Rethinking the Value of Culture and the Culture of “Values”

The absence of cultural strategies can render social and international relations ineffective. A look at culture and its impact on inequalities, human rights and development.

By Mike van Graan

Qatar World Cup Rainbow Flag Mike van Graan Perspectives neu
GettyImages / AFP KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV

Two of the key fault lines in the world today are inequality and culture. Several current events vividly illustrate this. In November, the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP27) reached agreement on a “loss and damage” fund to compensate less-resourced countries for the adverse effects of climate change.  It is now widely accepted that climate change is largely the result of industrialisation that enriched a few countries. Meanwhile,  many less-wealthy countries are impacted more by – and have fewer means to mitigate – the impacts of climate change for which they are far less responsible. Economic inequalities rooted in history are now made more apparent and urgent by the existential crises of climate change.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also reflects the impunity with which countries with military superiority act in their own interests.  The Russian aggression is much the same as the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, when US-American, British, and other allied forces acted in contravention of the UN Charter.  

The tensions on the Korean peninsula and Russia’s threat to deploy nuclear weapons highlight the perils of military inequality. Only a few countries have the capacity to annihilate humankind with their nuclear arsenals long before climate change does.

UN Security Council

Five countries have veto power at the UN Security Council, allowing them to block resolutions that adversely affect their interests. Of the more than 300 resolutions vetoed in the Security Council, Russia acted more than 120 times and the US more than 80 – accounting for nearly two thirds of all vetoes.  In other words, political inequality is embedded in a multilateral institution that was created to promote peace and preserve international order. Yet, it not only permits, but enables, five countries to undermine this order and to initiate war.

While the above examples reflect global economic, political, and military structural inequalities, FIFA’s Soccer World Cup in Qatar highlights both the inequalities in cultural power, and the second major faultline, namely culture.  Western media with their global reach emphasise human rights deficiencies of Qatar related to women and the LGBTQI community, with assumed “universal” concepts encountering and being challenged by beliefs, values and cultural practices from a majority-Muslim country.

European countries have also been vocal – rightly so - in their condemnation of migrant worker deaths in Qatar. Yet, a 2022 report by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees indicated that more than 3,000 people had died or disappeared attempting to cross the Mediterranean or Atlantic to reach Europe. This was up from the 1,776 who had perished the year before.  Many migrant workers ended up in Qatar precisely because of the severe restrictions on movement of such workers from the Global South into Europe.   Of those who do reach, many are subject to harsh treatment that contravenes human rights. 

The legacy of slavery lives on

While slavery is outlawed, its legacy lives on. Those countries whose economies were built upon cheap black labour that had been kidnapped from Africa, now cherry-pick the Africans they most need – nurses and doctors, for example. Meanwhile, the vast majority who wish to sell their labour voluntarily on the international market are subject to visa regulations that undermine their dignity, freedom, and human rights. 

Mobility – namely, who is able to travel globally with relative freedom – is severely regulated with citizens of wealthy and white-majority countries able to travel to scores of countries visa-free. Two-thirds of the world’s citizens – mostly brown and black – are obliged to apply for visas, reflecting historical injustices now embedded in structural inequalities.

European countries have criticised patriarchal Qatar for the subjugation of women’s rights and have been outspoken about the denial of LGBTQI rights, understood as human rights in terms of European values.  Yet, cultural rights – the rights to practice the culture of one’s choice, to have beliefs and values consistent with one’s conscience, to speak one’s language – are human rights too, as affirmed by the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights. 

This is not to justify the suppression of women nor of gay people in the name of ‘culture’, but rather to juxtapose cultural rights as human rights that then require greater interrogation and respectful engagement rather than simple judgement through one cultural lens.  

The inconsistencies and hypocrisy in the application of “European values” and human rights may also be seen in the largely uncritical participation of European delegations in COP 27 in Egypt. This country has little respect for LGTBQI rights. Indeed, Egypt is an autocracy that denies even basic human rights of freedom of expression to its own citizens and, according to the Fund for Peace, has a worse human rights and rule of law record than North Korea, China, Syria, Iran, and Yemen.

The cultural dimension of human rights, of development, of democratic practice, of conflicts, of international relations and of many other aspects of the human condition is seriously undervalued. It is insufficiently interrogated, often rendering social strategies and international relations ineffective because of the absence of analyses that consider culture.

Rights for the few

The world is structurally unequal – and thus, unjust. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not universal, but rather, a noble document whose declared rights and freedoms are reserved for a few.

The Brundtland Commission, formerly the World Commission on Environment and Development, a sub-organization of the UN, defined sustainable development in 1987 as “a process that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This led to the environmental dimensions of development being integrated into an understanding of sustainable development.

With the experience of the Millennium Development Goals and the impending Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), global cultural institutions and networks campaigned for culture to be recognised as the fourth pillar of sustainable development – along with economic growth, social equity, and environmental protection.  The campaign fell on deaf ears despite, for example, SDG Goal 5, which advocates for gender equality that cannot be realised without addressing the deep patriarchal cultures in numerous countries across the globe.

Similarly, SDG Goal 12, which targets responsible consumption and production, requires a major shift in values in wealthy countries. These countries thrive on material consumption, on the one hand, and inexpensive production to maximise shareholder profits, on the other – at the expense of the environment or human rights.  In a globalised economy, slavery has been modernised: production is outsourced to poorer countries often far away, whose workers enjoy minimal protections but who produce quality goods at cheaper prices boosting the economies of wealthier countries and supporting the lifestyles of their citizens.

The cultural dimension of development

In a post-colonial world, the cultural dimension of development was affirmed by UNESCO through its World Decade for Cultural Development (1988–1997). It recognized the limitations of development being defined primarily in material terms, when the values, beliefs, traditions, and social formations of the supposed beneficiaries of development, often militated against well-meaning but foreign development practices.  Advocates of the cultural dimension of development proposed that development strategies need to be understood, planned, designed, and executed in the context of the cultures of the supposed beneficiaries of those development strategies.

Development itself is defined and practiced differently according to contexts and is informed by local values, beliefs and history.  Ignoring the dialectic between development and culture puts the SDGs at risk.   

While it may be viewed by some as self-serving, the statement by the president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, that Europe has to apologise for the next 3000 years for its abuses before being in a position to provide moral lectures to Qatar, would resonate with billions of people across the world. Their experience with European democracy, human rights, development, and freedom is that these are largely the preserve of Europeans and their Global North partners. The rest of the world and its citizens are at worst expendable, and at best useful cogs in the economic, political, and military machineries that sustain and secure the European way of life – for Europeans.

A Global South perspective

While Europe projects human rights, freedom, and democracy as basic European values, many in the Global South understand that these “values” – at least as they apply to citizens of the Global South – are subservient to the economic, geo-political, and security interests of Europe and its Global North allies.

It is this historical and contemporary experience that makes many countries in the Global South reluctant to embrace western critiques of abuses of human rights and of cultural paradigms e.g. in China and by Russia, that are not consistent with western hegemony.

Through the new loss and damages fund, COP27 has sought to address the inequality fault line of climate change.  To really address climate change, as well as other other major challenges encountered by humankind however, it is equally imperative that the cultural fault lines be addressed.

Mike van Graan rund grau


Mike van Graan is a cultural activist and one of South Africa’s foremost contemporary playwrights. He is a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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