Efforts to protect local culture from the homogenizing effects of globalization are often intertwined with other, sometimes questionable, motives, including economic protectionism and the political suppression of ideas. Because the topic of culture can, almost by definition, encompass almost every human endeavor, it is often difficult to draw lines around what are legitimate cultural activities, worthy of special protective measures.

Think back on some of the efforts discussed in this Issue in Depth that were undertaken in the name of protecting local culture from globalization:

* the Canadian magazine dispute
* an exemption for whaling
* protecting the “multifunctionality” of family farms
* asserting “Asian values”

As you can see, these are not the subjects of traditional trade negotiations. Many of these disputes are likely to intensify in the future, and they are likely to become increasingly important political issues.

Consequently, many political leaders and community activists are increasingly seeing the need for the development of a more systematic way to address these sensitive issues. In the same way that many critics of globalization have called for increased attention to the link between labor standards and trade via the International Labor Organization, or for the creation of a Global Environmental Organization (Esty) to address international environmental issues, some globalization critics have called for the creation of new institutions to deal with cultural issues.

Many organizations and groups have been formed at the local, national, and international level that aim to promote the protection of traditional cultures. Some aim to study the matter more deeply so that we may understand more clearly the implications of globalization on culture, and others are already taking on advocacy roles.

Globalization critic Jeremy Rifkin has suggested there may be a need to establish a World Cultural Organization to help represent diverse cultures and put cultural protection on an equal footing with the WTO (Rifkin, 2001).

Another group, the International Network for Cultural Diversity, has made a similar argument for an institution to ensure that culture is be protected.  Their campaigns include protecting cultures in the Southern Hemisphere and using international legal instruments to protect culture (INCD, 2003). The INCD has proposed that:

1. Governments must not enter into any agreements that constrain local cultures and the policies that support them.
2. A new international agreement should be created, which can provide a permanent legal foundation for cultural diversity.

An informal group of governments that has already been created to try to find solutions to cultural questions is the International Network on Cultural Policy (INCP).  The INCP’s goals include: developing an international approach to cultural issues, protecting cultures endangered by globalization, and raising awareness of the importance of culture (INCP, 2012). The INCP is an international forum through which representatives of member countries can exchange views on emerging cultural policy issues. One of the ways in which the INCP seeks to strengthen cultures is by advocating more cultural exceptions to the global trade rules of the WTO. Forty-five countries are members of the INCP, including Canada, France, China, and the United Kingdom, but not the United States.

In the coming years, efforts to protect traditional cultures are likely to play an increasingly prominent role in new trade agreements and within international cooperative ventures. Indeed, a “global” effort to protect local cultures from “globalization” would be a somewhat ironic development. But increasingly, local activists are trying to learn how to harness new worldwide forces to cope with the impact of international trends that have cultural effects.


Next: Local Perspectives