Last, but not least: Culture in the spotlight of development agencies


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      Our panel ‘Culture in the Spotlight: Innovative Approaches to Sustainable Development’ at the 2015 European Development Days in June was a truly exciting moment. After years of dismissal from too many development and foreign affairs professionals, the EU finally seems to be taking culture seriously. A new communication on culture in external relations is being “cooked” in the EU’s internal kitchens. DEVCO will continue to support cultural activities, yet what is really needed now is more practice and concrete experiments to inform effective action. The good thing about our gathering at EDD15 was the way in which we discussed development - innovative and trendy, in partnership with those who walk the talk, those who have the know-how and those who hold the purse strings. We did not complain about culture being under-looked, underfunded or ignored. We shared stories about how culture works as development, for development and with development professionals. A short live show by a group of theatre performers from the Solomon Islands opened the debate. They sang in front of an audience who were expecting the ordinary – if not boring - panel discussion. The stage work allowed our partners to open up the space for a discussion on violence against women - still a taboo in local Solomon communities - and to find solutions by empowering women. Studies argue that the growth of creative and cultural industries is good for GDPEvidence of the contribution that culture can bring to sustainable development is increasing - in terms of the economic revenue of creative and cultural industries but also, more subtly, by the empowerment of youth and marginalised communities. In fact ‘Gross Domestic Product’ alone is not a measure of development. This is well known, as the Human Development Index tells us.

      The culture-development nexus

      There is substantive evidence of successful cultural initiatives in developing countries, as panelists, participants and the literature tell us. Have you ever watched the news where the presenter announces a sensitive news story by rapping? Elsebeth Krogh from the Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU) showed us just this, an example of cultural means promoting more engagement with youth through media. When you hear Alma Salem from Syria discussing her cultural work in Beirut you understand why culture is a cross-cutting dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals. Creative processes are at the heart of development. This is the culture-development nexus. Then, if you also hear Sandro De Luca of the International Committee for the Development of Peoples, you will agree with both of them that not having culture as a stand alone goal in the Sustainable Development Goals framework after 2015 is a pity - as debated at a recent conference on culture and development organised by the Luxembourg Presidency of the EU. But, while deplorable, this is not a tragedy so long as development professionals apply cultural sensitivity effectively. The problem is that they don’t.

      Box-ticking culture

      “Of course! We know that already! Intercultural awareness? I attended the course already”. That is what a security professional told me while queuing at the entrance of the EDD venue. The box is ticked….No need be too concerned…Next nexus please....! Some hardline economists who focus on data and forget about people, old-style development experts and narrow-minded military-types still need to be convinced, for a variety of good and bad reasons, that culture has a role to play in sustainable development. Hence the flood of recent reports by the World Bank, UNESCO and UNDP amongst others that make the case for the role of culture in development cooperation that were made in preparation for the negotiations of the Sustainable Development Goals, and coinciding with the 10 years since the adoption of the UNESCO convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expression.

      Pitch perfect?

      While advocacy is important, the emphasis now needs to be on the practice of translating this knowledge and awareness into reality with concrete action within and outside Europe. That is what the European Union will nevertheless try to do, despite lingering questions on its slow bureaucracy and its perceived selfish and hypocritical behaviour in the face of a migration crisis. That is part of the European paradox - European values are certainly the Union’s strength and attractiveness, but not when Europeans try to impose them on others through their calls for proposals. The opposite can also be the case when these values are not applied to the treatment of migrants and refugees. A new joint communication by the Commission and the European External Action Service on culture in external relations and a mention of culture in the new EU Global Strategy would be the first step. Financing more cultural action everywhere, including cultural mobility, is a second. Our lab at the EDD proved there is strong interest for cultural practice and experience from within the development community - in addition to the full seats, 40 people were standing in the room for the entire length of the panel debate! We heard clear calls for a cross-fertilisation of ideas and mutual exchange. Patrick Worms, a scientist working on agroforestry, even encouraged those who work on culture to connect and share more with scientists and development experts to help them promote behaviour change. At ECDPM, we connect all those willing to learn or share how to promote development by working in a culturally sensitive way. This can be done in the cultural and creative industries of developing countries by enhancing the intercultural communication skills of development practitioners - or by implementing culturally sensitive initiatives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of ECDPM
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