Thursday, July 16, 2009

From our submission to the Commonwealth Group on Culture and Development

We have been invited to submit our ideas to the Commonwealth Group on Culture and Development. Here's an extract from what we sent in:

"In addressing the dialogue between culture and development, it is crucial that the Commonwealth Group should see these arenas as equal partners, rather than regarding one as the medium through which the other can be achieved. All too often, culture for development practice follows the model that culture can be “used” to put across a pre-conceived “message”. More often than not, this “message” is to do with apparently enlightened mainstream / Western values being “better” than those of the indigenous culture. Such practice, while fitting very clearly the specific agendas of many NGOs, for example in relation to AIDS awareness, is neither good culture nor good development. It is essentially propaganda, and perpetuates a neo-colonial mode of thinking, in which so-called “developing” cultures are regarded as inferior. It is not surprising that such practice rarely leads to real change.

The sort of cultural practice which can genuinely lead to change is practice which acknowledges and validates indigenous cultures and cultural forms, and which encourages a genuine dialogue with and within the community. Performances should not be driven by the “message” that there is a pre-ordained answer to a problem, but should rather seek to open up the problem to the community. It may be that a range of viewpoints are offered or encouraged by the performance, and that the audience is given the space to articulate their own ideas in response. Such approaches lead to creative solutions which work far better than those imposed, because they arise from the cultural context.

The model is, of course, inherently democratic. This is in itself important in terms of developmental agendas. Dialogue and creativity are far more potent than propaganda and passivity.

The key issue is to encourage governments, international agencies and NGOs to put sufficient trust in the cultural sector to permit this sort of initiative. It is difficult, in terms of “outcomes” and “targets”, to justify investment in open-ended processes. However, we would cite a number of initiatives which have followed these models, and which have been highly effective in terms of development, empowerment, and democracy.

It is also crucial to ensure that the cultural productions which result from initiatives at community level are able to engage directly with the agencies, especially local and national governments, with the power to effect change. This is an area where the Commonwealth Group’s reports might be particularly useful: there is a need for a paradigm shift which encourages governments to regard culture as central to the development agenda.

In 2007, Border Crossings published Theatre and Slavery, a book which accompanied our production of The Dilemma of a Ghost. This book includes a case study by Shikha Ghildyal on her work with child labourers (near-slaves) in India and Nepal. The work was emphatically about allowing these children a space in which to articulate their own concerns, and giving them a cultural platform from which they could engage with people in authority.

In the same book, there is a dialogue with Rustom Bharucha, in which we discuss many of the issues around culture and development. In particular, he looks at the ways in which cultural actions can be empowering processes for socially and economically marginalised people and communities, and how these might then become platforms for their interaction with civil society and governments.

The methods used by Shikha Ghildyal were taught to her by Michael Etherton, whose work with Save the Children seems to us to be a model of good practice in this area. Michael’s work is also documented in his book African Theatre: Youth (James Currey Press 2006). Sadly, Save the Children no longer uses his approach, and this is because of the language of targets and outcomes which current funding systems require. There is a clear need for a major shift in the way in which developmental agencies view culture if these more integrated, progressive and effective models are to become widespread."

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