Before he took up his present assignment, Mark Collins was known as a prominent conservationist who had carried out ten years of ecological research in the forests of Southeast Asia and the grasslands of West and East Africa. But since he became the director of the Commonwealth Foundation (CF) in 2005, Collins has added another dimension to his personality – that of an advocate for using culture as a tool for developing better understanding among the Commonwealth nations. A winner of the Royal Geographical Society Busk Medal Scientific Discovery & Research, Collins was recently in Delhi for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (CWP) event. He spoke with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on how CF is using the soft power of culture in its work:
How important is it for CF to take cultural events like CWP around the world?
It’s really very important. In fact, in the last five years, we have made it a point to support local cultural festivals. Last year, we supported the Oakland Literary Festival, before that the Franschhoek Literary Festival in South Africa and before that the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica. We add our little value to literary festivals, give them a boost wherever we can. We are hoping to have some kind of literary festivals in the wings of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in a few months time.
What’s the idea behind CF’s support to cultural activities?
CF was established in parallel with the political Commonwealth Secretariat specifically to strengthen civil society groups, professional networks and cultural networks and links. We are unique as an intergovernmental body set up by the Commonwealth countries specifically with the mandate to promote cultural exchange and interaction. And we take that responsibility very seriously. We feel that celebrating diversity is the best way to create more international understanding and to build appreciation of cultural diversity and strengthen cultural practice and industries. It is a very important thing to do as part of development and a good way of addressing social tensions, and to build understanding of how certain things happen, that we wished did not happen. It’s not just glorifying culture, or art for arts sake. There’s more depth to it.
You talk of using culture as a tool to tackle social tensions. How do you think this can be taken forward in situations like the alleged racial attacks on Indian migrants in Australia?
I am not an expert on that aspect, but I do think that the more understanding one has of one culture, the less likely it is to take a negative or an offensive view of it. I think the more we have exposure to culture, the more we develop understanding of them and more we take them aboard and enjoy them. Sometimes it is economic problems that can spark off somebody’s tensions, but often if you have different cultures interacting, there is a positive atmosphere. I am sure culture can reduce a lot of social tensions.
Beyond the prizes and the grants, how does the CF help in cultural exchanges?
Just to give an example, we are at the moment supporting small film festivals and trying to give Commonwealth filmmakers an opportunity to have exposure through film festivals, using our grants in a very modest way. That’s a sensitive sort of push back against Hollywoodisation. We are mostly supporting fictional filmmaking, women filmmakers. We are also looking at ways through which we can use culture to help people overcome various crises in some countries. We are putting together a project we see operating soon in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Rwanda, in which comic books will allow people to express tensions that exist in post-conflict situations. We are also involved at the political end of culture. For instance, we are very much interested in a treaty called the UNESCO Convention on Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which seeks to protect to a certain extent cultural practitioners working in their own regions, own nations from the forces of globalisation. We are trying to get more Commonwealth countries to sign up to that treaty. We are playing greater attention on Anglophone countries, on promoting art and culture as an important part of their identity and development.
When you talk of using culture in the political and developmental context, how does CF work in these areas?
What we are trying to do is make the point to Commonwealth governments that development that does not take account of national cultural traits is a short-term understanding of development. The development that works in developing world is the one that takes into account the cultures, social habits of the small, local communities. If you want to change these practices, you will be making mistakes. In places like Africa, if you want to change lifestyles that are becoming difficult to sustain, it’s going to be a slow process. You cannot just rush in and change overnight. It’s got to be done in a culturally sensitive way.
India and the rest of South Asia have a lot of small communities, and there is a lot of unrest within them because of lack of development. How would CF like to use culture as a tool to dissipate, reduce that anger?
In so many of these situations, the thing that frustrates people the most is the lack of opportunity to express themselves. And it boils over into anger and conflict. I think there is opportunity in such cases to use theatre, drama, arts, song, different forms of culture to help people express themselves and help others understand them. Soft power these days is a very important part of power. Hard power, military power or controlling power is not the way of modern civilizations. Soft power if well deployed can be very effective.