Kosko, Stacy J. (2017). 'Cultural Freedom, Capabilities, and Human Rights' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The theme of this year’s conference—“Challenging Inequalities”—rightly recognizes that “economic inequality is bad for political equality and political freedoms,” important conditions for human security and “the building of decent and inclusive societies.” But of course, one of the most powerful contributions of the capability approach to development thinking is the insight that inequalities take many forms, of which economic inequality is only one. Other morally important inequalities—for example related to gender, ethno-cultural identity, religion, age, and sexual-orientation—both contribute to and are worsened by economic inequality.

We are facing, as the conference organizers describe it, “an increasingly globalized world where people’s circumstances and values are vastly different and in which inequality is rising within and across countries.” At a time of rising intercommunal tensions in many places of the world, including Western Europe and the United States, and a growing us-versus-them rhetoric among political leaders, it is not surprising that non-dominant ethnic and religious groups feel that their cultures, languages, religions, livelihoods, and even lives are increasingly under threat. Efforts to counter this trend are often couched in human rights terms, and only occasionally in capability terms. Calls to respect, protect, and promote such diversity are underpinned by what development ethicists and philosophers of multiculturalism sometimes call “cultural freedom.”

This panel examines both the normative force of cultural freedom and its implications for capability promotion and human rights. In the first paper, Kosko lays the groundwork by canvassing several of the most prominent current debates about the relationship between cultural freedom and human rights. She then details the response most closely associated with development ethics and the capability approach: the "cultural liberty" model, developed by Amartya Sen and Will Kymlicka and first promoted in Sakiko Fukuda-Parr’s 2004 UN Human Development Report. Kosko then explores its compatibility with the seven values of worthwhile human development proposed by Penz, Drydyk, and Bose (2011).

But what do we know of how cultural liberty plays out in practice? Can promoting cultural freedom, for example through Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE) for indigenous children in Peru’s Amazon, promote the development of valuable capabilities while protecting the human right to education in one’s native language? In the second paper, Espinal takes up this question directly. Using participatory qualitative research methods, she investigates how the IBE curriculum and teachers’ practices promote capabilities, and identifies those capabilities that teachers and children most value. Her findings suggest important synergies between promoting capabilities and protecting human rights, using cultural freedom—as explored through the right to education in the Amazon of Peru—as a test case.

Finally, Peter M. Dijkstra takes up the relationship between human rights and capabilities by examining the role of cultural freedom in professional social work. In doing so, he offers a novel framework that allows evaluators to triangulate from three positions—human rights, capabilities and professional competencies—rather than from human rights and capabilities alone, in a dialectic, as is often done. Dijkstra demonstrates, using the example of cultural freedom in social work, how each point of the triangle has its own concepts, goals and responsibilities, and how each complements and reinforces the other.

Together, these three papers offer 1) an overview of cultural freedom and a normative test of the ability of the cultural liberty variant to promote worthwhile human development, 2) an empirical analysis of the ability of intercultural bilingual education to promote capabilities and protect the human right to education and cultural freedom, and 3) a new framework for thinking about the complementary roles of capabilities, human rights, and professional competencies, using cultural freedom in social work as a lens.

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