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Ivonne A-Baki

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Where Poverty and Culture Intersect: Embracing Local Traditions to Better Fight Poverty

Posted: 06/10/09 07:50 PM ET

Culture does not live just in storied museums. It is not confined exclusively to the art and architecture, the literature and music, of leading capital cities. Rather, culture is the definition of a people. And, if those people are among the three billion global citizens who are today struggling to live on less than $2.50 a day, we must do a better job of understanding -- and respectfully implementing -- the role of culture in sustainable economic growth. If the world's poor are to pull themselves out of extreme poverty and onto the path of development, culture is both a means and ends for doing so.

In a recent book, the World Bank explains how culture can be both respected and properly leveraged in solving some of the world's most pressing problems such as systemic poverty. It points to how unique cultural sensitivities and practices are often the basis for how a society will design and implement specific programs to fight poverty. Many in the development community call this common-sense innovation "country ownership," placing the focus and responsibility on nations themselves to build homegrown anti-poverty projects based on their own cultures, not those imposed by outside donors. Respecting a country's cultural identity makes for smarter and more sustainable development solutions. Respecting culture means that the international community will not waste valuable resources on programs that will not be relevant or have the desired impact. Respecting culture when fighting poverty ensures a better way of communicating, so that lives can change for the better.

Fostering cultural expression can have a major positive impact on driving local as well as global well-being. Indigenous design, craft, and historical sites hold a wealth of potential in creating new jobs and improving incomes while preserving ages-old traditions. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), for example, is improving the living standards of the poor in Latin America through projects aimed at generating employment by preserving and promoting the cultural heritage and traditional handicrafts of local communities. Bi-lateral donors have also taken note, and are embracing culture as a way to more effectively deliver assistance in reducing poverty. The Millennium Challenge Corporation program, for example, has dedicated $112 million in Morocco, to support the country's centuries-old artisan sector in the Fez Medina area, including investing in clean-burning, environmentally-friendly kilns to assist poor potters produce the world famous Moroccan pottery in an attempt to boost their earnings while reducing their environmental impact. While these approaches are not new, they are more relevant than ever and deserve the attention of the world community. The best minds of the world's cultural, scientific and education communities must come together to identify solutions to poverty that embrace growth opportunity while correctly speaking the language that is local culture.

Exploring the intersection between culture and poverty reduction is a tangible way of more effectively meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Embracing this approach will help developing countries implement their national development strategies better and move closer to halving the proportion of their citizens living in extreme poverty. Embracing culture allows for a process for citizen participation, for giving the poor a voice in their own development. Building on that approach, cultural expressions are a sustainable portfolio of products and services that can generate income while respecting the environment and local languages and traditions as populations climb out of poverty. Now is the time to embrace and leverage culture not only for the world's aesthetic enrichment, but even more importantly, to help transform the lives of the world's poor in sustainable, meaningful ways.