Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World: A Critique Ananya Mukherjee Reed

The Human Development Report (HDR) of 2004 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is entitled Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World [1]. It argues for active “multicultural policies that recognize differences, champion diversity and promote cultural freedoms, so that all people can choose to speak their language, practice their religion, and participate in shaping their culture-so that all people can choose to be who they are”.

The Report identifies two major forms of cultural exclusion: living mode exclusion and participation exclusion.

Living mode exclusion occurs when the state or social custom denigrates or suppresses a group’s culture, including its language, religion or traditional customs or lifestyles. Needed are policies that give some form of public recognition, accommodation.

Participation exclusion-social, economic and political exclusion along ethnic, linguistic or religious lines-refers to discrimination or disadvantage based on cultural identity. Such exclusions operate through discriminatory policies from the state (such as the denial of citizenship or of the right to vote or run for office), past discrimination that has not been remedied (lower performance in education) or social practice (such as less access in the media to a cultural group’s point of view, or discrimination in job interviews). Needed are approaches that integrate multicultural policies with human development strategies (HDR 2004: 27).

The Report estimates that a total of 518 million people suffer living mode exclusion, and 750 million and 832 million suffer economic and political exclusion respectively. In order to counter these exclusions, the HDR recommends four specific types of multicultural policies:

  • Political participation (asymmetric federalism, proportional representation)
  • Religious freedom (secularism with principled distance)
  • Legal pluralism (recognition of customary law at the local level)
  • Language policies (official language, bi-lingual education where possible)
  • Socio-economic policies (equity measures including affirmative action)

There is obviously no reason to disagree with the substance of these proposals. However, such policies have been in effect in many contemporary societies for a number of years now. Canada, for instance, adopted its multiculturalist policy in 1971; India has been a secular democracy for the last 57 years. And yet, while the Report asks how the Canadian (and similar) experience(s) with multiculturalism can be expanded, it does not ask why, despite the existence of an official multicultural policy for over three decades, racism remains a persistent reality in Canada. Similarly, while it commends India’s secularist, multicultural policies (e.g. those related to language in West Bengal), it does not ask why Indian Muslims continue to suffer the forms of exclusion they do. Why in India do we still not see a robust, inclusive model of human development? Why are minorities in secular, multicultural democracies still forced to choose between a paternalistic minority politics and anti-minority fundamentalisms?

Even more disturbing are the new, and more intense faces of racism that we have recently seen unmasked on a global scale. I speak here not only of post-9/11 racism or cultural conflicts such as those involving the hijab. I speak rather of the racist basis of the Iraq War or the War on Terror; the use of foreign soldiers; the promise of citizenship against participation in the war; and similar other racist dimensions of contemporary imperialism. How do these trends affect human development? What kind of multiculturalism can offset these trends?

In what follows, I wish to raise some questions about the central categories the report employs and its main recommendations. My comments focus on three related themes:

(a) The underlying model of social justice which informs the analysis of cultural
liberty and human development;

(b) The understanding of difference and diversity;

(c ) The feasibility of multiculturalism as the appropriate policy mechanism for
human development

I will begin from this last point about multiculturalism. Let us consider the Canadian example in some detail, as it has earned quite a distinct place in the discourse on multiculturalism. Most marginalised social groups in Canada have come to regard multiculturalism as a means to formalise unequal power relations amongst citizens, rather than to alter them. Most notably, multicultural policies have failed to dismantle perhaps the most critical barrier to cultural liberty in Canada, i.e., racism. A recent report on visible minority communities in Canada revealed the following:

  • Visible minorities generally have higher education levels than either non-racialized groups or Aboriginals. In spite of their higher educational attainment, visible minorities still trail behind non-racialized groups with regard to employment and income.
  • C o m p a red to non-racialized groups, visible minority and Aboriginals with university education are less likely to hold managerial/professional jobs.
  • F o re i g n – b o rn visible minorities experience g reater education-occupation discrepancies compared to other groups as less than half of those with a university education have high skill level jobs.
  • Aboriginals and foreign-born visible minorities are over-represented in the lowest income quintile and they are under-represented in the highest income quintile. Given the same level of education, non-racialized groups, whether foreign-born or Canadian-born, are three times as likely as Aboriginal peoples and about twice as likely as foreign-born visible minorities to be in the top 20% income distribution. Moreover, even if they are born in Canada, visible minorities are still less likely than foreign-born and Canadian-born nonracialized group to be in the top 20% income distribution.
  • Even when racial minorities have attained a university level education, they are still less likely than non-racialized groups to be in the top income quintile.
  • Foreign-born visible minorities earned, on average, about 78 cents for every dollar earned by a foreign – b o rn non-racialized person.
    Source: Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Unequal Access (Toronto, 2000)

Though not unexpected, these findings raise questions at at least two levels. For one, they raise questions about at least one cornerstone of the human development paradigm, viz., education. If racial inequality continues despite equalizing levels of education, then it suggests some limitations of education as a human development strategy. In other words, if capability equality cannot overcome other forms of inequality, then the human development approach must be able to identify the factors that prevent such equality. A rudimentary analysis of the relationships between capability equality and other forms of equality suggest that “capability” may be a social/cultural construct – constituted and reinforced through institutional and social relations of power. It is these relations of power that devalues one’s education and valorises another’s even when technically the levels of education may be equal. Race and gender obviously most directly mediate these understandings of capability – and help legitimise the type of inequalities we saw above. An example that comes to mind is the discrimination that persists in the “worth” of foreign degrees; while degrees from the UK, US, Europe and Australia are considered equivalent, degrees from countries such as India are not. Sure, there are “valid” technical explanations for such discrimination. I would argue however that the technical explanations cannot adequately explain the phenomena.

The systemic nature of these inequalities also raises questions about the feasibility of legal strategy and official policy. To the extent that policies towards excluded groups are developed within an overall structural and historical context of racism, they necessarily reflect these structures and histories. These can give rise to what some have called legalized or institutionalised racism. The persistent marginalisation faced by aboriginal communities in Canada is perhaps the best indicator of this: “The Canadian government, through the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent legislation and treaties, introduced institutionalized racism in the relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal Peoples that continues to flourish today.”(Henry, Tator, Mattis & Rees: 1995).

As the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism has noted in his Report on Canada:

Because of its history, Canadian society, as in all the countries of North and South America, carries a heavy legacy of racial discrimination, which was the ideological prop of trans-Atlantic slavery and of the colonial system. .. The sacrificial victims of this culture of discrimination since historical times have been the aboriginal peoples and the communities of African and Caribbean origin. … the fact that two communities, which were historically the victims of discrimination, both individually and collectively, are still placed on the lowest rungs of the social, economic, political and cultural ladder, bears witness to the sustained force of discrimination as a major factor in the structure of Canadian society (Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, 2003, p.21).

These experiences are probably not very different in other democracies like Canada, especially in other OECD countries, some of which are noted in the HDR (e..g., not a single member of the lower house of the French and Swiss parliaments belong to minority groups). And yet, racism is not a central category the HDR has chosen to employ in its analysis of cultural liberty, although it recognises many manifestations of racism. While it acknowledges the various symptoms of the problematic, it refuses to acknowledge the salience of the underlying structures that generate those symptoms[2].

Is anything really lost – in speaking of issues and yet not of the phenomena that these issues comprise as a totality? I believe so. As Marilyn Frye, the feminist philosopher explains with her metaphor of the birdcage, if one looks at a cage one wire at a time, then it is not quite clear how it might have the power to imprison a living being. If however, one examines the cage in its entirety, focusing on the specific pattern which connects the wires to make possible the imprisonment, then a different picture emerges. The problem is not simply one of omission. It gives the mistaken impression that the cage is only a simple sum of the wires; and that liberty can be won by removing one wire at a time.

Understanding of social justice
This refusal to take seriously underlying structures and the imperatives that arise from it, derives in turn from a commitment to a distributive paradigm of justice. Following Iris Young, this paradigm could be identified as the distributive paradigm of social justice[3].

The distributive paradigm defines social justice as the morally proper distribution of social benefits and burdens among society’s members. Paramount among these are wealth, income and other material resources. The distributive definition of justice often includes, however, non-material social goods such as rights, opportunity, power and self-respect (Young 1990:16).

The focus on distribution ignores and tends to obscure the underlying structural/institutional context within which those distributions take place; this context “includes any structures or practices, the rules and norms which guide them, and the language and symbols that mediate social interactions within them, in institutions of state, family and civil society, as well as the workplace (Young 1990:22)” This emphasis on patterns of distribution is typical of liberal models of justice, which as Marx pointed “frequently presuppose institutions of private property, wage labor, and credit, when these might come into question for a more critical conception of justice” (Young 2004). Indeed, the precise goal of policy approaches premised on the liberal distributive model is to accommodate political demands within existing structures of property rights, gender relations, divisions of labour and cultural norms.

In the distributive model, inequalities and exclusions can be corrected only by distributing rights and resources within existing social/institutional structures. Here, a first problem is that existing institutions are themselves critical elements of the structures that cause the inequality and exclusion. Second, as many have argued, rights are rather limited as political instruments for correcting such imbalances: “rights are not fruitfully conceived as possessions. Rights are relationships, not things; they are institutionally defined rules specifying what people can do in relation to one another. Rights refer to doing more than having, to social relationships that enable or constrain action. (Young 1990:25). The difference – between rights conceived of a social relations and rights distributed as possessions by an entity such as the government – is quite apparent when we consider the discourse of rights associated with certain social movements like the MST, and the rights generated by multicultural policies in countries such as Canada. For the former, the relationship between land rights and human development is clear; for the latter not at all so.

Understanding of difference/culture
The refusal to take structures fully into account results in a very specific understanding of difference (and culture). In what follows, I wish to draw a distinction between a structural view of difference and culture as opposed to an identity-centric view of difference. Much of this section draws on the work of Iris Young, a critical theorist of difference (2000; 1990).

Consider this opening paragraph of the overview to the Report:

How will the new constitution of Iraq satisfy demands for fair representation for Shiites and Kurds? Which-and how many-of the languages spoken in Afghanistan should the new constitution recognize as the official language of the state? How will the Nigerian federal court deal with a Sharia law ruling to punish adultery by death? Will the French legislature approve the proposal to ban headscarves and other religious symbols in public schools? Do Hispanics in the United States resist assimilation into the mainstream American culture?..Will the peace talks to end the Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka ever conclude? These are just some headlines from the past few months. Managing cultural diversity is one of the central challenges of our time (HDR 2004:1; emphasis mine).

At one level, it is arguable if cultural diversity is the appropriate category here at all; at another level, it is difficult to see how one framework of culture/multiculturalism can be applicable to the entire range of problems mentioned here. It seems a forced commonality is imposed upon this complex set of problems, a commonality which is forged on the basis of a problematic notion of “culture.” This notion of culture refers primarily to differences between groups based on ethnicity, nationality, or religion (Kymlicka 1995).

Central to this view of culture is an identity-centered view of group difference. In this view, social groups are differentiated by unique sets of essential attributes such as ethnicity, nationality, or religion; it is these attributes that constitute group identity (Young 2000:88). It is this attribute-centered view of difference that informs the multiculturalist perspective and is reflected in the issues identified in the Report under living mode exclusion and participation exclusion (see quote above).

In place of this identity-centered notion of difference, Young proposes a relational view of difference. “In a relational conceptualization, what makes a group a group is less some set of attributes its members share than the relations in which it stands to others” (Young 2000:90). In this view, “a social group is a collective of persons differentiated from others by cultural forms, practices, special needs or capacities, structures of power or privilege” (Young 2000:90).

Social groups conceptualised in this relational sense, can be either cultural, or structural. A structural social group is a collection of people who have similar structural locations that similarly condition their opportunities and life-chances, and similarly constrain or enable their ability to act as agents. Structural groups sometimes overlap with cultural groups, as in most structures of racial or ethnicized difference. However, ‘while they are often built upon and intersect with cultural difference, the social relations constituting gender, race, class, sexuality and ability are best understood as structural” (Young 2000: 92).

In this understanding, difference is primarily structural difference; such structural difference generates structural inequality. Structural inequalities cannot be remedied only by giving rights/freedoms/resources to collectivities which possess certain attributes. Rather, correcting structural inequalities require altering the structure itself, and the social relations between structural groups that are embodied by those structures.

In my view, it is structural inequality between different social groups that should be the subject matter of human development. In this sense, the right to education in Spanish for Hispanics in America can fulfil a requirement of multiculturalist politics, but cannot meaningfully advance human development in and of itself. For the latter, one needs to focus on the systemic racism that Hispanics face in America. To address the latter, one has to intervene in the structures through which such racism is sustained. For example, as long as Hispanics immigrate to the US under the conditions that they do, and are forced to seek employment in a productive system that profits from their vulnerabilities, multicultural rights will hardly enhance their well-being. In fact, as many marginalised social groups argue, multiculturalist policies often prempt trajectories of more substantive social change, by obscuring the underlying issues of structural inequality. As we noted above, this tendency is inherent in the model of justice that informs multiculturalist policies.

With respect to India, Muslim authors have repeatedly pointed out, identity-based politics of multiculturalism have functioned as an important barrier to the democratisation of the Muslim community. This in fact the central point of the burgeoning Dalit Muslim movement in India. While inequities within the Indian Muslim community have deepened, the Muslim elite has focused on issues such as Babri masjid, Muslim Personal Law and issues around the Urdu language (Alam 2003), which have little to do with structural inequity faced by the majority of the Muslim community. The politics of Urdu is particularly telling. As Alam points out, the use of urdu in India remains confined largely to a Muslim elite, while the Muslim masses speak mostly languages of the area in which they reside : “a critical observation reveals that it is the upper caste Muslim elite in Hindi heartland, particularly in UP, who champion the cause of Urdu at national level so as to secure access to state grants and aids in the name of Urdu” (Alam, ibid). More recently, Asghar Ali Engineer has warned against an uncritical acceptance of the proposal for reservation for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh. He calls rather for reservation under Mandal Commission categories, which would imply that not only religion but one’s material reality be taken as the primary criteria for reservation (Engineer 2004). As Alam explains, this dependence on identity politics unleashes a vicious cycle between the communalisms of minority and majority communities which do not redress the inequities faced by most Muslims. It provides rather convenient political strategies for majority elites.

Racial minorities in the West share a very similar experience. Multiculturalism often becomes a very convenient tool for both white and non-white elites, where the latter seeks only integration into existing structures, rather than substantive social change (for example, in the relations of production). In Canada, a very interesting example of how disadvantaged social groups demand structural change is seen in the resistance movement waged by the Filipino Canadian women, who migrate to Canada primarily as domestic workers. Their analysis of their situation is not articulated in terms of political/economic exclusion. It is rooted in an analysis of US imperialism, the relationship of the Philippines to this imperialism, racist and patriarchal social relations in Canadian society, and the political and economic crisis in the Philippines.

The point of course is not to argue against multiculturalism or secularism. Multiculturalism will, and does, allow for greater participation of excluded groups. In particular, it is necessary to note that multiculturalism or secularism provide the platforms for raising issues related to minorities. However, while the goal of participation remains a salient one, it can not substitute the broader goal of altering the very nature of the societies in which participation is sought[4]. Participation can be a proximate goal of human development, albeit one that will not go far unless it is embedded in broader vision of structural change. With respect to the former, the evidence for multiculturalism as an appropriate policy tool is at best mixed. With respect to the latter, the evidence is weak, sometimes negative. That multiculturalism continues to be used for formalising unequal social relations engendered by colonialism and contemporary imperialisms, gives us serious reasons to worry.

In analysing the relationship between multiculturalism and human development, then, a different view of culture/identity may be required – one that is based on the specificity of social relations in which human collectivities are entrenched. In the end, this might require a reconceptualisation of human development itself. As I argue elsewhere, a notion of human development relevant to our contemporary context might entail a stronger emphasis on social power. Such a social power perspective does not deny the importance of education or health as a critical component of human development. However, it argues that education must be regarded as a site of struggle for power, rather than as a good or a right to be distributed by benevolent elites. As Leiten has argued, the tremendous success of educational attainment in Kerala has much to do with the broader processed of politicization and social change in which it was embedded (Leiten 2002). Social power, it may be argued, is the focus of many major grassroots mobilisations that we are currently witnessing: the MST, the water wars in Bolivia, Naya Krishi Andolan in Bangladesh etc.

Let me conclude by quoting the following words from the inaugural speech delivered by the Prince of Belgium at the ceremony which launched the Report:

“We in Belgium are the decision-making capital of Europe, which is a laboratory of multiculturalism. But we are ourselves also a country that has tried, and continues to try, to bring together different cultures in one society, having created a federal system that both recognises autonomy and unity”.

Rwanda, even in this 10th Anniversary of the genocide, did not seem to figure in the Prince’s speech. Perhaps another irony of multiculturalism?


Alam, Anwar. “Democratisation of Indian Muslims: Some Reflections”, Economic & Political Weekly, November 15, 2003

Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Unequal Access: A report card on racism (Toronto, 2000.

Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Fact sheet on Legalized Racism (Toronto, 2004).
Engineer, Asghar Ali. “ON RESERVATION FOR MUSLIMS – SHOULD OR SHOULD NOT BE”, Secular Perspective, August 1-15, 2004.

Henry, Frances; Tator, Carol; Mattis, Winston & Rees, Tim. The Colour of Democracy. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Co. Canada, (1995).

Kymlicka, W. Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Lieten G K “Human Development in Kerala: Structure and Agency in History” Economic & Political Weekly, April 20, 2002.

Nussbaum, M. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Sen, A.K. Development As Freedom, (New York: Anchor Books, 1999).

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World (New York:2004).

Young, Iris M. Justice and the Politics of Difference (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990)

Young, Iris M. Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2000)

Young, Iris M. “Taking the Basic Structure Seriously”, forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics, APSA 2004.

August 9, 2004.

[1] For the purposes of this review, I take human development as defined by UNDP (1990). Human development, as distinct from conventional development, puts people at its center. It is concerned primarily with the reduction of human deprivation, the creation of human capability, and unleashing “processes that enlarge people’s choices” (UNDP, Human Development Reports, various years). In this sense, “Human Development has two sides: the formation of human capabilities – such as improved health, knowledge and skills – and the use people make of their newly acquired capabilities – for leisure, productive activities or being active in cultural, political and social affairs” (UNDP, 1990:10). Elsewhere I have argued for an alternative conception of human development, as a reconfiguration of the matrices of social power.

[2] Without going into an extended discussion of structure, let me just briefly mention what I mean by it. I take structure to be an essentially dualistic entity: on the one hand it constitutes the conditions under which actors act, which they confront as actors; on the other hand – structures are also produced by human action. Human action, or agency both changes and reinforces structures. Structures also necessarily have multiple dimensions. These multiple dimensions exist in specific relationships with one another, and the specificity of these relationships and interconnections between the dimensions is what constitutes of structure. These interconnections are historically engendered and ascribe a relative permanence, but not complete immutability, to structures. Most importantly, these interconnections between the mulitple dimensions of structures are not neutral, but are embodiments of the underlying matrices of power.

[3] In Development & Freedom, Sen develops an elaborate critique of the notions of equality based on the real incomes/ commodities and suggests capabilities as the alternative basis for conceptualising equality. The goal of this reconceptualisation is to transcend the narrowness of those models of equality, which concern themselves with the distribution of commodities. However, Sen’s own notion of capability equality, as Sen himself says, remains in the end, committed to the basic Rawlsian concern with distribution: “The focus on basic capabilities can be seen as a natural extension of Rawls’s concern with primary goods, shifting attention from goods to what goods do to human beings” (p 219). In my reading, this “extension” renders the purported transcendence from the distributive model incomplete. Instead of commodities themselves, we now focus on the freedoms generated by goods as commodities. The goal of human development then becomes the guaranteeing of a certain threshold levels of freedoms (and associated levels of commodities). This is exactly what I see the current emphasis on the Millenium Development Goals (MDG)s to signify.

In my reading, this shift of emphasis from commodities to freedoms (or rights, as in Nussbaum) as commodities does not overcome the most salient contradiction of the distributive model. This lies in its refusal to ascribe central analytical importance to structural/institutional contexts and the imperatives generated by them; we see this refusal reflected in the decision to limit the focus of human development to capabilities and not functionings. As Nussbaum states categorically:

Where adult citizens are concerned capabilities and not functionings is the appropriate political goal. It is perfectly true that functionings, not simply capabilities, are what render a life fully human, in the sense that if there were no functioning of any kind of human life, we could hardly applaud it, no matter what opportunities it contained. Nonetheless for political purposes it is appropriate that we shoot for capabilities, and those alone. Citizens must be left free to determine their own course after that (Nussbaum 2000:87).

[4] In Development & Freedom, Sen argues that “Differences in age, gender, special talents, disability, proneness to illness, and so on can make two different persons have quite divergent opportunities of quality of life even when they share exactly the same commodity bundle” (69). The kind of exclusions explored in the Report can be added to this list of factors that do not allow two people with the same commodity bundles to use them similarly. Removing them can therefore erase some of these barriers which prevent people from deriving a similar quality of life from similar commodity bundles. However, the fact that people use their commodity bundles differently cannot preclude the question as to why their commodity bundles are so unequal.