UNESCO and EU invest in cultural policies and more opportunities for creatives

Why investing in policies for creativity is more important than ever

In just two decades, the way we create, share and enjoy music, films and other forms of contemporary cultural expression has changed dramatically. New technologies are opening up opportunities for creatives and their audiences, but the digital divide between countries, and within countries, is growing fast. Today, the Global North generates a staggering 95 percent of the world’s total export of cultural services. 

“This is threatening not only the diversity of cultural expressions but also the existence of some forms of expression, especially in the Global South,” says Toussaint Tiendrebeogo, Secretary of the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. He leads the ‘Supporting new regulatory frameworks to strengthen the cultural and creative industries and promote south-south cooperation’ project. This is a partnership between UNESCO and the European Union (EU), which builds on 10 years of collaboration between the two organizations. Since 2019, this latest EU/UNESCO project has worked with 12 UNESO Member States, demonstrating how changing the way cultural and creative industries are governed can close the digital divide, while opening up new social and economic opportunities. 

In just 18 months, the policies, laws and measures developed by diverse national teams – with support from international experts – have sparked significant transformations in  Ethiopia, Gabon and Jamaica to Namibia and Palestine. In Georgia, for example, abandoned factories are being transformed into creative spaces across the country for artists to develop and display their work. This gives their communities a chance to come together and enjoy locally produced contemporary works, often for the first time. Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, a more competitive music industry is emerging with new income opportunities, especially for young people. 



© UNESCO/Creative Georgia
In Georgia abandoned buildings are being transformed into creative spaces

A strategic sector for economic progress

“In a lot of developing countries, which are grappling with the issue of creating employment, especially for a youthful population, the cultural and creative sectors are strategic,” says Yarri Kamara, a policy consultant, researcher and international UNESCO expert. She points to the significant economic contribution that these sectors make on the global stage, accounting for 3.1 percent of worldwide GDP and 6.2 percent of all employment on the planet. 

As part of the EU/UNESCO project, Ms. Kamara advised the national team in Zimbabwe on a policy aimed at helping a vibrant music sector to emerge there. A key focus is on harnessing digital platforms to distribute Zimbabwean music widely, ultimately generating more revenue. 

For Ms. Kamara the process of developing the policy was as critical as the final product. With the National Arts Council taking the lead, the national team in Zimbabwe brought together more than 18 other organizations, including people from the private sector, government, civil society and creatives. “They have been there through the whole process and the hope is that they will now be the cheerleaders who will push the implementation forward.” 



From DVDs to digital streaming 

In Uganda this has already happened. The national team there – which was made up of an equally diverse set of people including officials, filmmakers and digital gurus – used the policy they designed through the project to create an exciting new streaming platform. The Kibanda Xpress now allows local creatives to upload their work for free, while Ugandans can watch this national content for an affordable price. 


© MTN Uganda
Uganda recently launched its first streaming platform showcasing local content.

This has the potential to be a gamechanger, says Mzee Bwanika, the Executive Secretary of Pearlwood, an umbrella organization for all entities in the national film industry. “We were so stuck with the DVD market, distributing the hardcopies of our films, which is affected by high levels of piracy,” he says. “The project helped us think beyond that and we recognized that if we had a distribution system we could blossom.”


More than money at stake

“Cultural and creative sectors play a critical role in helping societies understand themselves, understand their past and project themselves into the future,” says international expert, Ms. Kamara. With less than 10 years left to meet the Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and inequality, she believes that investing in culture and creativity can make a big difference. “These sectors provide a crucial input into the process we often term as ‘development’ because you need societal self-awareness and self-confidence to develop homegrown visions of the future you want.” 

Cultural and creative sectors also enable everyone to be part of shaping their society, which is critical if progress is to be sustainable, says UNESCO’s Ms. Melika Medici, manager of the EU/UNESCO project. “That’s why the project has a strong focus on involving women, youth and indigenious communities,” she says. 

In Mexico, for example, the national team brought together for the first time over 150 government representatives, media, cultural and radio leaders as well as academics and indigenous rights organizations. Together they held a critical national conversation about the need to give indigenous radio more prominence and support. One result from this saw indigenous producers join forces to develop a weekly radio program featuring the voices, languages and issues that matter to indigenous communities. This unique content is now aired across the country’s public radio network. “Not only are indigenous voices more prominent now, but the important role of community and indigenous radio is more visible than ever and is being recognized,” says Blanca Cruz, a national expert and consultant to the project in Mexico.



© Daniela Parras de Redes A.C
Indigenious radio producers in action in Mexico.


Innovating against COVID

This idea of building lasting relationships, networks and collaboration, like in Mexico and Uganda, was at the heart of the project. But, in 2020, when COVID turned the world upside down, project managers had to find ways beyond face-to-face engagement to still meaningfully bring people together. “At first I was worried, but moving our support online has actually helped us have an even wider reach,” says Ms. Medici. “And, the national teams have really taken the lead.”    

Through online consultations more people, especially from rural areas, have been able to participate. Meanwhile, a new peer-to-peer platform, which the project launched in response to COVID, allows people from participating countries to expand their networks, learn from each other and collectively find solutions. 

In South Sudan, for example, the national team drew on their peers in Kenya and Tanzina to draft a new copyright law. Not only will creatives be better protected in the future, this new law will also invigorate the whole sector as artists feel more confident to share their work. “I think now people will be encouraged to come out with their products and bring it to life,” says Elfatih Atem, Executive Director of the Likikiri Collective and member of the national team in South Sudan.

Countries like Panama also saw the benefits. "Sharing our experience alongside countries that inspire us reinforces Panama's commitment to create a cultural institution committed to social, environmental and economic transformations in the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” said Carlos Aguilar, former Minister of Culture.


More important than ever

Around the world, people working in the cultural and creative sectors have been among the hardest hit by the shutdowns that the COVID pandemic caused. UNESCO estimates more than 10 million jobs were lost in 2020 alone across these sectors. Ms. Medici says that while arts and culture have been critical for our well-being and social connection during this crisis, the people working in creative industries have been at the back of the financial assistance queue. 

“Many have been pushed to the edge of existence and there is a real concern that we could be facing an irreversible loss of cultural expression at a time when we need it more than ever to help us face big challenges like building back better, the climate crisis, and conflict,” she says.

During the crisis, the project successfully advocated for cultural and creative workers to be part of governments’ financial assistance packages. But much more needs to be done. Building on the success of the current project, UNESCO is now looking to expand its support to countries in the Global South. Further efforts will target the digital divide, while pushing forward on the sustainable development goals as the global community edges closer to its 2030 deadline.  

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