In May 2021, the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa opened the Africa Dialogue Series, its annual flagship event, under the theme “Cultural Identity and Ownership: Reshaping Mindsets.” The month-long fête culminated with a three-day Public Policy Forum in which I participated in a roundtable on Harnessing Culture and Heritage for Economic Transformation. Below are my reflections expanding on the question of how Africa can capitalize on its diversity, budding youth demographic, widespread diaspora and other unique advantages to augment its cultural and creative industries.
Building on the interest shown
As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his introductory remarks, culture is indeed the flower of humanity “— the fruit of our minds, the product of our traditions, the expression of our yearnings.” Building on that premise, I echoed points that I made in an earlier pre-recorded panel discussion about growing up in Uganda and making a living as a musician. Sometimes this meant giving piano lessons, but it was difficult to find teaching books. But there was one that I used often. Its opening statement went something like this: Interest is the greatest teacher.
That statement has never left my heart, because while you may have the best books, the best instruments, and the best teachers, if you don’t have interest, you aren’t going to make much progress. Anyone who plays an instrument would understand that becoming a virtuoso means persistent practice. So I want to relate that statement here.
But first of all, it’s worth acknowledging what has been done. The United Nations, for its part, declared 2021 as the “International Year of the Creative Economy for Sustainable Development.” The African Union, meanwhile, declared 2021 the “Year of the Arts, Culture and Heritage,” a theme in which the tenor of this year’s dialogue series is anchored. But clearly, there’s much more to do. And to build on the interest shown, there’s a need to consider the foundations.
Arts in education
Our education system is half-baked in that, for the most part, it disregards the arts in the curriculum. This isn’t just an African problem. But it’s particularly acute in Africa, where students who want to study the arts are normally told not to go there because there’s no money — not realizing that the arts are actually what we need to stimulate sustainability, innovation, and many other things.
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as I’ve repeatedly said, are important subjects. But if we add the arts, we will have STEAM, which will let us go further and faster. The way things are, arts students who are looking for scholarships often cannot find them, because most of the funding available is for the study of STEM subjects. But arts students would like to, and could, contribute in their own way. So the overemphasis on STEM and the underemphasis on the arts compromises our thinking.
And talking of thinking, when it comes to shaping mindsets and fostering innovation, as I saw the beautiful drum which was used to advertise this event, I wondered: How many of us can tell that West Africa’s “talking drums” were the very first long distance wireless networks? Some of our young people who want to go into coding may assume that all this technology came from Silicon Valley. Yet this started in Africa, a major contributorto civilization.
On funding and Covid vaccines
The Secretary-General made a compelling point about making sure that Africa can afford to get the vaccines it needs. But let’s be honest. If we look at our budgets and try to mimic the United States, there’s no question that the US Defense Department, the largest in the world, spends more on defense than the next 11 countries combined. If Africa is trying to mimic that path, that means spending more on defense than anything else. But while the United States may be a superpower, look at what brought it down to its knees. Covid-19 came when the country wasn’t prepared. If military spending is the supreme priority, when you are confronted by a deadly virus, things can easily turn deadly unless the health infrastructure is sufficient. In Africa it’s the same thing. If we want to go forward, to bring the interest where we need to be, we need to look at how we allocate our resources. Ministries of Culture, for the most part, aren’t well-funded, and we could do more.
On engaging the diaspora and mobilizing resources
Talking about the diaspora, African embassies and consulates can do more to promote African arts amongst the millions of people worldwide who are part of it, and they could do this by coordinating the work of their countries’ Ministries of Culture. I was impressed the other day when I was searching for arts organizations in Africa and stumbled across the Consulate General of Madagascar in Cape Town, South Africa. The consulate has a section on its website that tells you about the Malagasy craft industry. Many countries can do that, and even organize events and send newsletters promoting the arts in their countries.
At any rate, as the moderator Mr. Muhammad Juma asked, How can we maximize the effectiveness of the role of culture? Finance is one of the instruments. For many artists I speak with (and even in my own case) financing creative work isn’t easy. Ms. Angela Martins mentioned that though the African Union Commission doesn’t have a fund per se to support creatives, from the policy level to cultural production, it works closely with them in a variety of ways. One thing that might be done, if we are really serious about this, is to suggest that anyone who works at the African Union should contribute 10 percent of their salaries to start an African Cultural Fund. And maybe this should be something the UN can also look into, and people there can help.
In any case, there’s also the issue of domestic resource mobilization. The great Kofi Annan a few years ago said that “Africa loses twice as much in illicit financial outflows as it receives in international aid.” So if we want to mobilize resources, how can we make sure that all companies pay their fair share of taxes? There are all sorts of legal and illegal ways funds leave the continent, and we should look into that. And as we seek to grow, while growth is being preached to death as if it has no limits, it shouldn’t be just about growth — but about inclusive growth.
On creating the African Broadcasting Corporation
Finally, there’s also a need to start something we might call the African Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). This is because, while improvement has arguably been made and some of the reporting is warranted, the way foreign media portray Africa is often not helpful. Some of the coverage is even laughable, as the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina writes in his satirical essay ‘How To Write About Africa’. Nevertheless, the relentless focus on Africa’s problems can have huge implications, to say the least, on the self-esteem of Africans and on how foreigners, including investors, perceive Africa. It’s therefore essential to project an African message in a better way, and an ABC, which could be hosted by the African Union, could do just that. But great care must be taken to make sure that the corporation has editorial independence; that it’s not used to propagate propaganda; and that, among other things, it broadcasts Africa’s arts and culture in an exemplary manner. For, if we are to believe in the power of soft power, to project a better image, entice meaningful investments and much more, this would be another way of harnessing culture and heritage for Africa’s economic and social transformation.