The economic importance of culture, as well as the fundamental role culture plays as a resource for resilience, hope and social inclusion, means that culture must be a key component of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the major conclusion of the online consultation with representatives from twelve regional Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) and development banks*, convened by UNESCO on 17 April to discuss approaches to address the impact of this unprecedented health crisis on the cultural sector.
Participants agreed on the importance of providing data to measure the impact of COVID-19 on culture and culture-related activities, in order for culture to be included in post-COVID-19 recovery efforts. Intensified dialogue with Ministries and concerted action at the regional and international levels are vital to support the cultural sector, which has been devastated by the effects of this pandemic.
Opening the debate, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone R, said that “this crisis reminds us that culture is a common good. The nature and the magnitude of the unprecedented situation compels us to reinvest, more than ever in international cooperation, which is why the collaboration of regional partners is so crucial.”
Many partner organizations described how the current global situation will affect the cultural sector deeply and structurally. They shared startling figures on the effects of the pandemic in their regions – from the number of people being pushed into poverty, the impact on cultural and auxiliary services, cultural institutions such as museums and concert venues, the number of artisans, artists and creative professionals affected, and the significant economic hit on the tourism sector. Participants also noted that the cancellation of festivals, events and other practices is stifling for communities who cannot practice their traditions and intangible cultural heritage. This crisis has also exposed the digital divide, which is often also a major socio-economic divide, both in urban and rural settings.
Support and Resilience
Participants noted the growing prominence of culture in global macro-economic discussions. COVID-19 has led to an acknowledgement of the weight of the cultural and creative sector worldwide, in particular as regards employment at the global scale. Yet, many work as independent cultural workers, for small and medium-sized businesses, and within the informal sector. There is an increasing recognition that culture should be part of the financial support at national and local levels to rebound after the crisis.
International and regional dialogue and solidarity is a vital part of our response. Many regional organisations have already convened their Member States to coordinate action and provide training and support. Some organizations have also begun pooling data. Some interventions during the debate pointed to the fact that the budgetary allocation to the cultural sector within their region was already low as a percentage of GDP prior to the pandemic and that it will be difficult to maintain even those levels of investment. Going forward we must target our efforts towards the most vulnerable populations to reinforce the social impact and build resilience.
Blossoming of the digital sector
A major theme that emerged from the debate was the role of COVID-19 in accelerating the digital transition. As billions of people around the world are confined to their homes, digital platforms for music, books, films, performances and museums have soared. Many participants outlined digital initiatives in their regions, including those oriented towards arts education: providing quality cultural materials online, and working with art schools to ensure continued studies through digital means. Other participants spoke of inter-regional cultural exchanges through the medium of film, which have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, digital platforms also bring along two major challenges related to the cost of access and to diversity. Participants noted that the right of authors and artists to fair remuneration must become central to our policies following the period of lockdown, including exploring solutions such as blockchain, if we are to maintain a vibrant cultural sector and ensure the livelihoods of content-producers.
Whilst there has been a “blossoming” of digital solutions, such innovations also pose fundamental questions about future models of access to culture. For example, should consumers pay for online access to museums and live performance, or does this create new problems of inclusion and the promotion of local content, multilingualism and geographical diversity? Indeed, responses in the digital sphere cannot be the only tools in our toolbox, as pointed out by one participant. It is also important to reinforce local investment, including in cultural and digital infrastructure and community radio.
Social distancing must not become the new normal in culture
“Confinement cannot become our new lifestyle: culture must be lived, through human contact”, said one participant. Despite the potential of new technologies, our cultural life must not remain solely online after the crisis has passed.
In the short-term, the full scale of the impact of COVID-19 on the cultural sector is still unknown. Concentrating our efforts on protecting artists and communities must be our priority. Yet, in the longer term, the large-scale disruption provides an opportunity to remake the global cultural ecosystem. New forms of dialogue and enhanced cooperation - between governments, within international organizations, at the local level, with development banks and with the private sector - will be key.
The rich exchanges of the debate show that IGOs and Development Banks are strategic partners in responding to the impact of this crisis. Accordingly, UNESCO will establish a platform of exchange and deepen advocacy highlighting the economic importance of culture, as well as the fundamental role culture plays as a vital resource for resilience, hope and social inclusion. The debate will also feed the UNESCO Online Meeting of Ministers of Culture, due to take place on 22 April 2020, with some 100 Ministers of Culture mobilising to take action to support culture on a global scale.
*Representatives of regional organizations from the African Union (AU), the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN, the European Commission (EC) and the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI),Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB),Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ICESCO).
The development banks are the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the World Bank (WB). Other organizations included the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) – a United Nations body.