Christine M. Merkel on why culture matters in the middle of global challenges

As the Head of Division for Culture, Memory of the World at UNESCO, could you tell the reader about the rewards and challenges of your job?

Christine M. Merkel: This great work brings me and us in constant contact, co-operation, co-production with bright and innovative minds from all generations around the globe. Meeting people who are committed to improving the lives of others is truly enriching and rewarding. I consider this to be a never ending source of inspiration. Challenges are shrinking spaces for democracy and human rights, especially basic freedoms, in many parts of the world, including Europe. Also, the obvious stress reactions of people and societies to globalisation is a challenge, as well as the unsustainable leadership styles and figures in the economy and politics.

What is culture to you?

CM: Culture is and has always been “staple food” for humanity, “vitamins du sense”, vitamins of meaning. From the stone ages – and earlier – human have created symbols, knowledge and skills, and passed them on to the next generations. Culture sustains the web of life, including how people live with and through nature. Artistic creators very often pre-sense important developments in society which become obvious only years, sometimes decades later – an early warning system so to say.

Through UNESCO, already 45 years ago, the understanding of culture was phrased as the sum of unique spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional aspects which characterize society or a social group. This includes both the arts and humanities as well as ways of life, the basic human rights, values systems, traditions and belief systems. Culture empowers human beings to reflect about themselves. It is through culture that we become human beings, able to act rationally, think critically and with a sense of moral responsibility. Through and with culture we recognize values, make choices, acknowledge how imperfect we are, question our achievements and strive for new meaning, transforming our limitations through new works and creations.

You have extensive experience in the areas of international relations, culture, development and security affairs. What is the link between culture and development?

CM: Cultural resource, visions of human dignity for women and men alike and a life in freedom are key enablers and drivers of development, especially of sustainable development which responds to planetary boundaries. About 75% of today’s conflicts also have a cultural dimension, often issues of recognition, belonging and identity. Hence, conflict transformation needs to include the diversity of cultures and cultural expressions. The cultural economy can contribute to livelihoods in the Global South – here often in the informal economy – as well as in the Global North.  However, the current severe imbalances in the world markets of cultural goods and services need to be balances with the help of fair trade in culture and preferential treatment schemes.

May 21 marks the annual celebration of World Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development Day. Comment on the relevance of this day, especially given the European migration crisis in recent times.

CM: This annual “birthday” of cultural diversity reminds us indeed of the enormous problem solving capacity of human beings, which works through search for common ground, sharing (conflicting!) views in dialogue and negotiating best possible futures for all. Over the last years, many people were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in response to violence and warfare. In 2015 alone, 12 million people were in this situation for one year or even longer. In this context, migrants who are seeking better lives across Europe come under increasing strain, too. In societies under pressure, arts-and-culture-rich spaces and initiatives provide helpful platforms for conversation, encounter, understanding, create a sense of belonging, responsibility, can address concerns and strengthen courage.

What motivates you in the morning and how do you think about it in the evening?

CM: Music, curiosity, smiles and laughter bring me into the day. In the evenings, I embrace the unexpected learnings of the day, appreciate the achievements to which I and we could make smaller or bigger contributions. Stay calm and carry on!

Which question would you like to answer that you have never been asked before?

CM: Evoking the spirit of Bishop Tutu, the question would be “what makes you dance?”
Before I was headhunted for my current job, I used to work with a leadership development project of civil society organisations from all continents. “Dancing in the spirit of Bishop Tutu” was one of the recurrent leitmotif, as a way of coping with atrocities of the past, gaining strength and hope for the futures ahead

The interview was conducted by Nteboheng Phakisi