J.P. Singh
Professor, Communication, Culture and Technology Program, Georgetown University, USA

If development is an aspiration, then culture is the historical sediment underlying this aspiration. Culture conveys humanity’s intersecting bonds and the kinds of rituals, practices, and representations that make up its ways of life. Development—conceived narrowly as income growth or broadly as ways in which people participate to achieve well-being—is heavily influenced by this sense of bonding and group-ness. Culture is literally the way humanity recognizes itself and reveals its aspirations.

UNESCO has long recognized that any understanding of culture needs to be multifaceted and flexible—speaking to cultures as artifacts and as anthropological ways of life. Humanity’s intangible cultural heritage can, therefore, be nominally understood as a cultural representation or process, but it can equally instruct us on the ways in which groups participate in human economic and social development. Intangible heritage is defined in UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (hereafter ICH Convention) as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage” (Article 2:1). They form an integral part of the community’s identity and, at times, its economic and social resource, rendering difficult the task of documentation, let alone definition and measurement. Oftentimes, the cultural expressions and associated traditions cut across national boundaries and include various improvisational and hybrid techniques making categorization hard. The various forms of Maqam singing across Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa are an example.

The ICH Convention addresses the many ways culture may be conceived to speak to development in general and offers important input for the implementation of another important global endeavor and aspiration—the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by governmental and non-governmental global leaders after the 2000 Millennium Summit. The eight Millennium Development Goals in poverty eradication, nutrition, health, education, gender equality, and global partnership themselves reveal to us global cultural aspirations.

Intangible cultural heritage speaks generally to the ways that culture may be mobilized toward MDG aspirations and specifically to how existing contributions of ICH may be measured for economic growth. In terms of mobilizing culture for development, intangible cultural heritage can contribute to the merit, education, and pride of a community and facilitate social harmony through the promotion of diversity and mutual understanding. Measures of social participation such as surveys, ethnographies, and interviews often reveal to us how communities mobilize for common goals and reveal cultural capital, or the material and intangible heritage that holds a community together. To use an example from the UNESCO list of ICH, in the Cultural Space of the Palenque de San Basilio in Columbia, the village’s 3,500 inhabitants preserve the social, medical, musical, and oral traditions that have been passed down from a community of escaped slaves in the seventeenth century.

In addition, community members speak their own endangered language, Palenquero. In this situation, social participation surveys may help us determine the ways that the cultural space provides literacy and education, gender empowerment, and medical solutions. Economic labor generated in the cultural space can also be connected to poverty alleviation.

Intangible cultural heritage, as defined by the ICH Convention, is becoming a larger and larger part of many nations’ cultural heritage, especially among developing countries. The Brazilian Samba and Carnival are representative not only of the cultural ties and various forms of heritage available, but the Carnival is also a major source of employment and economic growth. Performance-oriented cultural spaces such as the Carnival and the associated Samba schools are, therefore, important as means of preserving heritage, but as living heritage, they are also constantly innovating and reproducing it. The value chains from the Carnival feed into many forms of work and cultural industries (theater, dance, puppetry, and music, to name a few). According to Brazil’s Department of Economic Development, the 2012 Carnival in Rio de Janeiro generated various forms of employment and incomes for 250,000 people, attracted 850,000 visitors, and generated $628 million for the local economy. It is, therefore, appropriate that the 2009 UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics assigns ICH a transversal status because it provides a foundation for so many different types of economic and cultural activities. (See figure 1 below)

Figure 1. Framework for cultural statistics domains (2009 UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics) © UNESCO-UIS 2009_ER_eng

The strength of mobilizing ICH for MDGs lies in its ability to deliver on multiple goals. However, the weakness may be the diffused ways in which these connections may be understood. Therefore, we need a better understanding of different forms of ICH from MDG perspectives: the value chains that comprise ICH; the forms of human development that may be understood within ICH; the methodologies that may be used to ascertain goal fulfillment; and, the ways that ICH may be calibrated by communities to enhance their ability to deliver on MDG goals. All this sounds like a tall order. However, cultures run deep in societies. Mobilizing cultures for development would speak to humanity’s tallest aspirations at the same time.