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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


Ethnic Diversity and Public Policy
Crawford Young (ed.)

London: Macmillan Press, in association with UNRISD
ISBN 0-333-65389-0



In 1995 the United Nations organised a World Conference on Social Development. As part of the preparations for the conference the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) organised a series of programmes on the theme of social integration. One of the programme themes focused on policy knowledge and experience related to the accommodation of ethnic diversity and this, in turn, comprised two elements. The first was a series of papers focusing on broad policy and theoretical concerns across a range of specific areas. The second involved a series of detailed country case studies of policy for dealing with ethnic diversity. The papers on each element have been published in two books. The first of these is the present volume under review, while the second was published in 1999. The chapters in the first volume cover a range of policy areas and can broadly be divided into two sections. Three chapters focus on aspects of government policy, including decentralisation, electoral systems and education, while three other chapters focus on action towards specific groups, including indigenous peoples, immigrant minorities and disadvantaged ethnic groups. An overview chapter is provided by the editor, Crawford Young. For the present we will concentrate on the first set of chapters. Yash Ghai examines policies of political decentralisation, a strategy which he describes as 'a balance between those who want a tight, unitary system of government and those who may prefer separation' (p67). In a related theme Kingsley de Silva considers alternative forms of electoral systems. An important dimension of his argument is that no specific electoral arrangement guarantees ethnic harmony unless it is also accompanied by a democratic ethos. The corollary, of course, is that some electoral systems promote zero-sum thinking and heighten tensions. Jagish Gundra and Crispin Jones focus on education and highlight an important conundrum. Whereas the traditional role of mass schooling has been to promote national unity by highlighting homogeneity, the reality of modern states is better represented by ethnic diversity. However, they question the extent to which education systems have taken on board the need to reflect plurality and complexity, in part because of the resistance of those who would eschew the relativism of some postmodernist arguments in the fear that they would negate any direction or purpose for schools. Nevertheless, they argue, dealing with complexity and plurality remains a crucial task for education and may represent a fundamental test of the ability of states to accommodate ethnic diversity. The decision by UNRISD to focus on ethnic diversity proved to be timely as the importance of this issue to the global agenda increased as the 20th century came to a close. The book offers a number of general lessons that, no doubt, will maintain their significance as we enter the 21st century. Not the least of these lessons is the need for 'patience and perseverence' (p27) in a policy area that is often complicated by deep-seated emotions. One might add to this the firm conviction that working towards the accommodation of ethnic diversity is both necessary and possible if our new century is to be less bloody than the last.


Prof. Tony Gallagher, the Queen's University of Belfast



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