Culture and development: for better value!

August 2007 -

Paul Faber, curator Africa at the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum on culture and development: "Creativity is contagious." What is 'culture'? There are definitions under which every non-biological human characteristic counts as culture. And 'development' is just as difficult to pin down. Every change could be called development – but then nothing ever stays the same. So there are countless possible combinations of the two concepts. When you introduce new farming techniques (development), you need to take into account local social relationships (culture). We can give money to a video festival (culture) because freedom of expression is essential to the growth of democracy (development). The possibilities are endless. To avoid confusion, then, you must first know what you want to see in practice and then see whether you can come up with a good – or better – label for it.

When I think of culture and development, I do not come up with examples from the first category. That development projects must consider culture in its broad sense is a given. It is not something we need to come up with a separate term for. A more useful definition of 'culture and development' implies a narrower sense: culture as the arts and the cultural infrastructure, development as intellectual growth. In my view, 'The Power of Culture' has nothing to do with development co-operation. The power of culture is relevant to every society, our own included. The 'development' here is not about making up a collective deficit, but implies rather the growth experienced by every human being. So it would be better to drop the word altogether. Instead, let us use the term 'arts and culture'.

With that in mind, what do we do with our money in the international arena? The cultural sector in the 'South' is often woefully understaffed. Local governments have little interest in or money for it. This is understandable, perhaps, but a great loss in the long term, both for the preservation of heritage as well as cultural innovation. That is why it is so important that we offer our support.

But how should we do so? We can begin by looking, listening and gathering information. There are energetic, creative people and institutions active everywhere – the trendsetters of a society. It is they who bring life to the party, they who are committed to preserving existing heritage and developing its new forms, they who come up with initiatives and voice what their society feels. Their presence keeps society awake and alert, keeps minds active, provides inspiration and issues challenges. It is they who nurture respect for oneself and others, who promote human individuality, who foster freedom of thought, tolerance and the quality of life.

Our funds respect that existing creative energy by facilitating interesting plans, by strengthening relevant individuals and organisations, by encouraging interaction. That is wonderful work, and it also makes better people of us, because creativity is infectious and culture is boundless.