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.
In order for democracy to really take hold in the wake of the recent Arab Revolutions, the people of the region should be careful not to conform to Western ideas of democracy and instead develop their own model, one relevant to their own cultural norms and in tune with their own rich history of democracy.
The Arab Revolutions themselves give us insight into what this model might look like. Indeed, recent events are to be admired for the extent to which divergent voices have been heard, legitimate grievances have been aired, and women and minorities have been involved.
They are also to be admired because a balance has often been struck between the pragmatic and the ideal, between the secular and the religious, between the desire not just to oust failing tyrants but to replace them with something new, something that could respond to the varying needs of the citizens.
Although Australia has repeatedly expressed its solidarity and support with the Arab uprisings and has called for a no-fly zone to be imposed on Libya, what exactly Australia should learn from the popular democratic movements sweeping across the region has yet to be considered.
The dramatic sequence of pro-democracy movements that are emerging in the Middle East and North Africa serve as a unique opportunity for Australian politicians and policy-makers to learn three key lessons which have very specific consequences for Australia’s foreign policy, its trade and security, and its relationships with the Arab world.
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.
The executive director of the venerable New York Times has come out fighting against Facebook and other social media.
Bill Keller has joined the conga line of commentators decrying the end of friendships and knowledge as we know it by arguing that much of the interaction on social media sites is “reductive and redundant”.
In an article in his paper, he suggested that “basically we are outsourcing our brains to the cloud.” Keller seeks to embolden his argument by quoting a conversation with writer Joshua Foer who told him that “This is the story of the next half-century, as we become effectively cyborgs.”
Religious indoctrination in schools
The decision of the Victorian government to provide an extra $200,000 a year to Access Ministries to further religious instruction in schools, and of the federal government to increase funding by $222 million for schools chaplaincy services should be revised in the light of recent revelations of the real proselytizing agenda of such programs (The Age, 13/5/2011).
It beggars belief that amateur and enthusiastic religious volunteers on the one hand, and theologically trained chaplains on the other would not engage in activities designed to move young people towards religious faith. What else could motivate their activities? The revelation of Dr Evonne Paddison’s agenda simply makes explicit what anyone who thinks critically about such issues can only assume. Not that such motivations are necessarily bad.