urban minority who, in return, become alienated from the needs and the possibilities of the rural majority of their own societies.
There have also been instances where the external intrusion has resulted in social change which has undermined a complex balance between a society, its culture and its ecology.

Building on traditional culture

I do not wish to imply by these comments that technical change is bad and that brakes should be put on the transfer of technology. Far from it. Problems of poverty and hunger can only be solved by the application of technology. Moreover, cultural change is both necessary to generate development and its inevitable outcome. But Problems of poverty and hunger can only be solved by the application of technology. Moreover, cultural change is both necessary to generate  development and its inevitable outcome. But we should be alert of the need to limit the cultural and social costs involved.we should be alert to the need to make technical change as relevant as possible and of the need to limit the cultural and social costs involved.

What I have said in the preceding comments might seem as if I am focusing attention exclusively on the cultural impact of technology and the purveyor of technology in the modern world, the business. This is by no means the case. Educational institutions, planning practices and social welfare measures, which are evidently desirable in our own societies, can take on a quite different meaning when transferred to another environment. The emphasis of social scientists a few years ago on the importance of what we call the 'informal sector' in developing countries suggested that there was great value in that sector of activity which lay outside the system of minimum wages, taxation, planning regulations, etc. Which represented what was best and possible in our own welfare system but which could not be extended to the mass of the population in a poor country.
We should also understand that those countries which develop most effectively are likely to be those which, like Japan, selected from Western technology what they needed, modified their culture and society but nevertheless built upon their traditional culture and values, to develop a modern Japanese way of doing things which we now find worthwhile to study. Developing countries need to borrow from our technology and, no doubt, many of their political and economic institutions to draw from the Western experience. But also they should draw on their own cultural strengths and adapt imported practices to their own social setting.

National identity and language

In this regard, I suspect that the creation of what might be described as a clearly identified national culture, with a strong sense of national identity may be as important a task as the The building of national culture is both a legitimate goal of development and may even be a prerequisite for material progress.pursuit of material progress in the early stages of nation building. Moreover, in the longer term the self-confidence and solidarity resulting from a strong sense of national identity may be of great value in tackling the difficult tasks of economic development. The building of national culture is both a legitimate goal of development and may even be a prerequisite for material progress. Looking back, it may well be that the first generation of national leaders in the Third World will be judged as much by their achievements in creating a national identity as their impact on the gross national product.
This leads me to a key aspect of national culture to which, perhaps, this meeting should give some attention: namely that of language. Surely there is great advantage gained from the existence of a national language shared by the elites and the masses. Otherwise, language itself can become a source of social division, increasing the gap not only between the educated and uneducated but also between town and country.
Where for example the elite's language is a foreign tongue, this not only makes the discourse of the elite inaccessible to the bulk of the population but may also make it more difficult for the elite to relate to local problems. The world of learning becomes a foreign world conducted in a foreign language and quite remote from the world of the countryside and the ordinary folk.

It is this point that leads me to suspect that one of president Nyerere's most considerable achievements has been the promotion of Swahili as a national language for Tanzania. In that case, of course, conditions were favourable for such a development. That is not always the case.

For of course, the language issue is not a simple one. In a number of countries, the colonial mother tongue provided the only national lingua franca, across regional or tribal boundaries. The attempt to promote a national language more readily accessible to some linguistic groups than others has itself become a source of division in a number of countries.

Moreover, to build a language into an instrument of modern technology, bureaucracy and scholarship is a major task. There is also a loss involved if the promotion of a national language leads to a decline in the elite's command over foreign languages - a loss in terms of international intellectual access and also, possibly, regional communication. However, while in Africa access to French, English, Portuguese or Arabic allows for ready communication among the states whose elites share command over those languages, it also defines lines of cultural division within the continent reflecting the colonial past rather One minimal component of cultural development must be the availability of books for the mass of potential readers and access to means of publication for local writers.than present or future needs.

It is important to recognize that a corollary to the development of a national language must be the production of a large flow of published material in the language. Here I would sound a note of alarm. One result of economic crises has been that in many countries the flow of written material in any language has dried up, not to speak of the supply of materials in languages widely accessible to the mass of the literate population. In Africa we have the sad spectacle of a widespread increase in literacy being matched by a widespread decline in the availability of literature. No doubt much of your discussion will be on complex issues, but we should also turn our attention to the rather practical and straightforward need to ensure that the physical means of communication are available to support cultural development and contact. There are no doubt many meanings to be placed on culture and development, as the discussions at the preparatory meeting for this conference indicated, but surely one minimal component of cultural development must be the availability of books for the mass of potential readers and access to means of publication for local writers.

Challenges of culture and development

At the conclusion of these few remarks, I would like to return to the question of how those of us from the so-called developed countries approach the problems of culture and development. There are a number of challenges presented to the Western intellectual, businessman or aid administrator working with Third-World countries. There is a need for self-awareness as to whether our own attitudes about what is right and proper are necessarily relevant in a developing economy and indeed society. We have to ask whether our products or technology, which we know are useful in our own societies, also make a positive contribution in the developing country context, we also have to understand the setting in which our contacts, customers, workers, government officials are having to come to terms with the process of cultural change.

Often we expect the movement from behaviour relevant to rural peasant societies to urban life to happen in one or two decades when in our own societies these changes took centuries. Some also expect such change to result in the same outcome thereCultural change is inevitable. We cannot expect the people of developing countries to live in museums or preserve cultures in a sort of human zoo. as here.

Many in the West have been sensitive to the virtues and values in foreign cultures. Indeed it is sometimes the outsider who sees what is worth preserving in the local art or architecture before there is an indigenous awareness of what is being lost in that rush to change of which we are often the agents. We should support efforts to record and preserve those aspects of traditional culture which will enrich the futures of the developing countries, as part of their national heritage, and enrich us as part of the heritage of mankind. Even if we adapt technology to need and minimize the unnecessary destruction of cultures, a fast pace of cultural change is certain, artistic perceptions will be transformed, old skills will decline and patterns of living will be modified. Such change is inevitable. We cannot expect the people of developing countries to live in museums or preserve cultures in a sort of human zoo. But we can make a sustained effort to ensure that as cultures change and the daily round of existence and human beliefs adjust to the needs of modern living, the achievements of previous generations are not lost. Not only that but our vision of our own society and art is enriched by an understanding of the past and of the diversity of contemporary human experience.

This should not be the esoteric preserve of the specialist, but should be encouraged as a much wider responsibility - and opportunity. Modern Communications have brought the peoples of the world closer together - television and tourism, for example, have meant that vast numbers of Europeans can now be exposed to conditions in far countries which, just a few years ago, would have been at most presented on the written page. This has created an enormous opportunity for understanding - and misunderstanding. It is interesting that in Europe, tourism had its origins as much in the pursuit of education as leisure. Too often tourism is now a matter of sunshine in the day and night-clubs in the evenings with exposure to local 'culture' taking the form of the presentation of a debased version of local arts, crafts and foods to meet the visitors' preconception of the quaint and the exotic. Tourism is going to be an increasing form of human contact. Quite rightly, voices have been raised in criticism where tourism has been the source of cultural debasement - a sort of pollution through human contact. But surely it should be possible to influence such contacts so that they are not only a source of subversion of local morals and taste (as illustrated by the term 'airport art'), but could become a source o increasing mutual understanding and respect between cultures.

Ladies and gentlemen,
I have taken this opportunity you have given me to raise a few questions related to your theme which have occurred to me. I have no doubt that in the coming discussions there will be many more stimulating issues raised. I look forward to reading a full report on the meeting with the expectation that the proceedings will be lively and illuminating, and will eventually lead to some practical results.


This speech was published in Cultuur en Ontwikkeling, toepsraken en opstellen over cultuur en ontwikkeling van Z.K.H. Prins Claus der Nederlanden
© Directie Voorlichting Ontwikkelingssamenwerking van het Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, The Hague 1996.