Is culture a basic need?

Dheera Sujan, presenter of Earthbeat on Radio Netherlands has an interesting account of something called a Cultural Emergency Response, sponsored by the Prince Claus Fund. You can listen to the show here.

It’s an international aid organization which both attempts to rescue and preserve culture during times of conflict, when “culture is the first to go and often the last thing on anyone’s mind.” The organization aims to prevent acts of destruction such as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Serb bombing the library of Sarajevo, and indeed the loss to Iraq’s heritage when the US the UK, and the other coalition countries invaded Iraq in 2003.

Aid organizations often don’t focus on cultural loss, they are tasked with other matters such as humanitarian and other assistance; the CER attempts to fill t;his gap. Els van der Plas, director of the Prince Claus Fund says “We feel that culture is a basic need and we think that rescuing culture can give people a sense of hope and direction.”

When a disaster or armed conflict occurs, an application can be submitted for up to 35,000 euros for a project, so long as it is completed within six months. The CER has sponsored a number of projects. In Nablus it helped stabilize the foundations of historic houses which were being damaged by the widening of roads used by the Israeli army; in Morocco, it funded the rebuilding of a mosque destroyed by an earthquake. In Afghanistan, it restored a synagogue in Heart which had been damaged by flood in conjunction with the Aga Khan Trust. As the radio piece argues, “the Jewish community is long gone from Afghanistan but the beauty of the building is undeniable. It’s also a beautiful metaphor for tolerance: a Western and a Muslim [organization] collaborating with primarily Muslim workers together to rebuild a Jewish synagogue in a Muslim country where the Jews are gone – so that their history may remain.”

These kinds of rebuilding efforts are symbolic and a powerful symbol. One wonders if the US and other coalition forces would have had a better result in Iraq and Afghanistan had they spent more time and effort on this kind of cultural aid, rather than what one Iraqi predicted for his nation after the invasion “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!“.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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