Quotes on Culture and Culturally Sensitive Approaches

Resource date: 2004

Thoughts from the international community

"Culture is the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterizes a society or a group. It includes creative expressions, community practices and material or built forms."

—from Our Creative Diversity: The UN World Commisssion on Culture and Development Report

"The relationship between culture and development should be clarified and deepened in constructive and practical ways."

—from Our Creative Diversity: The UN World Commisssionon on Culture and Development Report

"The Programme of Action will require the establishment of common ground, with full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds."

—International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action, para 1.15

"Tolerance, inter-cultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where peoples are becoming more and more closely interconnected."

—Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

"People of different religions and cultures live side by side in almost every part of the world, and most of us have overlapping identities which unite us with very different groups. We can love what we are, without hating what – and who – we are not. We can thrive in our own tradition, even as we learn from others, and come to respect their teachings."

—Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

"In this time of globalization, with all its advantages, the poor are the most vulnerable to having their traditions, relationships and knowledge and skills ignored and denigrated, and experiencing development with a great sense of trauma, loss and social disconnectedness."

—James D. Wolfensohn, World Bank President

UNFPA on culture

"What culture worth the name would deny women the right to safe motherhood? What value system would send young people ignorant into the world, when a little knowledge might save their lives?"

—Dr. Nafis Sadik, former UNFPA Executive Director

"There are no sensitive issues in reproductive health, but there are insensitive approaches to reproductive health issues."

—Mona Khalifa, Assistant Representative-UNFPA Egypt Office

"I believe that strong and vibrant cultures themselves nurture tolerance and justice. All cultures worth the name protect support and encourage diversity; and justice is the practical mechanism which enables them to do so.

Tolerance and justice are not merely morally desirable ends, but tools which underpin society and enable it to function. In other words, tolerance and justice are not abstract concepts but expressions of culture in practice.

It follows that each society will express the values of tolerance and justice in a different way: for example, systems of administering justice differ very widely. But that does not mean the values themselves are incompatible from one society to another."

—Dr. Nafis Sadik, former UNFPA Executive Director

"[W]e are reviewing our experience to enable us to respond to the cultural challenge: to help countries, communities and individuals interpret universal principles, translate them into culturally sensitive terms and design programmes based on them, programmes that people can really feel are their own."

—Thoraya A. Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director

"The challenge for UNFPA is to help countries as we always have with no agenda of our own; with sensitivity towards unique cultural values; with an infinite willingness to work with whatever is positive; and with a determination to help countries and people turn universal principles into concrete action."

—Thoraya A. Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director

"We also know that the various faith-based institutions provide about 50 per cent of the health and education services in the poor communities; we also know that they have a large constituency including women and youth; they have outreach and networks and they are credible to their people. If we want to achieve the Millennium Development Foals by scaling up the responses of all the communities, do we ignore this large investment in people? Or do we engage in dialogue and in action?"

—Thoraya A. Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director

"My experience has shown that when you deal with culturally sensitive issues, you have no choice but to be as careful and as patient as possible. Every concern should be addressed properly. Otherwise, greater problems emerge at later times, when nothing can be done."

—Mrs. Farzaneh Davari, UNFPA National Project Director, Iran

"We did not foresee the Mufti of Uganda coming and opening a reproductive health workshop. We were overwhelmed by this gesture. It does not happen everyday to have religious leaders discuss sexuality and its outcome openly. Even his mere attendance would have meant a great deal."

—UNFPA Programme Officer, Uganda

Quotes from the UNFPA Global Forum on Partnering with Faith-based Organizations

"It is not HIV that is killing us, it is the stigma attached to it."

—Fagmeeda Miller, Positive Muslims, South Africa

"Iran’s experience shows that when religious scholars and UNFPA work together to solve reproductive health issues, there can be excellent results."

—Hossein Malek Afzali, Public Health Research Institute, Tehran University of Medical Sciences

"Through gender-justice programming, we have created transformative spaces, safe spaces, grace spaces…Women have moved from being bearers of stereotypes to bearers    of human rights."

—Judith Van Osdol, Religions for Peace, Latin America

"UNFPA has stepped up to the mark in providing human, logistical, and material resources to address Reproductive Health issues.  Our combined work and shared agenda with UNFPA has strengthened our ability to reach into our local communities."

—Judith Van Osdol, Religions for Peace, Latin America

"Religious Leaders act as bridges between the grassroots and the organizational level of UNFPA.  If you access this bridge, you will be able to access the heart of the people you want to reach."

—Sheikh Mohamed Gemea, Al Azhar University, Egypt

"The AIDS pandemic does not make any distinction between secularism and religion. Therefore, we [religious leaders] have to work on more than one level also!  We have to engage not only with religious beliefs, but also with the secular development work of UNFPA."

—Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, Grand Judge of Islamic Courts, Palestinian Authority

"We brought the religious leaders and the secular development workers together in one room.  We asked the religious leaders what are your reservations about development workers?  And we asked the development workers, what are your reservations about religious leaders? It turns out that most of the problems are not really problems at all, but rather misunderstandings, misconceptions, and mis-communications."

—Moulana Abul Kalam Azad, Masjid Council for Community Advancement, Bangladesh

"UNFPA is taking initiatives to create both spiritual and structural opportunities, and spaces for the advancement of women all around the world."

—Fulya Vekiloglu, Baha International Community

"After the tsunami, material items were not the only things that people needed.  They also needed help to recover their minds.  Therefore, we need to have a holistic approach to humanitarian disasters, and this is why faith-based organizations and UNFPA can and must work together in the response."

—Asanga Tilakaratne, Damrivi Foundation, Sri Lanka

"Humanity is waiting for us.  Not to hear about our actions, but to see our actions."

—Hany El Banna, World Humanitarian Forum, United Kingdom

"Having faith is not enough.  When issues like HIV and AIDS knock on our door, we must respond, but we cannot only respond with faith.  We must respond with knowledge, and with action."

—Pastor Pax Tan, CARE, Malaysia

"UNFPA meetings have enriched us in many ways.  We have shared knowledge and exchanges success stories to take back home.  Through a network we become bolder to push the boundaries, because we say to each other, ‘come on, you can do it."

—Pastor Pax Tan, Malaysia

"We must make sure that our faith is not only one that people hear or read about, but one that they can see, experience, feel, and touch."

—Pastor Pax Tan, Malaysia

"All the Holy Books say that faith is nothing without action.  And to engage in action, we have to engage with all our fellow human beings."

—Father Paolous Serour, Coptic Church, Egypt

Additional perspectives

"Culture is a matrix of infinite possibilities and choices. From within the same culture matrix we can extract arguments and strategies for the degradation and ennoblement of our species, for its enslavement or liberation, for the suppression of its productive potential or its enhancement."

—Wole Sovinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate

"It is one thing to believe and practice our faith, it is another thing to really go down to the ground and see how our faith can be translated into use for people who are asking for help."

—Pastor Pax Tan Chiow Lian, Prison Drugs and AIDS, Malaysian Care