"It’s not a matter of Goethe or Shakespeare"

Jan 23, 2020

Gender equality in Bolivia, support of the professionalisation of the creative sector and capacity building in Egypt and Sudan – these are projects of the EUNIC network that EUNIC Global Director Gitte Zschoch has talked about with welt-sichten, a magazine for development cooperation. Find out more in the article by Philipp Saure.

Theatre, books and music: Culture has been declared an element of European development cooperation. It is not only believed to promote the economy, but also to contribute to promoting human rights.

As a component of the EU’s foreign policy activities and development cooperation, culture is anchored in relevant documents: in the Global Strategy of 2016 as well as in the New Consensus on Development Cooperation (2017) and the European Agenda for Culture (2018). In April 2019, the Council of Ministers adopted conclusions “on an EU strategic approach to international cultural relations and establishing a framework for action.”

It states that “cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue” play an important role “in the promotion of human rights, artistic freedom, respect and tolerance towards others, mutual understanding, conflict prevention, reconciliation and counter-extremism.” In addition, the conclusions recognise culture as an economic factor.

Accordingly, the Council of Ministers calls on the EU Member States, the Commission and the High Representatives to give culture a greater role in external relations. For example, Member States should increase their participation in joint cultural projects in third countries; the Commission and the High Representatives should ensure adequate capacities in the EU delegations. According to the Council, EUNIC, the EU-funded network of national European cultural institutes, should play an important role; its members include the Goethe-Institut, Spain’s Instituto Cervantes and Romania’s Institutul Cultural Român.

For example, reports director Gitte Zschoch, EUNIC is presently launching a project in Bolivia. Together with the EU delegation in La Paz they plan to tackle the problem of “machismo.” “The project aims to contribute to gender equality and to ensure that all sexual preferences are perceived as being of equal value,” says Zschoch. The project will begin by mapping local cultural initiatives, galleries or cultural collectives in every province in the country that are interested in the topic.

In Egypt, EUNIC is working on a project to improve conditions for cultural professionals, for example when founding a company. This is more about technical assistance at the legislative level, explains Zschoch. “The objective is to make it easier for the cultural scene to stand on its own two feet.” In Sudan, the Institut Français, also within the framework of EUNIC and together with the Goethe-Institut and other partners and financed by the EU delegation in Sudan, just started with a project that focuses on kamishibai – small table-top theatres. Lilli Kobler, director of the Goethe-Institut Sudan in Khartoum, explains that it encourages children to retell stories printed on large boards on this stage. The format is also used to promote reading and creative storytelling. In addition, because the stories are exclusively from Sudan, it preserves Sudanese cultural assets.

The EU Commission also confirms that cultural funding in development cooperation is not a matter of importing Goethe or Shakespeare. Generally, “locally led approaches” are important in development cooperation. In terms of culture, this means that “local actors take the lead and choose the stories they want to tell,” said an EU spokeswoman.

Economic power remains in the North

Approaches developed by the local people are also important for Zschoch. Hence, for example, EUNIC stipulates the topic of gender equality in its project in Bolivia, but not how the cultural scene deals with it. “There are meetings with stakeholders in each province to determine what kind of project they want to tackle there.” However, Zschoch says, it remains difficult to keep a level playing field between Europeans and locals because economic power continues to be in the North. “How do you manage to work respectfully and not say, ‘I have the money, this is how it’s done.’?”

Expenditures on culture in development cooperation are hard to quantify. According to a “rough estimate” by the EU Commission, it has spent almost 373 million euros on it since 2007. Since culture is cross-sectoral, it also emerges in other areas, such as tourism programmes or human rights work. Culture is a tool “for changing attitudes and giving the disenfranchised a voice,” explains the EU spokeswoman.

Culture is a tool? In its April policy paper, the EU Council of Ministers recognised that culture is “first and foremost a value in its own right.” For EUNIC director Zschoch, it is important to strike a balance between the intrinsic value of culture and its role in development cooperation. If not, there is a risk of superficial instrumentalisation, for example, when a play about HIV is written overnight for health care. And that could lead to both losing sight of the intrinsic value of culture and its contribution to comprehensive sustainable development, “a society’s own self-reflection and self-questioning.”

This article was first published in welt-sichten (12-2019/01-2020). Read it here.

Author: Phillipp Saure/welt-sichten

Translation: Faith Ann Gibson

Image: El Warsha, a traditional Egyptian theatre, dancing and singing group at the closing conference of the project "Towards a Creative Economy Framework" on 11 January 2020 in Cairo. Copyright: EUNIC and EU/Mohamed Ezz