Ahead of the Curve: The Contemporary Relevance of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity

A blog post by Ben Garner, Senior Lecturer in in International Development Studies, School of Languages and Area Studies, University of Portsmouth

Earlier this summer I attended a 2 day workshop in Berlin that was organised to generate international responses to contemporary debates around cultural diversity and multiculturalism.  There was a particular focus on the relevance today of the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.   This blog post is a reflection on some of the issues that were addressed in Berlin and some of the lines of research that came out of it.

Debates over multiculturalism in the UK have been intensified after a year defined by Brexit and a General Election held in the wake of major terror attacks in Manchester and London.  Preoccupied with Brexit and the issues of migration and violent extremism, the government has sought to articulate narratives of British identity that appear to draw on a combination of imperial nostalgia and postcolonial melancholia on the one hand (Britain as a great, globally-oriented free trading nation, etc), while advancing criticisms of multiculturalism as a principle of state policy on the other (“enough is enough…we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom”; “the wells of tolerance are running empty”, etc).

State multiculturalism has generated criticism for some time, from a range of political positions.  It had already been declared a failure by former PM David Cameron in a speech in 2011.  However, these latest developments in the UK appear to be part of a notable international change in the mood music around questions of cultural pluralism.

There has been a growing number of calls around the world for greater homogeneity in national cultures, often accompanied by expressions of cultural nostalgia and chauvinism – as well as movements that have arisen to counter these expressions.  The direction of politics in the US under Trump has parallels in Modi’s India, Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey; meanwhile there has been a spike in support for inward-looking forms populism across Europe and the Middle East, as well as a series of reversals of the Latin American “pink tide” that had ushered in novel forms of multi- and inter- cultural politics over the 2000s.

This appears to signal a reversal of the international political consensus that had been built over the previous two decades behind legal and policy measures aimed at entrenching commitments to principles of openness and cultural diversity at national levels, notably the 2005 UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity (in full, The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions).

It remains unclear whether we are currently witnessing a long-term shift and what exactly its causes might be.  There is discussion of this trend’s relation to the [ongoing] crisis of the hegemony of neoliberal politics – although the links here are yet to be fully explored.  However there is a clear feeling that the implications for questions of democracy, citizenship, “race” and belonging are potentially profound, along with a sense of urgency to formulate intellectual and political responses.

In response to this scenario, and under the banner “Ahead of the Curve”, a workshop was recently organised in Berlin by the Robert Bosch Academy and the German Commission for UNESCO, to which a number of thinkers, activists and representatives of key civil society organisations were invited to share their experiences from different regions.  In particular, we were asked to reflect on the contemporary relevance of the 2005 UNESCO Convention.

At the end of two days of discussion and debate, participants agreed upon a future agenda for action and research.  A pageflow and report have been made publicly available which record some of the key themes that were discussed over the two days.  These will make interesting reading for anyone interested in the issues that have been noted briefly above.

The agenda that came out of Berlin includes a number of themes which I will be engaging with in research over the coming months.  Along with a number of colleagues, I will focus on two points in particular that were agreed upon as key priorities:

  • We need a short, sharp analysis of the current state of the world – particularly defined by inequality (and its key causes) – and an articulation of the relevance of culture (ideas, values, belief systems, traditions, etc) to this state of affairs.
  • We need an analysis of the 2005 Convention – its relevance, limitations and possibilities – in the context of a contemporary understanding of global and regional inequalities/state of the world – to each region of the world, synthesised into a holistic document.

Work is already underway to respond to these questions, but they are big tasks.  So, please get in touch if you would like more information or feel that you might input in some way: ben.garner@port.ac.uk

The Politics of Cultural Development: Trade, Cultural Policy and the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity, Routledge 2016

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