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Universality, Uniformity and Speciaficity   

A View from a Developming Country


In the aftermath of the Second World War, most of the colonies of Western powers in Asia and Africa, and later in Latin America, gained independence and the primary goal of all these newly emerging states was taken to be ‘development’. The model of development was already there, arrived at by the wisdom and experience of centuries, which the former colonizers were now offering us on a silver platter. There was hardly any doubt that they knew better than all of us. Since the days of the European renaissance they had developed a view of life, a code of values which they claimed, and we all agreed, were universal. This was also true of their development strategies. After all, they were at the centre of earth while we were at the periphery. And since they had formulated so many universal laws — from the law of gravitation to the law of the seas — they were bound to be correct.

Unfortunately, these development efforts did not take us from the world of want to the realm of freedom. We have gradually realized over a period of time that the development strategies in most Third World countries have made us a little more dependent on the West, while at home the masses of the people have not been able either to improve their quality of life or to develop their own potentials. Within our national formations, some gains were, perhaps, made somewhere which only made the plight of the common people, the bulk of whom live in the rural areas, stand out more sharply than ever.

One wonders now, what did we aim at? We wanted to follow the very same path that the West had taken, without taking into consideration their peculiarities and experience, and expected to reach the same goal. We thought that economic growth was the same as improvement in the overall quality of human life and we did not take into consideration the question of the distribution of wealth at home. Now that it has dawned on us that such assumptions were unfounded, we are trying to re-examine the conventional wisdom.

One thing that suggests itself is that the solution of the developmental problems in the Third World does not depend on technical skill alone. We have got to understand clearly the causal relationship among the social, cultural, economic and political factors that determine the very nature of the problems. We have got to understand ourselves and we have to have a closer look at our own experience, evaluate the successes and failures of the past and comprehend not only the structure of each of our given national formations but also the characteristics of their superstructure. This is where one could recognize the interface of development and culture.

Does it mean that we should be thinking in terms of development in isolation in a world which is increasingly getting interdependent? Does it mean that we must separate ourselves from the achievements of human endeavours of thousands of years? Do we have to remake the wheel? Does being conscious of the indigenous creativity necessarily leads to the rejection of all things exogenous? Does it mean that we will take retrograde steps and return to where our forefathers started from? Does it mean that while the world marches forward we close our eyes and cling to obsolete ideas, technologies or ideologies?

Certainly not. This sort of apprehension, however, springs out from our own experiences. In the 1960s, when Pakistan was reeling under military dictatorship, her rulers used to tell very often that the democracy of the Westminster type did not suit the genius of our people. They came out with the perfect solution to suit the genius of our people — an elixir called the Basic Democracy. Such endogenous products as Basic Democracy, Guided Democracy and Controlled Democracy, which did not have any quantum of democracy at all, succeeded only in shaking our belief in innovating any system of government for ourselves and finally led to the school or thought that we are not suited for democracy.

In Bangladesh we had lost all faith in the general elections in the 1980s because of malpractice and massive rigging, but this faith was restored by the administration of the interim government in 1990-91 which conducted a fair and free general election which could have been a model anywhere anytime.

But I have digressed, I was trying to say that when we talk of taking into consideration our historical development, cultural distinctiveness and traditional values, we are aware that such assertions may be misconstrued as an attempt to take us backward while, in fact, we are trying to post these questions so that we do not blindly replicate. We do not say this from any spirit of chauvinism but it has now become apparent that uncritical invitation, devoid of indigenous creativity, cannot deliver the goods.

Whatever the West had produced in the last five hundred years has been seen as universal, and later as modern, as the thing to emulate. When the West succeeded in colonizing to the extent of boasting that the sun does not set in the British empire, it also succeeded in convincing all and sundry that their world-view was not only the dominant one but also the only universal one. Other world-views were seen through the Western eyes as traditional as opposed to the modern and thus obsolete. This dichotomy between the modern and the traditional had a direct impact on considerations of development strategies. We could not see through that the West used to divide the world into ‘I’ and ‘you’ and this was reflected in their formulation of the typified West-East, oriental-occidental, modern-traditional dichotomy, where the West always emerges as the superior, as the holder of all knowledge. Now, in the last three decades, this aggreeable division has been challenged. We can see, for instance, that what is termed as modern is an ethnocentric view developed in the West at a given period of time. If we try to find out what modern is, we will first be told that it is a matter of, or it pertains to, the present and recent time — in particular the historical period following the Middle Ages. Not only is this explanation dependent on the precise definition of the Middle Ages and determination of the time of their close, but also it tends to put all tendencies — often contradictory ones — appearing in the last five years in the same basket. One of the characteristics of modernity has been identified as the development of a secular and rational outlook, but such outlook is known to have existed before the advent of the ‘modern’ period. Symptoms of modernity have been seen in the emergence of certain political systems, whereas it has been generally acknowledged that many historically ‘traditional’ political systems, in fact, had typologically modern structure, attributes and orientations. Modernity has been equated with economic growth without any reference to the question of distribution of wealth, and with the application of scientific and technological knowledge without any consideration for the utility of the products of such knowledge for the collective good.

Modernization, again, has been defined as ‘the current term for an old process — the process of social change whereby less developed societies acquire characteristics common to more developed societies’. This is a definition heavily loaded in favour of the cultural dimension of the Western world and this is where modernization and development become synonymous with Westernization.

On the other hand one should not only see traditional values in the rejection of things modern or in their divisive forces, but also appreciate that these carry within themselves a spirit of liberal humanism and religious toleration as also a spirit, a revolt against unjust social systems.

Similarly, universalism has mostly been seen as a monopoly of the West. One often ignores the fact that universalism does not have a particular locus and that a number of universal thoughts had developed outside the Western world. To take a comparatively recent example, Rabindranath Tagore, the poet, had time and again in the present century appealed to the Western world and also to Japan to refrain from inculcating nationalism which was causing wars and human misery. His message of universalism fell flat because the powers of the day found it convenient to pursue the course they were following rather than pay heed to a poet’s message.

If universalism has a particular locus, it ceases to be universal. If it does not have one, if it be a product of the human mind, then we should look for and find it in all nook and corners. As in the name of development and modernity, what we often do in the name of universality is to see that all cultural or national entities give up their specific characters and become uniform. For instance, we are asked to adopt the Western technocentric path of development. One often forgets that one-third of the countries of the world, having less than a third of world population, possess practically 97 per cent of the world science. The multi-national corporations’ monopoly prevents small nations from reaping the benefit of the scientific knowledge which should be considered not only universal but also a common inheritance of man anywhere. On the other hand, the capability of underdeveloped nations of making use of the scientific knowledge is limited, as also seems to be their will to do so. But that is another aspect of the problem.

The fact remains that, in the name of universality, we tend to apply uniform norms, categories, institutions or ideology to the reality of the South, without taking into account its objective conditions and historical specificity. Unless we allow specificity to develop, endogenous creativity to flower, we shall never achieve anything substantial by replication. That will only perpetuate not only our economic dependence, but also our intellectual dependence on our former colonizers.

We do not want to get back into the past nor do we want development in isolation. We fully appreciate the need for cooperation and interdependence; we believe that knowledge should not have any borders or barriers. But, we also want to be ourselves, and not somebody else. Civilization, cultures and nations are like woven circles. We belong to one circle, then a larger circle and then the largest circle of humanity. Ours is not only one identity but many, the foremost being that we are human beings. We must fulfil our destiny as man — drawing from and contributing to the pool of human achievements. But we must do so from our own area. We would like to be universal, but not uniform; we would like to develop our specificity without restricting ourselves to narrow fields or ideas. We believe that our specificity will carry within itself what will be seen as universal. As it takes all sorts of people to make the humankind, the sum total of the specifics will be the results of human achievements. Diversity and specificity will make unity and universality meaningful. Diversity does not mean contradictions but a source for streams to follow from and converge. Many years ago this was expressed simply in three words: unity in diversity.


The paper is based on an earlier publication, Anisuzzaman and Anouar Abdel-Malek (eds.), Culture and Thought, Vol. 3 of the United Nations University Series, "The Transformation of the World" (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1983).

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