Why Culture is Essential for Conflict Recovery and Sustainable Development

Think of what, for example, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Mali could learn from each other in deploying culture to help recovery from conflict. These countries all understand the value of culture in fostering peace, harmony, and economic development.
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Does the revival of culture play a critical role in recovering from conflict and achieving sustainable development? At a conference in Phnom Penh organized by Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) on the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Phloeun Prim, CLA's CEO, argued that cultural vitality belongs alongside economic viability, social equity, and environmental responsibility as a "fourth pillar" of sustainable development.

He knows what he is talking about. A refugee from the Khmer Rouge who grew up in Canada, and returned to Cambodia as a young adult, Phloeun Prim's own rediscovery of his homeland came through experiencing her living arts -- music, dance, performance, rituals. The legendary survivor of the Khmer Rouge death camps, Arn Chorn Pond, whose life is captured in the PBS documentary The Flute Player persuaded Prim that the most effective way he could aid Cambodia's recovery from genocide was to support the revitalization of the arts.

Arn Chorn Pond and Phloeun Prim began where the Khmer Rouge had begun in 1975: identifying the artists. But instead of killing them as the Khmer Rouge had done, they helped them to rediscover their art -- whether music, dance, or performance -- and to pass it on to young students.

This process was vitally important to Cambodia's recovery because it enabled young Cambodians who knew their country as a near ruin to understand its extraordinary history and living culture, and to find their own voices in envisioning its future.

In four years (1975-1979) of unimaginable brutality, the Khmer Rouge did what authoritarians so often do: they attempted to erase history, to eradicate all sense of identity, of belonging. Without the foundations of identity through culture and history, people can more easily be dominated, a principle violent extremists such as the Taliban and Daesh understand all too well.

If extremists grasp the importance of erasing culture in dominating and controlling, then why is the value of culture in recovering from violence not more widely accepted? In the case of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), it's flexible, and nimble Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) funds cultural initiatives, but once OTI's two-year tenure in any given country ends, so generally does the eligibility of culture for AID support. Perhaps this is the pattern because the impact of cultural endeavors can be intangible and challenging to measure.

In the words of filmmaker Rithy Pahn, whose beautifully elegiac The Missing Picture was nominated for an Oscar in 2015: "Art is not able to change the world, but art can show the future and the past. We had to come back and deal with identity. You can't rebuild a country without rebuilding identity."

For Cambodia, a country with so many painful memories and so much silence around them, rebuilding identity is particularly challenging.

At the Cambodian Living Arts Conference, Rithy Pahn and Arn Chorn Pond explained that each person has to find the language that will enable him/her to come to grips with the past, and to build a future. Pahn found that he could probe the past through film. For twenty years he built a repertoire of documentaries about the Khmer Rouge, and then tackled in The Missing Picture the story of his own family under that brutal regime. Along the way, he developed the Bophana Center, with its extensive film archives of Cambodia's past open to anyone, and hands-on training in filmmaking for the next generation. It is no exaggeration to say that Rithy Panh has given Cambodia its past in the Bophana archives, and a key to its future, in the voices and vision of young filmmakers.

For Arn Chorn Pond, the language of the past and the future was playing the flute. During the Cambodia conference, Chorn Pond explained that he "had to come back to Cambodia to learn to cry. When I play the flute, I learn to cry." At the core of this haunting statement is the humanizing capacity of the arts, their ability to open our emotional selves, and to enable us to look deeply into the past, and to imagine the future.

This is not just a philosophical concept. Reconciliation within and among individuals and societies is the essential first step towards building a positive future out of the remnants of a tragic past or present.

This process came to life in See You Yesterday, a moving piece by young performers from Phare circus and arts school, in collaboration with Global Arts Corps, in which the youth grappled with memories of the Khmer Rouge that haunt their parents and elders, and navigated their meaning today.

Understanding and reconciling oneself to past, or for that matter, ongoing conflicts is a first step, and one that can be achieved through the arts; the next is to empower young and old to envision and build the future. The arts provide essential tools for both these tasks.

Conference participants from conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Palestine, offered memorable examples of the arts empowering youth voices, presenting a humanistic, tolerant counter-narrative to violence and extremism, and developing marketable, revenue generating skills.

At the Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghan men and women, including even members of the Taliban gather to talk, create, and to make films. "There is such a need to express themselves" explained founder George Gittoes, recently awarded the Sydney Peace Prize, and who funds the Yellow House through sales of his art.

In Kabul Ahmad Sarmast molds young musicians and citizens, many taken literally off the streets and enrolled in the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM), where they receive a complete academic and musical education. The ANIM Youth Orchestra performs regularly for the Afghan government and Embassies, and in 2017, Dr. Sarmast, himself recently the target of a Taliban suicide bomber, will take an all-female orchestra on a US and European tour.

In Palestine, the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp fights the ongoing "military and cultural occupation", to quote Managing Director Jonatan Stanszak, through "cultural resistance". This means giving young people the tools to reconstruct a new culture, even during occupation, through their own individual stories, with the goal of building trust within the community and creating the conditions for psychological and physical change.

To truly transform societies, and to enable post-conflict rebuilding, economic development must be combined with healing and reconciliation. The arts also have myriad capacities to generate revenue. Afghan film makers, trained at the Yellow House, have been hired to work --from Jalalabad -- on Brad Pitt's forthcoming film, set in Afghanistan; students from the Afghan National Institute of Music go on to have careers as professional musicians; productions from the Freedom Theatre in Jenin go on international tours. In Cambodia, the arts are playing a significant role in the country's economic rebound -- from cultural tourism to arts-related social enterprises. For example, Phare, a performing arts school, is on the path to self-sufficiency through ticket sales for its performances, which attract nightly sell-out crowds from nearby Siem Reap, home to Ankghor Wat.

In ruins in 1980, Cambodia now welcomes two million tourists a year, drawn by world wonder Angkhor Wat, but who spend their valuable cultural tourism dollars throughout the country, attracted by vibrant living arts, and distinctive artworks and handicrafts. Cambodia offers an inspiring example to countries such as Mali, which has both cultural heritage (Timbuktu) and living arts (music known the world over as the roots of the blues and rock n roll), but which temporarily has lost its tourist trade due to extremist violence.

In addition to healing, reconciliation, and economic development, engaged citizens are required to lift societies out of conflict and to put them on the path to healthy recovery. The arts offer multiple channels for those who envision positive change.

The role of the arts in social change is not well understood in the West, where change usually comes through government -- responsive to its citizens -- the private sector, or civil society. In much of the world, however, where access to government and the private sector is difficult at best, the arts and artist/activists are important agents for change. As young Cambodian film maker Sok Visal explains:

"I don't believe in the government as a catalyst for change. I believe in arts and music. That is what Cambodia is best at. We can change more through creativity. That is what we should invest in. That is where the solution for Cambodia lies."

People from all walks of life in Cambodia are working to effect social change through the arts. Take, for example, Phina So, a writer and researcher, who empowers women through books such as her popular Falling In Love, with the simple but important message that life goes on after a break up. Phina So calls her approach "real life feminism".

The "Messenger Band", a female acapella group made up entirely of former garment factory workers, sings about hope, empowerment, and social justice. Determined to change the oppressive conditions of factory work and to enable their fellow Cambodians to stand up for their rights, "Messenger Band" strives to help the next generation live a better life.

Cambodian Living Arts magnifies the impact of these courageous individuals through mentoring, training, and building a network -- what Phare Social Enterprise CEO Dara Huot calls a "spider web" of young leaders. In a country where government and business still are dominated by the old guard, hope for the future lies in these young innovative artist/activists, along with their contemporary political and social activists. Investing in them -- two thirds of Cambodia's population is under thirty -- means investing in a creative, dynamic, sustainable future for Cambodia.

Examples presented at the Cambodia conference of peace-building and positive socio-economic change through the arts strongly support Phloeun Prim's contention that vitality of culture belongs with economic viability, social equity, and environmental responsibility as a 'fourth pillar' of sustainable development. If this truth still falls outside conventional development practice (culture is nowhere to be found among the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals), then it is time to step up the south-south conversations.

Think of what, for example, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Mali could learn from each other in deploying culture to help recovery from conflict. Add Morocco and Brazil to help mentor in cultural tourism. These countries all understand the value of culture in fostering peace, harmony, and economic development.

If extremists from the Khmer Rouge to ISIL can attack culture to tear down societies, isn't it time to deploy culture more effectively to rebuild them?

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