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24 July1999

Globalisation Threatens World Cultures

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, July 12 (IPS) - Cultures in poor countries are under siege from the forces of global economic integration, the United Nations warns.

''Globalisation opens people's lives to culture and to all its creativity - and the flow of ideas and knowledge,'' says a new report on human development. ''But the new culture carried by expanding global markets is disquieting,'' the report cautions, ''because today's flow of culture is unbalanced, heavily weighted in one direction, from rich countries to poor.''

The 262-report 'Human Development Report', commissioned by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), says that people's lives are being linked more deeply, intensely and immediately than ever before as distance, time and borders diminish.

Discussing the ''unevenness'' of globalisation, the study points out that open markets are contributing to cultural insecurity in poorer nations which have removed barriers against imports of art and entertainment from the West. At the same time, culture has become a commodity to be sold in the form of handicrafts, music, books, films and tourism.

''Although the spread of ideas and images enriches the world, there is a risk of reducing cultural concerns to protecting what can be bought and sold, neglecting community, custom and tradition,'' says the report.

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organistion (UNESCO), the world trade in goods with cultural content almost tripled between 1980 and 1991: from 67 billion dollars to 200 billion dollars. At the core of the entertainment industry - film, music and television - there is a growing dominance of US products, and many countries are seeing their local industries wither, according to the UNDP study.

The single largest export industry for the United States is entertainment - not aircraft or automobiles - the document notes. In 1997 alone, Hollywood films generated gross profits of more than 30 billion dollars worldwide and last year's blockbuster, 'Titanic', grossed more than 1.8 billion dollars. The study adds that ''the expansion of global media networks and satellite communications technologies give rise to a powerful new medium with a global reach.''

Cable News Network (CNN) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have infiltrated most developing nations, at times beaming programmes 24 hours a day. The same networks that open Third World homes to CNN and BBC news programming also have brought Hollywood to an increasing number of otherwise remote villages as the number of television sets per 1,000 people almost doubled between 1980 and 1995, from 121 to 235.

Furthermore, ''the spread of global brands - Nike, Sony - is setting new social standards from New Delhi to Warsaw to Rio de Janeiro,'' the report adds.

Such onslaughts of foreign culture, the report argues, can put cultural diversity at risk and make people fear a loss of identity.
  ''What is needed is support (for) indigenous and national cultures - to let them flourish alongside foreign cultures,'' the study contends.

Once-thriving film industries around the world declined in the 1970s and 1980s, a result of the rise of television. Mexico once produced more than 100 films per year but local production dropped to fewer than 10 films last year - despite a resurgence of cinema attendance.

Faced with such threats, many countries have argued that cultural goods should be exempt from free trade agreements. Addressing delegates early this year, UN Deputy Secretary- General Louise Frechette argued that like almost everything in life, the phenomenon of globalisation ''brings up many opportunities to learn from each other, and to benefit from a wider range of choices, but it can also seem very threatening.''

''Parents find their children attracted by products and role models from alien cultures'' just as workers find their jobs rendered obsolete by imported technology and foreign competition, according to Frechette.

''Instead of widening our choices, globalisation can seem to be forcing us all into the same shallow, consumerist culture - giving us the same appetites but leaving us more than ever unequal in our ability to satisfy them. Many millions of people have yet to feel its benefits at all,'' she noted.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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