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Who is Who in the Culturelink Team

Culturelink review, Special Issue 1994 - imprint - archive

Cultures and Realities

Dr. Biserka Cvjetičanin is a Senior Research Fellow at IRMO and Coordinator of the Culturelink Network. She holds a Ph.D. in African studies from the University of Zagreb. She also studied at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales - Centre d'Etudes Africaines, Sorbonne, Paris, as well as the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research areas include cultural development and international cultural cooperation. She is the author of a number of publications and studies on cultural development and international communication.

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During its five years of existence, the Culturelink Network has often faced the problem of endangered cultures. We shall present just a few examples from different cultural settings that show that our era, the era of 'information superhighways' and 'planetary information societies', is also an era of cultures under threat. We do not wish to raise the issue of the impact of new technologies on cultures and lifestyles (Cf. Jacques Robin, Les dangers d'une societe de l'information planetaire, Le Monde diplomatique, Fevrier 1995, pp. 16-17.) or of the tendencies towards cultural uniformity, but simply to talk about the problems of survival or death of certain cultures and cultural traditions.

When Culturelink was conducting a survey for the 'Guide to the Current State and Trends in Cultural Policy and Life in Africa' in the early nineties, Rwanda was among the first African countries to send in the answers to the questionnaire. It presented the general lines of its cultural policy, covering intensive research in the fields of culture and art, evaluation of traditional technologies, assertion of the national language on all levels of education, as well as specific projects such as the construction of the National Library, the National Centre for the Promotion of Arts and Crafts, regional museums, etc. (Cf. Minesupres, Document/Rapport general du Seminaire national, 1989, 10 p.) Several years later, it was hardly possible to think about cultural heritage and cultural development in a situation of horrible human suffering, when hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek refuge in the neighbouring countries such as Zaire, and when the majority of the population was on the edge of starvation. Torn by ethnic conflicts, Africa is made up of countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Somalia...

At the same time as ethnic conflicts loom ever larger, the world is voicing an increasing need for communication, for dialogue, expression of difference, and cultural pluralism. The French sociologist Georges Balandier is right when he says: 'There have never been so many questions about the right to be different, about the dialogue of cultures, intercultural communication; yet, despite this, misunderstandings, conflicts, exclusiveness, and manipulation still remain.'

The present day world is characterized by rapid changes, transformation and restructuring in every field. On the one hand, transformation stimulates the desire for communication and dialogue; on the other hand, it causes general social insecurity. Together with openness, which is characteristic of the change, we witness also the growth of intolerance, racism, xenophobia, and violence.

It is generally held that, since the sixties, the most intensive and far-reaching changes have been taking place in Europe - a continent of old cultures anchored in firm traditions, with the nation states formed in the nineteenth century. The changes are taking place in all spheres -political, economic and cultural. The present time is characterized by the emergence of a number of new countries, the crisis of the nation-state concept, and the growth of nationalism. Societies now find themselves in search of their identities - national, ethnic.

At the same time, the issue of the European cultural identity is also raised, and is perceived to reside in cultural diversity (languages, religions, organization and use of time). In the rapid transformation currently at work, the crisis of identity is unavoidable, but new linkages and new values begin to be established on the continent that some experts consider 'ever less effectively organized and with growing inequalities'. The sociopolitical changes in Eastern Europe in recent years have greatly contributed to this process. It is enough to ask oneself what is the cultural identity of Eastern Europe. It is not yet clear whether it is going to be a single identity of the cultural space of Central and Eastern Europe or whether it will be fragmented into the individual identities of different nations and ethnic groups.

The changes taking place in Eastern Europe at present show that in the process of transition from the centralist model to a decentralized organization and market economy the role of the state in culture changes also. The state relinquishes its dominant position in favour of local communities and regions, introducing new forms of financing of cultural activities and institutions. (Cultural budgets are more than modest in most countries in transition, representing on the average no more than 0.6 per cent of the public expenditure.) However, the process remains fairly undefined, and in some of the countries the centralist tendencies still prevail. Thus, an open letter written by the Informal European Theatre Meeting (IETM) network and sent to the Romanian President, Parliament and Prime Minister in the autumn of 1994 lists serious breaches of cultural rights on the part of the Romanian Ministry of Culture: centralist tendencies in culture, lack of autonomy on the part of cultural institutions, control of international cultural exchanges. (An open letter to the Romanian President Ion Iliescu, the Romanian Parliament, and the Prime Minister Nicolae Vacaroiu.)

In contradistinction to processes of democratization and cooperation, we witness increased uncertainty, lack of interest, and insecurity. Accelerated change and radical upheavals cause crises in all spheres of life. Can we expect a new project of society to emerge from such crises? The French sociologist Serge Latouche predicts the developmental defeat for the West. Europe is indeed plagued by many problems today - from the two concepts of Europe (Europe of nations 'proud of their autonomous cultures' vs. Europe as a federation), through the migrations reaching it from the south and the east, to threats endangering the existence of particular cultures, most notably and drastically in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In October 1994, the Mayor of Sarajevo made an appeal to people working in the field of culture throughout the world, inviting them to sign a declaration on united and undivided Sarajevo, in order to help 'preserve the cultural life of diversity and tolerance which the people of Sarajevo have cherished for centuries'. Multicultural Sarajevo and multicultural Bosnia-Herzegovina are threatened with extinction: '... events in Sarajevo are laying siege to the cosmopolitan ideal of the city as the citadel of difference, a home in which plural cultures might live in peace'. (Human Rights and Cultural Policies in a Changing Europe, CIRCLE Publications, no. 6, Helsinki, 1994, p. 9.)

Multicultural Europe should insist on the mutual recognition of values of all cultures. The idea of multiculturalism, the relation of mutual understanding and respect for differences in cultural heritage and cultural identity can only survive if each autochthonous cultural community is accepted and recognized as such. Connected with this is the issue of minority languages and, more generally, all endangered languages. This topic, which would merit a fuller discussion, was the subject of a recent issue of the journal Public/Javnost (Endangered Languages, The Public/Javnost, Euricom, Ljubljana, vol. 1, no. 3, 1994.), where the concept of surviving domination was considered, citing the example of the Czech language, as well as threats to the Slovene language, and policies to ensure the preservation of language in Iceland.

Another reality that we must face in our time is that many of the traditional cultural values that preserve the historical continuity of particular societies are now under threat. The International Decade of Indigenous People was inaugurated in January 1995 in order to highlight the special needs of native cultures and their great importance for peace, human rights and sustainable socio-economic development. More than 300 million indigenous and tribal people live in more than 70 countries, stretching across climate zones from the remote Arctic to the rain forests of Asia and South America. They share a common dependence on specific lands and territories for economic livelihood, social well-being and cultural survival. The people who have so far been excluded from development should be included, but in a way that takes into account their own cultural values and traditions. ('Including the Indigenous', World Bank News, No. 2/1995.) UNESCO's medium-term strategy emphasizes the revitalization of traditional forms of cultural expression, especially those forming part of the heritage of indigenous populations and minorities. (Cf. Preliminary proposals for Medium-term planning from 1996 and the Draft programme and budget for 1996-1997, 145 EX/5, Part II.) Many of these 'traditions for tomorrow' (to borrow the name of a network dedicated to consolidating and affirming endangered cultural identities) are now under threat. One should, however, be aware also of positive developments: in Latin America, for instance, the past two decades have witnessed a cultural renaissance (or 'cultural revitalization') among native people, thanks to the growth of a vast network of grass root organizations. Traditional cultural values undergo a change through cultural communication and transmission of different knowledge and experience, but many traditional contributions become integrated into new cultural flows and the 'new culture'. In this way, the re-assertion of traditional cultural values contributes to global developmental processes.

This is extremely important, as the disappearance of traditional cultural values would mean the loss of historical cultural diversity on which modern civilization is built. Besides, it is precisely when cultural identity is threatened that it becomes most important to people. When people do not feel free to practise their cultural traditions and to transmit these traditions to new generations, they are less likely to develop a feeling that they share common goals with the larger society. (Cf. 'Ethnic Violence, Conflict Resolution and Cultural Pluralism', South Letter, Winter-Spring 1995, pp. 2-6.)

Institutions that study traditional cultures are also under threat. Our network, like many others, have been approached by the International Institute for Traditional Music in Berlin with a plea for support in the face of the threatened closure by the Berlin city authorities. In our time, the dissemination of the traditional music of different Asian, African and Latin American cultures is facilitated by new technologies, and the interest of the general public in traditional music and cultural inheritance of many societies is growing. To discourage the preservation and dissemination of traditional music means to eliminate an important part of cultural inheritance from cultural communication and intercultural understanding.

Endangered cultures now present the international community with a crucial question of its global development. The direction in which the world is going to develop will depend to a considerable extent on how well it is able to understand and appreciate the developmental role of communication in which all cultures will participate on equal terms.