Alkazi Theatre Archives


UNESCO and Cultural Paradigm— The Indian Policy

The World Conference on cultural policies, titled the Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies (Mexico, 6 August 1982) defined culture as:

“that in its widest sense, (culture) may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the artists and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” 

The role of culture in sustainable development and the need for modifying national cultural policies in countries across the globe, gained prominence on the cultural agenda of the UN and allied agencies in the mid-1980s, as a response to the rapid and unprecedented socio-economic transformations under globalisation. Uptil the 1980s, the decolonized nations of Asia and Africa attempted to frame culture as a post-colonial marker of identity, unique to the nation and integral to its claim for political and administrative autonomy. This understanding of culture was adopted as a decolonizing project, partly to assert independence from the hegemonic (neocolonial) international frameworks of trade and development, and partly to challenge the tropes of westernization, which were integral to colonial socio-cultural and bureaucratic practices. By the end of the 1990s, this approach to culture was replaced by strategies of integration into the new world order of neoliberal globalisation, which was further accelerated during the decade, particularly with the foundation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, which was an addition to the existing Bretton Woods Institutes (World Bank and International Monetary Fund) that controlled the international financial operations. With the foundation of the WTO, the rules guiding international trade were structured in accordance with the mandate of the Washington Consensus, a name given by economist John Williamson in 1989 to the list of ten economic policies designed to restructure and reform economies of developing nations from the 1980s onwards. These policy recommendations were based on neoliberal economic tenets, focusing on replacing state intervention with market liberalisation. The mandate of the WTO integrated trade with the development agenda of the other Bretton Wood Institutes, which escalated the spread of neoliberal globalisation. 

As part of the globalised effort to create an alternative policy stance with focus on inclusive human and cultural development that maintained national autonomy and cultural identity, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the specialised agency of the United Nations (UN) which is delegated with addressing cultural matters, began focusing on a number of campaigns, calling for greater political and juridical recognition of culture in development. 

These initiatives could be observed to have commenced in 1988 with the launch of the UN-UNESCO World Decade for Cultural Development. The UN resolution mandating the World Decade of Culture could be seen as a response to and the culmination of a call that was originally made at the World Conference on Cultural Policies (MONDIACULT) in 1982.

It was hoped that the decade would build on the earlier progress that had been made at UNESCO through the 1976 Recommendation on the Participation by the People at Large in Cultural Life and Their Contribution to it (“the Nairobi Declaration”) and the 1982 Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies (“the Mexico Declaration”). The World Commission on Culture and Development (WCCD), the flagship of the initiatives launched between 1988 and 1997, was assembled as an independent, international and interdisciplinary group in 1992 by the UN and UNESCO to prepare and publicise a report, which would consolidate and develop the links that were being made between culture and development. This culminated in “Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development” (UNESCO, 1995)1. Its ultimate goal was to bring about a shift in international and national practices in development policy, and to this end, it concluded with an “International Agenda” of initiatives, designed to generate greater international authority and consensus for the issues that it had explored (UNESCO, 1995: 271–288). Among the most significant outcomes of this Agenda was the convening of the Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development in Stockholm in 1998, which was envisaged as an opportunity to follow up on the report’s call for the formulation of “new culturally sensitive development strategies”.

The World Decade for Cultural Development coincided with major shifts in the international political context of development, which emerged with the end of the Cold War and the rise of the neoliberal Washington Consensus. The UNESCO itself, as an organisation was undergoing a process of transition with intense pressures to reform and “depoliticise” its programmes and work in response to the institutional and financial weakness caused by the withdrawal of the US and UK from UNESCO in 1984 and 1985 respectively.

The World Commission on Culture and Development (WCCD) redefined the relationship between culture and development, which was earlier being defined as per the policy stance demarcated by the Washington Consensus that propounded development being solely driven by economic tools defined in the neoliberal narrative of market supremacy. Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, commissioned and published by the UNESCO defined its purpose as (UNESCO, 1995: 8-11):

“[T]he time had come to do for “culture and development” what had been achieved for “environment and development”. This conviction was widely shared. Just as the Brundtland Commission had so successfully served notice to the international community that a marriage of economy and ecology was overdue and had set in motion a new world agenda for that purpose, so, it was felt, the relationship between culture and development should be clarified and deepened, in practical and constructive ways. . . . We want [the report] to inform the world’s opinion leaders and to guide its policymakers.”

The report further elucidates its vision on interconnectedness between culture and development as (UNESCO, 1995: 18):

“In addition to the urgent call to eradicate poverty, the Commission has turned to two important needs: the need to reformulate cultural policies in general and the need to generate and monitor new knowledge on the links between culture and development. The Commission expands the concept of cultural policy from a narrow focus on the arts, and suggests a different way of thinking about it. Cultural policy should be directed at encouraging multi-cultural activities. Diversity can be a source of creativity. Supporting new, emerging, experimental art forms and expressions is not a subsidy to consumption but an investment in human development.”


Cover and Contents of Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, published in 1995

As evident from the table of contents, the report re-evaluated the linkages between culture and development. The report only consolidated and crystallised the already existing discourses on culture and development, rather than reflecting on the limitations of the existing praxis and initiating newer approaches for cultural development. Nevertheless, the document’s value lies in the fact that it made the extant disparate discourses on cultural development cohesively accessible to the international policy-making community. The report calls for the preparation of “new, culturally sensitive development strategies”, the lack of cultural considerations in the work of the major development agencies was declared ‘an intellectual, ethical and practical failure that has resulted in not just “distorted models of development” but “development without a soul.”’ (UNESCO, 1995: 273–274)

The efforts of the decade by UNESCO were also reflected in proliferating references to culture in the larger development rhetoric at regional, national, and international levels. This was most remarkable in the inclusion of cultural narrative in the work of the World Bank, which was the key source of development orthodoxy (equating development solely to economic growth primarily measured in terms of GDP) around the world since the 1980s, through its influence over the processes of structural adjustment (privatising economies and opening them to the global free markets). In the late 1990s, the shift in the initiatives by the World Bank was reflected in gestures (some more serious than others) towards greater cultural concerns in its design and delivery of Structural Adjustment Programmes, which resulted in an increased appreciation for the value of cultural assets and cultural resources by the Bank in development projects (most notably regarding the role of heritage in attracting investment and tourism, forging a link with one of UNESCO’s key competencies), and in heightened recognition of the ways that economic models could be improved by taking cultural factors into account. 

One of the original members of UNESCO since its constitution in 1946, India has been a regular contributor to the UN funds and in return has received funding aid from UN bodies. The impact of international policy contradictions and contentions can be gauged in a post-colonial Indian polity. The decade of the 90s marked a sharp shift towards attempting a political and economic decentralization from the preceding centralized reforms of the post-independence decades in India, which were determined to mould a ‘national’ character through the appropriation of ‘Indian-ness’ in the field of cultural production. In this process of decentralisation, however, as Dia Da Costa states in Politicizing Creative Economy2, “some forms of cultural production will be excluded despite strong proclamations of decentralization and democratization under sentimental capitalism” where culture and its development constituted sites of revenue generation and capital accumulation, as well as reflected on the relation between “the capitalist state and its steady collaboration with nationalist ethnic supremacy.” (Da Costa, pg. 47) 

While conforming to the orthodox development of the World Bank, through its Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) that welcomed the private sector and removed high trade barriers, the Government of India also simultaneously subscribed to alternative development narratives, like the human development and basic needs approach, by a continued dominance over socio-cultural welfare. This dual and contrasting positionality of the Indian government is elucidated by the plan overview of the 9th five-year plan (1997-2002).


Quality of Life overview in the 9th five-year plan (1997-2002) 

After years of absence of a formal cultural policy guiding the state engagement with arts and culture, a National Policy on Culture was formulated in 1992. A draft policy paper was presented for the same without further action. By ascribing to initiatives and agendas challenging neoliberal market dominated model of development, was India attempting at an international level, to distance itself from the World Bank orthodoxy in the aftermath of adopting Structural Adjustment Programmes? Can this be seen as an attempt by India to maintain its approach as a welfare state by investing in public welfare at the national policy front and as a non-aligned State by not confining to any power bloc ideology, at the international diplomatic level? 

Until 1999, the Department of Culture was considered ancillary to Education and was subsequently under the Ministry of Human Resource and Development. In 1999, an independent Ministry of Culture was founded. While the UNESCO mandates started in the 1980s, India took practical action in 1999, post the change in the stance of the World Bank, which now incorporated cultural concerns as part of its structural adjustment programmes. Did the adoption of culture and its importance for development by the World Bank towards the end of the century impact the formation of the Ministry of Culture in 1999, as a ministry separate from Education and Human Resource Development given that the World Bank was the leading source of loans and India was a debtor of the bank?  

On 28th November 1996, the Government of India formed the National Cultural Fund 3, a public-private joint initiative for the preservation of culture. Through the establishment of this fund, the government initiated the involvement of private institutions and individuals as equal partners in the management of the cultural heritage of India. Through this fund, private institutions and individuals were able to contribute by either undertaking the restoration and preservation directly as per the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guidelines or funding the projects undertaken by the ASI. Although the fund focused primarily on archaeological heritage conservation and promotion, it also funded projects on theatre performances, dance, music, etc where they supported its primary aim. The fund itself projects a mixed approach by India attempting to balance between the culturally inclusive mandate of UNESCO and the private business-oriented approach of the World Bank. 

Can one perceive the contradictions within the Indian policy sphere as a reflection of the larger international contentions— an emerging duality between mainstream development orthodoxy and gaining momentum towards alternative approaches by incorporating culture and lived experiences, assigned for human well being and being constitutive of development? Further, did the agendas for cultural development attempt to address the need for generating a field of justice for underrepresented and unrecognised groups, who had been victims of ‘cultural injustice’ that is rooted in the ‘social patterns of representation, interpretation and communication’? Or, were the developmental projects limited to a socio-economic level and directed at interweaving culture with bureaucratic instrumentation towards forging global networks amidst a neoliberal economic trend, without sensitising forms of symbolic or cultural injustice, like ‘cultural domination’, ‘nonrecognition’ and ‘cultural disrespect’ (Fraser, 71)4


  1. UNESCO. 1995. Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development. Paris: UNESCO.
  2. Da, Costa D. Politicizing Creative Economy: Activism and a Hunger Called Theater, 2016.
  3. To read more on National Cultural Fund, Draft of National Policy on Culture and the Cultural Policy in India in 1990s :
  4. Fraser. Nancy  (n.d.). From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Post-Socialist” Age. New Left Review., 212(July/August), 68–93. 

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