Culture is a broad concept and can sometimes be controversial. It embodies who we are, how we perceive our surroundings and how we interact as a society. Culture can influence the course of human progress and has a symbiotic relationship with sustainable development.
Culture has been used to both build empires and raze them to the ground. The obsession with cultural supremacy can create chaos and anarchy, like we saw in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It can also be the driving force behind military action and subjugation of races — the colonization of Africa, the rise of Nazi Germany and the annihilation of indigenous people across the Americas are cases in point.
Culture can also be liberating. For example, culture played major roles in liberating human beings from the servitude of feudal land ownership, spurred the industrial revolution, and drove the revolution to make France a republic.
An understanding of culture can help us harness it as a tool for progress.
Sustainable development depends on culture
I believe that communities who take pride in their culture, identity, history, values and norms are likely to make sustained, albeit slow, progress.
Culture is an effective instrument in building a good governance structure based on societal values and norms. In many developing economies or traditional societies in Africa, traditional governance systems, such as councils of traditional leaders, provide a cohesive connection between local communities and the central government. This link can serve as a support system for sustainable development.
Norms and values anchored in national pride, consensus building, respect for one’s identity, respect for diversity and constructive dialogue can create stable and resilient communities. Norms and values that strongly advocate representation and inclusion can be liberating and constructive. They can solidify and set progress in motion.
There can never be human progress — social, economic, political — when fellow human beings are treated unequally. We can see this with the caste system in India, the subjugation of indigenous communities and the practice of systemic racism in the United States.
Culture Action Europe maintains that the concept of sustainability should add culture as a factor on top of the normally accepted three-pillar paradigm: economic, environmental and social.
It perceives culture as an essential ingredient to create collective narratives, consolidate communities and foster diversity as an essential element in sustainability. It also recognizes it as possessing a transformative power crucial for building a sustainable future for all.[i]
Economic and social development is unsustainable when it does not bring people to the center of the process and when it is not responsive to their social and economic needs.
Applying culture to education development
In the education development sector, it is incumbent upon us to understand that education should be responsive to local needs and culture.
The curriculum should reflect the environment and socio-cultural setting to make it relevant and appealing to pupils. For example, promoting the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in the early grades helps better address children’s educational needs.
The curriculum may also need to be responsive to the skilled labor needs of their surroundings. For instance, communities living along the coastlines, where fishery is the mainstay of their economy, need to learn how to increase productivity in the fishing industry and not forestry or subsistence farming. Netmaking, boat manufacturing, fish preservation, and fish export, for example, are far more relevant.
The curriculum should also address harmful social norms such as traditional societies’ attitude towards women and other marginalized groups, the caste system, and attitudes towards science.
Programs that used religious text to combat gender inequality have been very successful in several countries. Education programs that recruit more female teachers are likely to encourage girls in traditional societies to attend school.
Making education relevant to the needs of society is one way of ensuring sustained social and economic progress.
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Semere Solomon is the Senior Director of Creative’s Africa Strategy and Program Director of Northern Education Initiative Plus education program in Nigeria.