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close this bookTraditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development (WB)
close this folderSummary of the conference proceedings
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTraditional knowledge and cultural survival
View the documentTraditional knowledge, land, and the environment
View the documentTraditional knowledge and agricultural sustainability
View the documentContributions of traditional medicine to health
View the documentTraditional institutions and participation
View the documentGovernment policies and traditional knowledge
View the documentBuilding a new partnership
View the documentConclusion


Friends, I am very pleased to be with you here today to share the sense of commitment to the idea that, indeed, we need to think less linearly. We have to recognize that, frequently, the linear paradigm is contributing to the destruction of a valuable patrimony, not just of our environment, our forests, our rivers, but of our heritage, our cultural dimensions.

Mamadou Dia referred to an international conference that we held here in April 1992 on culture and development. It highlighted the project philosophy that we are talking about here - that, ultimately, the whole purpose of development is to improve the well-being of people. Today, after all the efforts toward development, we have to recognize that about a billion people are still living on less than $1 a day, that close to a billion people (mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia but also in other parts of the world) - about one in five members of humanity - go hungry every day. We cannot accept the view that this is somehow an acceptable cost.

Neither can we turn our backs on the very real basis of solidarity that cultural identity provides, that gives people a sense of being and self-worth. We have to think about the philosophical aspects of development in terms of giving people rights. Rights to clean water, clean air, and fertile soil are one way of looking at environmental protection issues. We must not think only of protecting the natural resource base, but we must give people these basic rights. Today these rights are being denied to many people. These rights are being denied to the 1 billion people who have no access to clean water and to the 1.7 billion who have no access to sanitation. These rights are being denied to their children, of whom 2 to 3 million die annually from causes related to this pollution. They die from eminently avoidable diseases that are associated with the lack of access to clean water and sanitation.

We have 1.3 billion people, primarily in the developing cities of the world, who are breathing air that the World Health Organization says is unfit for human beings. Seven hundred million people, mostly women and children, breathe indoor air polluted by biomass-burning stoves that is the equivalent of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of farmers who are unable to maintain the fertility of the soils from which they eke out a meager living.

Against this backlog of problems, at least 90 to 100 million people a year are being added to the world's population, most of them in those very same weak states and poor countries in which the problems are the worst. The development paradigm that is being pursued by many of these governments has not been able to address these problems. It can neither respond adequately to the past stock of problems nor is it likely to meet the challenges of the future.

In this paradigm these governments are also ignoring the wealth that indigenous knowledge brings, the wealth of indigenous peoples and their cultures. Indeed, we have to recognize that, by and large, everywhere in the world indigenous peoples have been victimized in the name of "progress." They have been persecuted by that which should have empowered. They have been oppressed by that which should have liberated. We must recognize that the post-colonial independence of many states has not translated into respect for the individual rights of indigenous peoples or indigenous communities. For indigenous peoples, I want to speak of other rights, not just rights to clean water and clean air. I want to speak of the right of a people to be themselves, the inalienable right of each and every people to self-determination.

Here the issue of culture and cultural identity takes on a different manifestation. I speak of it not just as something interesting that might be lost, but as an inalienable right, a central core of being human, as part of human rights. We need to recognize that culture and cultural identity are not just things to be studied and written about in anthropological monographs. Cultural identity is very much the core of what makes a society tick. To understand this, we must come to the notion of empowerment. In answering the question that Whaimutu Dewes mentioned in his talk, "Who am I?" I think the answer comes from with whom I relate and my ability to act.

A radical, more dynamic view of cultural identity removes it from links with artifacts and objects of a past heritage, from past paintings, sculptures, and places. Such a view sees cultural identity as the ability of individuals, groups, and communities to act and, by their actions, to manifest their identities in the society of which they are a part. They must be social actors, not objectified artifacts. In this way we find the definition of cultural identity and authenticity rooted in action. In this way we bring cultural identity to a living people, to the meaning of well-being and development.

When we talk about unitary societies and unitary nation states, we have to understand that within these societies and nation states there must be room for diversity. Mamadou Dia just reminded us of the artificiality of certain legal constructs such as state boundaries when compared to the authenticity of peoples and cultures in Africa. He reminded us of many other fallacies that we need to set aside, but the one I would like to emphasize is the link between unity and diversity. As Aimire said, "The universal is enriched by all its various particularisms." Empowerment and recognition of the rights of people to be themselves do not lead to disintegration into many cultural groups. It is the denial of people to be themselves that leads to the disasters we see in the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and parts of Somalia. It is empowerment that is needed to enable each community to define itself, not at the expense of its neighbors or even at the expense of its weaker members. It is these groups' capacity to define their destinies and themselves in concord with the broader society that allows a broader unity to be constructed. The broader society is enriched by the presence and well-being of indigenous peoples, by the traditional knowledge and the cultural variety they bring. As Jacques Cousteau said at the 1993 First Annual International Conference on Environmentally Sustainable Development:

We now have to make sure that there will be an awakening of global public opinion to save the mixed borders and the flowering profusion of our motley cultural jungle.... We have only one way to keep our proud civilization flourishing: we must protect its diversity.

To the exponents of that broader society who speak with a certain degree of arrogance of the modernism and advancement that they contribute, I think we should remind them of the precarious reality of the human condition in most of these societies, the vulnerability of unskilled labor, the soul-destroying impact of poverty and homelessness, and the ease with which the rich and powerful subvert law enforcement to their own ends.

This scenario of empowerment will be feasible if, and only if, development strategies are truly human-centered in the broadest sense. Strategies that invest in people in terms of health and education are essential. However, we must also devise strategies that recognize the importance of capacity building, governance, legitimacy, participation, priorities, and expression of people. An enabling environment must be at the center of all development strategies.

Again, Mamadou Dia reminded us of this in terms of the crises of institutions in Africa. This takes me into the domain of human and civil rights, participation, empowerment, accountability, and decision-making. For these, I would advocate that all societies think in terms of creating a space of freedom in which people can express themselves, in which those who are concerned can reappropriate the formulation of their own future communities and societies. This space of freedom must not be the monopoly of certain academic scholars in Western universities. In fact, these indigenous groups must take charge of their own destinies.

It is important that we move in this direction quickly. Maritta Koch-Weser rightly reminded us of the urgency of getting things done. As difficult and complex as these issues are, I believe there is a crushing and compelling urgency manifested by the numbers I mentioned earlier in my talk. Every passing day of misguided policies contributes to the misery of millions of human beings. Every incomplete package of reforms and projects that various donor groups agree to finance is another missed opportunity to reach out to those kindred souls.

We in the World Bank would like to work with all those dedicated to provide this better future, be they nongovernmental organizations, academics, local community groups, reformers, committed governments, intellectuals, international agencies, or national organizations. I stretch out my hand to each and every one.

We do not claim to have the answers and, indeed, we need to be humble about the scope of possible intervention that we can have. But I know that we must dare to be bold, we must dare to be imaginative. For I do believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge, that myth is more potent than history, that dreams are more powerful than facts, that hopes always triumph over experience. I think that with this kind of vision we can empower the people of the world to take charge of their own destinies. For, ultimately, real progress lies in enabling the weak and the marginalized to become the producers of their own bounty and welfare, not the beneficiaries of aid or the recipients of charity.