Painting culture into the political picture

Culture must no longer be the 'missing pillar of development

Published on 24 April 2012

Author(s): Global/Marcie Shaoul

Type:  Statement

Recognising the importance of culture and the arts in developmental policy, the Commonwealth Foundation is embracing the 2012 Commonwealth theme of ‘Connecting Cultures’ as a way to strengthen the collaboration between civil society and government.

Culture is more than just a novel, a painting, an opera or even a film. It’s more than mere ritual. Culture is the very essence of what it means to be human. For us to exist and interact with our fellow men and women, to create change, solve problems and develop, we must be able to relate to one another on many different levels.

English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton recently questioned whether culture was a result of nature or nurture. If one looks at how we use culture to develop as a civilisation, one could argue successfully for nurture – religion, custom and competition all stem from the way we are raised. From the moment we are born, our carers impose their values and traditions on us and we grow up following in their footsteps.

But how did we get to the point where we defined culture? Was culture always within us? Perhaps the assumption that culture is a product of our nurture is fundamentally wrong? Language, companionship, artistic expression and feasting seem to be fundamental to human nature and result from our biology.

Either way, we can agree that culture is a part of our human identity. We eat together, drink together, celebrate together, learn together and share together. In every country around the world, we notice our differences through religion and caste, music and food – yet fundamental principles are shared beyond doubt. Celebration, breaking bread and conversation are part of every society in the world. Irrespective of religion, regardless of gender and age, it is through these similarities that humankind progresses. In following such rituals, we promote togetherness and support. Culture means we are not alone.

That’s why the theme for 2012, ‘Connecting Cultures’, is so very relevant to the Commonwealth. How does one connect two billion people who are a part of many cultures? Why do we place so much emphasis on differentiating our cultures when we understand that culture is embedded in all of us and is what makes us human? It’s not an embellishment, but a fundamental core.

As ‘Connecting Cultures’ is adopted by the 54 countries of the Commonwealth, it becomes globally significant. The strongest and most consistent thread to weave through this great web is the respect and understanding of other cultures. By learning from and respecting others, we develop understanding, dispel fears and create a unity in our shared humanity. To build a safer world, we need a better understanding.

This is what the Commonwealth Foundation strives to deliver. Using culture as a tool for development within the Commonwealth, we aim to get people talking and galvanise support among governments and civil society groups to promote healthy home-grown cultural trades and industries. Through initiatives such as exchange programmes, outreach work, grants and film-making, the Foundation helps the Commonwealth to explore and, more importantly, to understand the issues that affect civil society at every level.

Government policies and regulatory practices shape the environments in which writers, poets, visual artists, film-makers and other cultural practitioners are able to create and perform. As a development organisation with a cultural mandate, the Commonwealth Foundation recognises that culture must no longer be the ‘missing pillar’ of development. By promoting a strong dialogue between civil society and government on the value of culture in development, using resources such as the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, and our own 2008 research report, ‘Putting Culture First’, we are enabling collaboration and engagement between the cultural sector and government.
In advocating for culture to be given greater consideration in development planning and implementation, and by encouraging artists and practitioners to be part of this dialogue, we are creating the space in which to change the world.

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