While in Barcelona for a scoping conference to set up a new research institute for the UN 'Alliance of Civilisations', I was asked how it is that culture should be looked at and taken more seriously in economic debates.
My take on this complex question is not a simple one. In fact, we can argue easily that a lack of appreciation for cultural specificities can easily derail the best development programs even those with the best of intentions. This is a no brainer!
But we can also argue that the prevalence of 'intercultural tensions' and conflicts can damage a country's efforts to improve its lot economically. We can look at countries in Africa, the Middle East and South/West Asia to realise this.
The movement of people from their countries of origin to another country seeking a more secure and better life is not a new phenomenon and is not likely to diminish any time soon.
The prevailing wisdom in migration scholarship and policy circles is that people move either in a voluntary or un-voluntary capacity. In other words, there are waves of migration driven by purely pull factors in the form of better living standards in economically more prosperous countries.
Forced migrants, on the other hand, are represented as those who usually leave their countries of origin because of push factors relating to insecurity, oppression, sometimes even environmental concerns.
But this distinction does not change the fact that migrants, either forced or voluntary, undergo similar challenges during the actual time of movement as well as when trying to adapt and settle in a new country.
As I landed in Paris yesterday and was greeted with the very ethnically diverse workforce at Charles Degaulles Airport, I could not help thinking about the current polarised debates of migration, race and racism in French polity and across Europe.
Indeed, and for the last few weeks French society has discovered that apparently even their once cherished football (soccer) national team did not escape the politics of ethnicity and identity. It was revealed that there discussions and plans to limit the number of African and Arab junior players in French football clubs and sports institutes as a way of preserving the presence of 'white' players at elite levels.
The story implicated even current national team coach Laurent Blanc (ironically his name translates to ' Laurent the White'!!) and descended French society into yet another dark episode of implicit institutional racism that is often swept under the carpet.
I write this blog a few hours before I take off for Barcelona where I will be one of the invited speakers at a scoping conference organised by the United Nations University for the establishment of an International Institute for the Alliance of Civilisations. The UN Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) was set up in 2007 on the recommendation of a High Level Group Report (November 2006) that saw the critical importance of such forum managed out of the UN Secretary General office.
It's now more than five months since the so-called Arab Spring started in Tunisia. Since then, we've seen the toppling of two dictators (Tunisia and Egypt), the intensifying of conflict in three other countries (Libya, Yemen and Syria) and the ongoing unrest in a number of others (Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria).
Whilst Europe and the USA were slow to engage positively with the Tunisian and to a lesser extent the Egyptian revolutions, they are now trying to make up for lost opportunity by being more directly involved in the current civil war in Libya and more explicit condemnation of the Yemeni and Syrian handling f the popular protests.
Most seriously, however, has been the G8's economic package for Tunisia and Egypt announced yesterday, 27 May.
The United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) Doha forum held on 2-4 May 2011 in Doha, Qatar was a unique opportunity to gauge how civil society organizations view the challenges of and opportunities for achieving intercultural understanding and social inclusion.
Overall, the discussions have highlighted the critical importance of the concept of ‘culture’ as a key dimension of not only intercultural relations but also human development in a very broad sense.
In particular, the workshops which were guided thematically by the plenary sessions, enabled us to appreciate and debate specific models of practice in the area of cultural diversity and intercultural relations situated within various local contexts.