Culture, Development and Political Will

Presentation made by Mr. Mike Van Graan, President of the African Cultural Policy Network (ACPN), during the 4th Meeting of ACP Ministers of Culture on November 10, 2017.

The theme of the session was "How to achieve better integration of culture in all strategies and policies to have a leveraging effect on sustainable development?"



Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you today on the theme Culture, Development and Political Will. My perspectives are informed in part by my serving as the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a Pan-African civil society network of creative practitioners who took it upon themselves to take responsibility for their own lives and livelihoods and which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year; my serving on the Technical Facility of UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions; being part of the leadership team of the African Cultural Policy Network, and working creatively as a playwright.

Two of the key fault-lines in the world are inequality and culture.

Vast structural inequalities in economic, political and military power persist at global and regional levels.  These instruments of “hard power” are employed to pursue and secure national or group interests, through means such as economic aid, military intervention and political sanctions.  Culture is the domain of “soft power”, but no less important in securing interests. For it is through culture that citizens internalise values, ideas and perspectives that support particular interests, hence the emphasis by some on “cultural diplomacy”.  Little wonder too that the United States military has more funding for arts and culture than the National Endowment for the Arts, for after the bombs have wreaked their destruction, the battle for hearts and minds in support of a new order begins.

Whose values and ideas dominate, whose way of life is valorised, which perspectives on world events carry the most influence, which victims of terror are humanised, in other words, whose culture assumes hegemony, depends on who has global or regional reach through news and media outlets, audio visual products and distribution networks, and access to digital platforms.

We heard that 74% of the 9th EDF and 64% of the 10th were spent on the audio-visual sector in ACP regions.  But we also heard that design is the ACP’s chief export, and that the ACP regions have less than 1% share of the global creative economy.  This would mean that our audio-visual industries are simply not players in projecting ACP stories, values and perspectives into the global market of ideas.  We export under $1 billion worth of creative goods and import 150% more; we should be concerned about the economic trade deficit but equally about our citizens consuming products from abroad, internalising the values, the ideas and ideological constructs embedded within these. 

The 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions sought to address this, to create more equitable trade in creative goods and services between North and South by – among other things - providing preferential access to Global North markets for goods from the Global South, and establishing the International Fund for Cultural Diversity.  Africa has been the primary beneficiary of the IFCD, with 46% of the total funding going to African projects; in real terms though, this is less than $5m for over more ten years, the IFCD has attracted contributions of less than $9 million, not even the marketing budget of one Hollywood movie.

In addition to inequalities in the means of economic, military, political and cultural power, people have different value systems, different traditions and histories, different religious beliefs, different languages, in short, different cultures.  Conflicts rooted in inequality are often fuelled or given further texture by culture, by different belief and value systems. While advocates for the cultural dimension of development emphasise the positive contributions of culture to development, as we heard from our Chairperson yesterday, we need to take the negative impacts of culture on development just as seriously.

Besides military costs, the 2016 costs for Nigeria to respond to humanitarian needs as a result of Boko Haram’s insurgency was $2,6 billion; the estimated contribution of Nigeria’s film industry, the second largest in the world, is $600 million per year.  On the one hand, creative and cultural industries contribute to economic growth; on the other, conflicts with a cultural dimension consume greater resources.

Trump’s ban on immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries was a cultural response to problems rooted in inequality.  The rise of nationalism in Europe is a culturally chauvinist response to a perceived threat to their identity, their way of life, their cultural values by an influx of refugees.  And so, while the language of cultural diversity informed cultural policy 10-15 years ago, there is a move towards cultural homogeneity in the Global North, a desire to spread  “values” to counter terror, with consequences for the role of culture in international relations, cultural policies and funding.

Development, like culture, is not neutral.  Development itself is an act of culture, for it is based on values, ideas and ideological assumptions implying that a community, a country is need of ‘development’.  Development and culture co-exist in a dynamic and creative tension, with each informing and shaping the other; if culture refers to the totality of our way of life, then rather than the cultural dimension of development, it might be more appropriate to speak of the development dimension of culture. 

It is because of its transversal nature that some have argued for culture to be recognised as the fourth pillar of sustainable development, along with economic growth, social inclusion and ecological conservation.  But whereas adverse ecological impacts of development are now mitigated through environmental impact studies, since the dialectic between culture and other sectors of society is still not understood by those who make the primary political decisions, studies are seldom commissioned to determine the potential impact of development on culture, or conversely, the impact of the culture of development’s intended beneficiaries on development outcomes.

Ministries for arts and culture are ministries responsible for the arts and heritage at best; if they were ministries responsible for culture too, there would be a culture desk in every other ministry to determine and monitor the mutual impact of culture on the core competencies of those ministries, with Ministers of Culture carrying far more political weight than is currently the case.

In the current scenario, the arts sector is obliged to prove their worth through their economic contribution, despite the largely discredited idea that economic growth necessarily leads to social and human and human development.  Ten African countries with the highest economic growth rates for the last number of years, all remain in the lowest category of the Human Development Index that measures well-being in terms of life expectancy, education and income.  We heard that South Africa accounts for more than 50% of the ACP’s export of creative goods; it has had a Cultural Industries Growth Strategy since 1998, yet recent official figures indicate that 55% of South Africans live in poverty, a rise since 2011.  There is also an unemployment rate of 26%, with youth making up 70% of the jobless. What these statistics reveal is that there is no guarantee that economic growth - or that the contribution of CCIs to economic growth - will necessarily lead to poverty reduction and job creation.  We should be careful of burdening the creative sector with expectations that other, more robust, economic sectors have been unable to fulfil. 

Creative industries require markets with disposable income to be sustainable, so that would exclude millions of poor people who do not have such disposable income.  This is ironic as the policy focus on creative industries is to benefit the poor.  People who are poor still demand access to creative goods which leads to piracy and more affordable creative goods, but then at the expense of intellectual property regimes.

Against this very cursory overview, there is the need for political will to:

  1. engage with cultural policies that are relevant to our conditions and not simply import ideas and practices that work in more-resourced conditions   
  2. engage with Global North partners to hold them accountable for the commitments made in international protocols and to ensure that they determine their policies that affect us, in consultation with us, without fearing that this may prejudice our funding
  3. to engage with cabinet colleagues to undertake cultural impact studies that would mitigate negative impacts of their developmental work and
  4. to engage with Civil Society actors in our countries for they have expertise, knowledge and networks that would serve development.

We created the African Cultural Policy Network to interrogate international cultural policy themes and to ensure that African civil society has a voice in relevant international forums.  This year, global civil society is to present its first report to the Intergovernmental Committee on how they have engaged with the 2005 Convention.  A report has been prepared but mainly by Global North colleagues – with input from the Caribbean, Pacific, the Arab region, large parts of Asia, Latin and Central America, largely missing.  As the ACPN, we were able to deliver an African perspective report to UNESCO.  Civil society in the ACP regions needs their political partners, both locally and in international forums.

In conclusion, so that this is not just another talk-shop, there seems to be common agreement on the needs for capacity-building in entrepreneurship and management; in innovative resource mobilisation; in formulating appropriate cultural policies; in undertaking economic and cultural impact studies; in documenting and sharing best practices; in regional and international market development, etc.  Cuba offered to build capacity; perhaps that should be the initial model, with one ACP country taking responsibility for piloting practical programmes to address each of these needs, and then this being replicated in other regions and countries over time.

As we have heard from presentations over the last few day, we have skills, we have capacity, we have resources within the ACP: what we need is vision, leadership and political will. 

And then we could change our own worlds!


Mike van Graan

President: African Cultural Policy Network


Mobile: +27829003349

December 13, 2017
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