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Local communities

The cultural dimension

by Jörn Geisselmann

In depth

A Miao bull fight

A Miao bull fight

China’s ethnic minorities tend to be poorer than the majority population. To improve matters, UN agencies are cooperating with the government, and their experience shows that sensitivity to the minorities’ cultures makes a positive difference. That is likely to be the same in many other places. By Jörn Geisselmann

When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were being conceptualised, the role of culture was overlooked. In fact, over the years, the cultural dimension of development has generally received little attention, and when it did – for instance in Gunnar Myrdal’s classic book “Asian Drama” of 1968 –, it was often been viewed as an obstacle to development.

Only recently has this view begun to change. In 2010, for example, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on culture and development which highlights the important contributions culture can make to sustainable development and the achievements of the MDGs. Another indicator for the changing attitude is the MDG Achievement Fund (MDG-F). It is one of the largest in the history of the UN and was set up by the Spanish Government and UNDP in 2006.

Its two main objectives are to further the achievement of the MDGs and to ­promote UN reform at the country level. Currently, 128 programmes are being implemented in 49 countries in eight programmatic areas. One of these areas is the link between culture and development.

In China, the MDG-F is funding a UN joint programme that promotes culture-based development in ethnic minority areas. This three-year initiative is called the China Culture and Development Partnership Framework (CDPF). It started in 2009 and is being implemented in four south-western provinces which are home to a majority of China’s ethnic minorities.

Given China’s impressive economic and social progress over the past three decades, it comes as no surprise that the country is on track to meet most of its MDGs. The gaps between ethnic minorities and the majority population, however, remain large. While ethnic minorities constitute only eight per cent of China’s population, according to official national data, half of the nation’s poor reside in regions with large minority populations. Members of ethnic minorities, on average, suffer from lower levels of education and poorer health. At the same time, their cultural identities are under threat by the forces of globalisation and rapid economic development.

The CDPF is to date the largest and most ambitious ethnic minority development programme run by the UN in China. In collaboration with the State Ethnic Affairs Commission and a host of other governmental and non-governmental partners, it aims to improve the inclusion of ethnic minorities in cultural, socio-economic and political life. It seeks, moreover, to empower minority communities to protect their cultural resources while benefiting from culture-based economic deve­lopment. The programme has received $ 6 million from the MDG-F and an additional $ 1 million in kind from the Chinese Government.

Since early 2009, more than 5,000 members of ethnic minorities in remote areas have directly benefited from the programme’s pilot projects and training courses. The activities conducted so far have
– promoted inclusive governance and culturally-sensitive basic education,
– improved the quality and acceptance of maternal and child health services,
– introduced community-based cultural tourism initiatives,
– strengthened local crafts sectors,
– addressed discrimination in employment and
– contributed to the understanding and protection of cultural heritage.

In addition, the programme has conducted in-depth studies on ethnic education policies, on the interplay between culture and health, and on linguistic and cultural barriers to employment. Such research has helped to sensitise decision-makers to the particular needs and circumstances of minorities. There was also a national CDPF policy workshop on ethnic minorities with government partners and scholars.

Tangible examples

Some tangible examples will further illustrate how the eight participating UN agencies – including UNESCO and the UNDP – address the cultural dimension of development. In Guizhou Province, the programme is working with ethnic communities to identify and document local minority cultures with an approach called cultural mapping. Its distinguishing feature is that, rather than anthropologists or UN experts, community members themselves define their culture.

When consulting about what made their village unique, one Miao village chose to revive their bull-fighting tradition (in the Miao culture, bulls are highly-valued household assets and no animal is killed in the fights). Close to 20,000 visitors from nearby villages participated in the four-day cultural event, and more than 100 locals benefited from small-scale business activities. Encouraged by these results, the community decided to continue hosting similar events.

After almost 40 wooden houses in a pilot village of the Dong minority had burned down, the local people decided to record their traditional fire prevention practices and actively pass them on to the younger generation. Fires are regular occurrences in Dong communities.

Another example is related to MDGs 4 and 5 (reducing child mortality and maternal mortality). Through research, UNICEF and UNFPA discovered that many ethnic women in the pilot areas prefer to give birth at home. The reasons include long distances to the nearest hospitals, costs associated with hospital stay (delivery itself is free in many minority regions), and the difficulties of reaching hospitals in time after labour pains set in. Some minorities, moreover, believe that burying the placenta near one’s home brings spiritual blessings to the child. Hospitals, however, are reluctant to hand out the placenta in spite of this tradition.

Chinese health authorities encourage hospital delivery because delivery at home without a skilled birth attendant puts both mother and child at risk. To improve the situation for minorities, the CDPF pioneered maternal waiting rooms where pregnant mothers from remote
areas can stay free of charge before de­livery. The programme also advocates allowing parents to take the placenta home after hospital delivery.

Culture-based approaches can also serve economic development. The CDPF is supporting rural communities to develop cultural tourism initiatives and produce innovative handicrafts using traditional skills. In all these endeavours, the commodification of culture is approached with great care, since over-commercialisation would ultimately neither serve the local communities nor their customers.

At the same time, measures are being taken to enable communities to fully participate in – and benefit from – such development. These measures include, among others,
– the adoption of a community-based approach to tourism development,
– the introduction of family-run guesthouses,
– comprehensive capacity-building for artisans and ethnic entrepreneurs and
– the establishment of crafts associations.
Experience elsewhere has shown that without such measures, benefits will primarily flow to outside businesses and local elites, but not do much to alleviate poverty.

These examples demonstrate how drawing on some traditional culture can serve social and economic development. Adapting measures to local cultures and conditions is likely to improve development results. Of course, this does not mean that traditional culture is per se posi­tive or that all its elements can contribute to development. Practices such as female genital mutilation in parts of Africa and the Arab world certainly do not.

The CDPF experience shows, how­ever, that awareness of the cultural dimension of development can help to achieve the MDGs and other important development objectives. And while the benefits of such a culture-based approach are perhaps particularly obvious in the case of ethnic minority development, it clearly is relevant in other development contexts too.