The Cultural Weapon 23 Feb 2011

The Cultural Weapon

Mike van Graan

In the last few years, there has been much talk, conferencing, seminars, papers about and celebration of the mantra that “culture is a vector of development”.  For example, in Brussels in 2009, the European Union together with the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) Secretariat hosted an international conference on this theme.  This was followed up with another conference in Girona in May 2010 reinforcing the same theme.  Then at the end of last year, with global leaders meeting to evaluate progress made towards the achievement of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, a resolution was passed at the United Nations that emphasised “the important contribution of culture for sustainable development and the achievement of national development objectives and internationally agreed development goals including the Millennium Development Goals”.

It is ironic that culture is now seen as a vector of development when in the post-colonial era, culture was viewed as the chief obstacle to development.  One development theorist summarised this view thus:

Basically…so-called traditional societies…are underdeveloped because of a lack of important propellants of development, including a work ethic, morals, innovative and entrepreneurial capacity, free market mechanisms, a propensity for taking risks and organisational acumen.  The absence of these factors, according to the theory, is itself a function of flaws in the culture, customs and social mores of traditional societies.  Particularly noteworthy in this latter respect is the fact that the theory considers the leading cause of underdevelopment in so-called traditional societies as the fact that such societies tend to place a lot of emphasis on kinship and family rather than on individual success and little or no emphasis on sophisticated technology and the acquisition of material wealth.

Those subscribing to this theory concluded that it was impossible for Africa to develop without abandoning its traditional practices and assuming Eurocentric cultural values, beliefs and ideology.

The implications were that Africans should banish notions of kinship and family in favour of individual success and individual pursuit of wealth, adopt the morals associated with these and become more entrepreneurial in their orientation.

The more progressive view that emerged at this time was that development strategies – to be effective – had to respect and take cognisance of the worldviews, values and social forms of organisation – i.e. the culture – of the supposed beneficiaries of development, and not simply impose models that worked in other contexts, onto such communities.  This was the background against which the notion of “culture as an integral factor of development” was initially born in the sixties.

I am not sure that this historically progressive view is what is meant in contemporary times by proponents of “culture as a vector of development”.  The latter implies a more active contribution by culture to development so that mostly, this mantra (culture as a vector of development) nowadays refers to the creative industries, and more specifically, to those areas of artistic activity that potentially create jobs, generate income and contribute to the tax base.  With the growth and economic contribution of the creative industries in industrialised economies over the last thirty years, there is the belief that – with Africa’s share of the global creative economy standing at less than 1% – there is huge potential to develop Africa’s creative industries and in the process, contribute to economic growth, raise people out of poverty and help to realise the Millennium Development Goals that resonate so pertinently with African conditions.

There is such momentum behind (and resources attached to) “culture as a vector of development” at the moment, and anything that helps to make the case for the arts in some way should be welcomed, surely?  And yet, there are disquieting questions.  Like, are creative industries really sustainable in Africa where most people live on less than $2 per day?  Is there the disposable income to grow the creative industries in Africa on the same scale as in the global north, or is this again – ironically – yet another model that works elsewhere but is inappropriate to much of the African context?

Another, more important question is, even if the creative industries do contribute substantially to economic growth, is that a guarantee that they will contribute to development on the continent?  The problem here has not been, and is not with economic growth.  The African continent has seen substantial and consistent economic growth in many countries since the 1990s, given the demand for oil, coal and other natural resources to be found in abundance here.  The major problem has been the maldistribution of the generated wealth with the repeated pattern of an elite becoming extremely rich and the masses of people increasingly poor, a pattern common to Angola, Egypt, Gabon, Tunisia, Mozambique and indeed, South Africa.

At a forum hosted by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation which monitors and rewards good governance in Africa in November last year, the question was raised “why is Africa poor in spite of having plenty of resources?” and the answer articulated by Ibrahim himself was “poor governance and the lack of leadership”.  Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of the former South African President, writes in his book, Architects of Poverty:

Half a century after its liberation from colonialism, Africa has dropped so far down the development scale that (they) can only get out of this hole they have dug for themselves through intervention by the rest of the world; what has gone wrong has been the massive mismanagement by Africa’s ruling political elites, with the help of Western powers, of the economic surplus generated in Africa in the past 40 years.

The third troubling question that arises from culture – or the creative industries – as a vector of development is that with the concentration on those creative industries that more obviously contribute to economic growth (contemporary music, publishing, film and television, cultural tourism), the arts generally lose value in their own right and are deemed important only if they have value in the marketplace.  Thus, the broader role of the arts for human enjoyment, catharsis, intellectual stimulation, and emotional engagement is potentially compromised by the emphasis on their capacity to generate income so that the fundamental human right “everyone shall have the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts” has come to have the additional small print “but only for those who can afford it”.

A final question has to do not so much with culture as a vector of development, but rather with development as a vector of culture.  Development – however it is understood or practiced and particularly within a neo-liberal economic paradigm with the emphasis on profitability, free trade, competition, maximisation of individual wealth – is both an act of culture as it is premised on particular worldviews, values and ideological assumptions, and it acts on culture, particularly on the culture of the supposed beneficiaries of development, rupturing or reshaping local beliefs, customs, moral values, worldviews, behaviour, social forms of organisation, etc.  We do not have to look very far to see how former anti-apartheid struggle heroes of the people have had their values, worldviews and ideology radically altered to pursue their own individual interests, even at the expense of “the people” they once were part of.

All of which brings one to the question of how to define “development”?  Recent history – including the popular revolutions taking place in North Africa and the Arab world  – shows that development cannot simply be about economic growth, or about “culture as a vector of development” in narrow economist terms, but rather needs to integrate human, social, economic and political development. 

Which is why I like Arterial Network’s definition of development as “the ongoing generation and application of financial, human and other resources to create the optimal political, economic and social conditions in which human beings enjoy the full range of human rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

These rights and freedoms include: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; No-one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state; Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression;  Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of herself and her family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control, and, significantly, Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realised.

“Development” is not neutral; it is premised on ideological assumptions, worldviews, values, beliefs and it serves particular interests.  “Culture as a vector of development” then cannot be neutral either.  The creative sector thus needs to be fully engaged in defining and giving practical content both to development and to the role that culture and the arts play in development.  To do otherwise, is to allow those with narrow interests to use the arts to serve their selfish agenda.

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent.  He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector.  He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

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About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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One Response to The Cultural Weapon 23 Feb 2011

  1. Thanks Mike, I also much prefer development as a vector for culture…

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