Linking Culture with Development
Linking Culture with Development

The countries from the Asia- Pacific Region that participated in the recent online UNESCO Regional Consultation Mondiacult 2022 were mostly born in the last eighty years. These relatively young nations, many independent after centuries of colonialism, have been reclaiming their identity through culture as they grapple with development imperatives. Nation building was a major challenge; even assimilating culture into the national mainstream was not as smooth as expected as each ethnic group, while committed to the nascent country, did not want to be culturally marginalized. The countries either chose to follow the model of ‘a melting pot’ of a unified national culture, or adopted multiculturalism that proactively accepts diversity. Some states corralled culture with a national vision enforced by bureaucratic ideas, rather than participatory dialogue, which eventually led to tensions that continue to hamper cultural freedom and development. The messages from the near ninety representatives at the Mondiacult 2022 were united in foregrounding the importance of culture.

Linking culture with sustainable development is the current mandate of UNESCO that wants to facilitate culture as an energizing force in the global context. The representatives spoke on current trends and emerging challenges and opportunities on the ground, in each location— their recommendations will be incorporated in the next UNESCO Conference to be held later this year. Most of the countries of Asia and the Pacific region seemed to be faced with the dilemma of either a lack of autonomous cultural policy or a policy that does not fully meet their needs. The strongest voices came from the representatives of private cultural initiatives where individuals and organizations have made meaningful contribution and are in tune with the time. Some countries, particularly Indonesia, spoke on the large-scale integration of technology in cultural activities that had led to inclusivity and outreach; understandably so because the populous country has a cultural diversity spread over a vast archipelago. There was a general consensus to extend cultural activity to rural areas, to include them in the dialogue. Countries expressed concern of the loss of tangible and intangible heritage and called for an increase in UNESCO’s technical and financial support for conservation. Culture and sustainable development issues evoked a response on environmental solutions based on indigenous wisdom which locals have successfully practiced for centuries. Sri Lanka spoke of the role of culture in building religious harmony and nation building which they experienced after a long internal conflict. Cultural diplomacy was discussed, which would be a people to people contact, to resolve regional conflicts and change perceptions created by negative media reports.

As one of the representatives from Pakistan, I made recommendations based on my experience as a part of the culture community for almost half a century. During this time, I have witnessed different eras including the renaissance of creativity under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (in the 1970s), the orthodox backlash of Zia’s dictatorship and the 1980s systematic state policies to control cultural activities, and freedom of expression, that has created a challenging environment for all cultural practioners. Not only has the demonization of culture— particularly dance, music and figurative art— divided the people but held back robust creativity in the mainstream, and impacted national development.

In the last seventy-five years, Pakistan’s cultural history (and all its ups and downs) has not been fully documented which makes it very difficult to provide accurate data to researchers and scholars. We have lost an entire generation of pioneers, and only secondary sources are available which need urgent attention. Lok Virsa has had some success in creating an archive of intangible folk traditions, like songs and music that are being lost with urbanization. One of my recommendations was an urgent need for an archival space for data on cultural practices (traditional and contemporary). This cultural knowledge bank will be an important step towards decolonization with the consolidation of existing data and storage of new knowledge. UNESCO with its resources can partner by training personnel and provide special funding to official bodies /private organizations for a long-term plan of at least five years to complete the project and gauge its impact. Many countries spoke about the impact of censorship on culture; to resolve this I called for the establishment of an independent national and regional Cultural Ombudsman to settle disputes that put state pressure on cultural organizations. Freedom of expression has become a big issue in countries where cultural projects are arbitrarily censored and shut down creating serious setbacks and threat to life and property. UNESCO can play a vital role in setting up a mechanism for arbitration and conflict resolution with judicial and cultural professionals who are committed to protecting culture. Funding for culture from the state and private sources needs to be consistent for growth, innovation and survival. Since Governments of developing countries cannot adequately fund cultural activities they can look at providing incentives by removing federal and provincial taxation on all non-commercial cultural activities and cultural products. Tax breaks should be available to private donors/ sponsors as an incentive to encourage corporate art collections, patronage to performers and artisans etc. This has become an even more urgent need during the Pandemic.

In Pakistan, the ambivalent attitude towards culture needs revisiting, and a more serious commitment needs to be demonstrated with an autonomous National Cultural Policy and an independent Ministry of Culture. The weight of an independent ministry behind it, to implement policy, will help culture to be officially recognized as a national asset and vastly improve its current marginalized and underfunded position. It will also create conditions for its confident growth— to become an influential contributor to cultural diplomacy, economic growth and other areas of national importance.

Title image: Students watch with interest as artist Nabahat Lotia creates her artwork at the Karachi Zoo for the Second Karachi Biennale, 2019

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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