People dance in the street and make music together.
Culture Combats Poverty

The climate crisis is exacerbating poverty in many parts of the world. Global migration will increase rather than decrease. Europe should focus more on culture, demands the author.

A very relevant topic for the EU is culture and development. The cultural and creative industries are among the fastest growing sectors in the world. With an estimated global worth of 4.3 trillion USD per year, the culture sector now accounts for 6.1 percent of the global economy. Cultural and creative industries generate nearly 30 million jobs worldwide, employing more people aged 15 to 29 than any other sector.

In many countries the cultural and creative sectors provide an income to the poorest and most vulnerable. In Morocco, employment in the publishing sector alone represents 1.8 percent of the labour force. In Honduras 5 percent of the cultural sector represents 5 percent of the economy. In Mali 5.8 percent of the population is employed in the cultural and creative sector, with crafts alone providing more than 100,000 jobs. In Indonesia the creative industries account for 7 percent of GDP (2010–2013). Music festivals, film festivals, and visits to cultural heritage sites generate heritage tourism, income, and jobs.

Blight for Freedom

Poverty is a blight on freedom. For women and for men, the income and self-esteem generated by the cultural sector, is vital to fighting poverty and enhancing freedom. The link between culture and development was underlined again in the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The UN General Assembly has emphasised culture’s potential to contribute to sustainable development on no fewer than 13 occasions. UNESCO, too, has long advocated greater recognition of the role of culture in development.

In Mali 5.8 percent of the population is employed in the cultural and creative sector.

Such recognition has been a long time in the making, and many would argue it is yet to be fully achieved. Countries found it difficult to translate their abstract commitment into policies and spending. In practice, governments in the global South did (and do) not always recognise the potential of the cultural sector as a vector of development. Many aid donors, too, have tended to treat cultural development as an optional extra. Multilateral agencies such as UNDP proved reluctant to invest.

Nor has the World Bank been much involved, although it recently agreed to work with UNESCO in areas such as cultural heritage and creative industries. As UNESCO’s Evaluation Office reluctantly concluded, the recognition of the cultural aspects of development remains lower than that of the environmental dimension.

Culture as an End in Itself

Perspectives also differ on the role of culture in development. While development specialists or policy planners may welcome cultural projects in terms of their potential to contribute to economic growth or other targets, cultural operators tend to be weary of such “instrumentalization” and argue that culture must be treated as an end in itself. Another recurrent issue has been the perceived difficulty to agree on ways to measure culture’s contribution to development: aid workers and finance ministries tend to favour quantitative evidence whereas cultural operators often prefer more qualitative assessments.

A fourth complicating factor is the changing political climate in Western countries, where spending on development and on culture is increasingly being criticised and politicised by right-wing opponents. In the UK, for example, newspapers such as The Sun ran a campaign ridiculing British financial support for an Ethiopian NGO that uses music and radio to spread awareness about girls’ rights. 

Quality journalism needs public support, including in Europe. [...] EU governments will have to step in and contribute.

In the field of culture, the EU and most of its Member States have lagged rather than led, including in terms of spending. The volume of international aid to culture has not increased; it has fallen. The latest available data from 2015 for the OECD as a whole show that both the share of Official Develobment Assistance (ODA) to support creativity in developing countries and the share of ODA spent on culture have declined since 2010.

The total amount of cultural ODA being donated has fallen from 465.9 million USD in 2005 to 354.3 million USD in 2010, and to 257 million USD in 2015, a decrease of 45 percent in ten years. The top ten recipients of cultural ODA in 2015 were Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, Vietnam, West Bank and Gaza Strip – hardly the poorest countries in the global South.

Declining Levels of Aid

: Portrait of European Commission president with fingers in his ears in front of European Commission headquarters.
On Sept. 25, 2017, SDG Watch protested in front of the European Quarter in Brussels to remind European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker that he cannot continue to ignore sustainability, photo: Wiktor Dabkoswki via picture alliance

These declining levels of aid from richer countries sit uneasily with the EU’s promise to mainstream culture in development. EU ministers have also committed the EU and its Member States to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is time for EU governments and the European Commission to act on these promises. Action to help implement and finance Agenda2030 in the area of culture is long overdue. 

The EU currently manages a wide portfolio of mostly short-term cultural development projects, many of which predate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is no integral approach. Yet the whole point of the SDGs is to arrive at a unified approach to development. This is particularly important in the field of culture, which is covered in a multitude of goals and targets. Without a comprehensive approach the main benefit of the SDGs will be lost.

The Commission should say, therefore, how it intends to use the EU budget to ensure the necessary comprehensive approach to the cultural aspects of Agenda 2030. It should also say how it will work with EU governments. Will there be synergy between the EU budget and the European Development Fund, financed by EU Member States outside the EU budget?

This is an area – culture as a dimension of sustainable development – where Europe, if it wants to, could lead the world. The newly elected European Parliament (2019–2024) should see to it that a policy paper is produced, and that its main conclusions will be agreed between the Council, the Commission, and the Parliament.

European governments, too, could show a little more spine. In January 2016 Turkish academics known as Academics for Peace published a petition entitled “We will not be a party to this crime”, which condemned anti-terror policies in the south-eastern part of Turkey and urged the authorities to resume peace negotiations. Hundreds of signatories were subsequently charged under anti-terrorism laws. In the wake of the coup attempt, later that year, more than 6,000 academics have been dismissed from their posts; hundreds have been detained or arrested. In both cases the EU’s feeble response failed to impress Ankara.

The European Union’s feeble response failed to impress Ankara.

The increasing virulent attacks on academic freedom deserve a more vigorous European response. EU ministers of education should recognise the importance of academic freedom as a cornerstone of education. The Foreign Affairs Council should include academic freedom in the EU’s international dialogues on human rights, as the European Parliament proposed. The European Commission should also play its part. A few EU countries operate small schemes to provide sanctuary and assistance to scholars at risk. There is little coordination, and the schemes lack visibility. An EU-wide scheme would not be difficult to conceive.

Academic freedom is a dimension of the wider right of everyone to take part in cultural life. This fundamental right is under threat both from authoritarian governments and from violent fundamentalists. When Egypt incarcerated the poet Galal El Behairy for writing a song critical of government policies, when jihadist groups banned music in Northern Mali, when China arrested five Hong Kong booksellers, or when Russia silenced the Ukrainian filmmaker Olav Sentsovby arresting him on Interterrorism charges, to cite just some cases out of many, they were striking at cultural freedom.

Freedom of expression is perhaps the most basic human right. It is the right on which all other rights depend. Freedom of expression is what dictators trample when they silence the voices of journalists, writers, singers, filmmakers and other artists. It is telling that artists who reach large numbers of people, such as musicians and filmmakers, are among the most vulnerable. As spaces for cultural freedom are shrinking in many parts of the world, cultural freedom needs champions. Could there be a more suitable priority for European cultural diplomacy?

Cultural freedom is firmly anchored in international law. It is protected under Article27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15(3) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is closely related to other rights, such as the right to education (Articles13 and 14, ICESCR), through which individuals and communities pass on their values, religion, customs, language and other cultural references. 

As spaces for cultural freedom are shrinking in many parts of the world, cultural freedom needs champions. 

European initiatives could be instrumental in two respects: the EU could use political pressure to promote the respect of cultural freedom, and it could engage in partnerships to support public and private cultural action. At the moment, the EU does a little bit of both, its policies mostly driven by low-level bureaucratic entrepreneurship. In 2014 EU ministers adopted guidelines on freedom of expression online and offline, but application by national diplomats has been haphazard.

Across the world, journalists often bear the brunt of official policies to silence criticism and gag independent voices. In 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports, 251 journalists were imprisoned, and 54 were killed. Turkey, China, and Egypt were responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world for the third year in a row.

Impunity for crimes against journalists remains the norm, with justice in only one in ten cases. China runs the largest and most sophisticated internet censorship operation in the world, and its big firewall is being emulated from Vietnam to Ethiopia. In many countries (including European ones), public service broadcasting is under threat and licencing of private broadcasters lacks transparency. Worldwide, respect for freedom of expression and information is at its lowest point in ten years.

The EU Pushes Back

The EU, to its credit, pushes back. Among other things it has stepped up support to independent media in the Western Balkans and funds initiatives such as the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (Leipzig), the European Journalism Centre (Maastricht) and UNESCO’s International Program for the Development of Communication. European broadcasters such as the BBC and Deutsche Welle do important work to train journalists around the world. Some EU governments chip in: the Dutch government supports NGOs such as Free Press Unlimited and Hivos (Digital Defenders Partnership).

But neither EU governments nor the different Directorates General of the European Commission have a policy framework to defend and promote artistic freedom around the world.

Fourth graders at a Düsseldorf elementary school look at the painting "Composition IV" (1911) by Wassily Kandinsky in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.
Culture and education are closely connected. When mainstreamed in education, culture builds confidence and encourages dialogue, photo: Roland Weihrauch via picture alliance

The EU also still lacks an integrated, joined up approach to freedom of expression. On the ground in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, coordination between Member States (and with the European Commission) tends to happen by default rather than design.

Cross-border learning and inter-sectoral learning happen incidentally, not systematically. Here, as elsewhere, there is still much potential for European cultural diplomacy.

There are countries that manage to buck the downward trend. In 2018 space for civil society improved in Ecuador, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Liberia, Lithuania, Malaysia and Somalia. Between 2014–2017, media freedom improved in Fiji, the Gambia, Macedonia, Namibia, and South Korea; digital freedom also improved in Botswana, the Central African Republic, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka.

Neither EU governments nor the different Directorates General of the European Commission have a policy framework to defend and promote artistic freedom around the world.

Too often the Commission, the European External Action Service and the Member States are tied down by rigid bureaucratic rules on the one hand, and the slow machinery of Council working groups on the other. When Tunisians toppled Ben Ali in 2011, it took painfully long for the EU to respond. What is needed is a rapid response mechanism that will allow the EU and EU governments to scale up financial support, technical assistance, and cultural cooperation to countries that improve their human rights record.

Culture and education are closely connected. When mainstreamed in education, culture builds confidence and encourages dialogue. Cultural expressions are essential for the development of young people: they build self-confidence and critical skills, helping them to achieve better educational results. Artists help society to reflect on the human condition and improve it.

There is no single approach or best way to create synergies between culture and education. National circumstances differ and policies must differ accordingly. There is much scope for mutual learning, including between Europeans and non-Europeans – learning is best practised as a two-way process, and as a process between equals.

Artists help society to reflect on the human condition and improve it.

In many parts of the world there is deep popular discontent with the lack of effective, transparent and accountable government. North Africa and the Middle East are among several areas where resentment is on the rise. While Emirati respondents hold positive views about the direction of their country, Tunisians, Egyptians and Iraqis are very negative and do not have confidence in any of their country’s institutions. Jobs, education, and political reform are the three top priorities of people across the region.

A recent poll found that political reform has advanced as an issue of concern in Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Ending corruption has climbed the ranks in Tunisia as well as in Egypt (to first place). And the protection of civil rights has risen as an issue of importance in Jordan and Iraq. Worldwide, majorities favour representative democracy over other forms of governance.

Good Governance is Vital

There is no sustainable development without governance that is perceived as effective and fair. Good governance cannot be imposed from the outside. Isomorphic change, encouraged by external donors eager for quick wins, usually results in Potemkintype institutions. Democracy promotion is not for the faint-hearted. That said, it is equally important to avoid the other extreme of lending uncritical support to oppressive regimes. Europeans would do well to remember their embarrassment during the Arab Spring, having long supported Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak. Institutional reform is part of the SDG agenda and Europe should not shrink from the task. 

Political reform has advanced as an issue of concern in Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Worldwide, majorities favour representative democracy over other forms of governance.

One of the areas which needs effective, transparent, and accountable institutions is culture. There are various ways in which EU governments and the Commission could make a difference. They could, first of all, support systems of cultural governance that are transparent and open to influence from civil society, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, class, or ability. The EU can also assist partners to integrate culture in national development plans that are subject to integral evaluation, reporting, and public scrutiny. National statistical offices could be supported in collecting, analysing, and reporting the necessary cultural statistics.

Can art and culture assist in post-conflict rehabilitation? Can cultural interventions facilitate reconciliation? Does culture have the power to transform conflicts, and possibly even prevent them? Unfortunately, these questions do not permit ready answers. Postconflict rehabilitation can take years, and the contribution of any one factor, cultural or otherwise, can be difficult to identify. Causality across a longer time span is often difficult to prove. Prevention is even harder to establish. Not surprisingly, much of the evidence is tentative.

Can art and culture assist in post-conflict rehabilitation?

There is one exception: culture’s contribution to trauma recovery is well-established. Creative arts and play therapy have helped children to recover from mass violence, including in the former Yugoslavia and in the USA after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Art can be a pathway to empower people to cope with post-traumatic stress and become survivors instead of victims. 

Cultural work with refugees and migrants has been supported by the EU for quite some years, including in non-EU countries such as Lebanon and Syria. EU Member States have also been involved. In 2017 they published a review of what they saw as good national practices, mostly within Europe. Some of this work could be of use to governments and agencies elsewhere in the world. Most of the world’s 65.6 million forcibly displaced people live outside Europe. If Europe were to invest in international dialogue about cultural empowerment it might find it has as much to learn as to share.

The European Union believes that culture can be an instrument to prevent terrorism. According to former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, ‘When Europe engages with the world, culture has to be at the core of our foreign policy. Culture can help us fight and prevent radicalisation.’

Tyranny of the Majority

Pie Chart "Journalists imprisoned in 20222"
Photo: Forum for International Cultural Relations

In a democracy, liberty must be protected against the tyranny of the majority. It is wrong, therefore, to speak of “illiberal democracy” – Viktor Orban’s proud achievement. There is no democracy without liberty, and to suggest otherwise is deeply and cynically misleading. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the European Commission, while insisting that the rule of law and democracy are interconnected, has focused its criticism of the Hungarian and Polish governments largely on violations of the rule of law.

When politicians call journalists “jackals” and “whores”, as leaders of Italy’s Five Star Movement did; when they call Muslim refugees “lice”, and Roma “animals” as Zolt Bayer, founder of Hungary’s Fidezs party did; when the deputy Speaker of the Italian Senate says that a black cabinet minister, Cécile Kyenge, reminds him of an “orang utan”, it is not only liberal principles that are cast aside; democracy itself is at stake. Such verbal violence serves to dehumanise. Nobody with the faintest awareness of European history can fail to hear the ominous echo of Nazi terminology, honed to humiliate and extirpate Jews. Ominous, too, is the failure of all too many peers and compatriots to sanction such abuse. Populism is not the same as racism, but the dividing line is erased all too easily.


The populist message of “us” (the people) versus “them” (the elites) strongly resonates with people who feel left behind and who see themselves as the victims of globalisation. But many populist voters are neither poor nor unemployed. They appear to be motivated more by social and cultural concerns.

A comprehensive answer is difficult, but an obvious starting point for the EU would be to mobilise its economic powers. Many people no longer believe that the economy serves their interests. This is not “just” a view held by populists. On the contrary: large majorities across Europe feel that the economy is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful. This is the majority view from Spain (88 percent) to Sweden (56 percent) and from Poland (67 percent) to France (75 percent), Germany (77 percent), and the UK (76 percent). It is not difficult to see why. Millions have lost their jobs since 2007 because of the financial crisis, yet not a single leading Wall Street executive has been prosecuted. Banks practice business as usual; they work around the EU cap on bonuses by increasing the fixed pay (salaries and benefits) and share packages of their top brass.

Business as Usual

In the United Kingdom top CEOs have seen their annual mean pay rise to £5.7 million. They earn as much in 2½ days as the average worker makes in a year. Business as usual for banks still includes money laundering: cases in 2018 alone involved the Cyprus Development bank, Dankse Bank, MagNet Bank, Pilatus Bank, ING, Raiffeisen Bank, and Hypo Voralberg Bank. Yet national authorities in Europe only investigate on average 10 percent of suspicious transaction reports, and barely 1 percent (sic) of criminal proceeds are being confiscated. The four big European accountancy firms still promote tax avoidance by multinationals, as shown in the ‘LuxLeaks’ revelations. Worldwide tax losses as a result of profit shifting amount to a staggering 500 billion USD a year. 

There is much that the EU could do if national governments would allow it. Europol could do more to crack down on money laundering if national agencies would share more information. Today, most of its suspicious transaction reports come from two countries only: the UK and the Netherlands. The European Banking Authority could be given greater powers to coordinate national banking watchdogs, as the Commission has suggested. EU governments could do more to close the gaps in the national and European rules on tax fraud and tax evasion, as the Commission has been urging for years. The EU could counter tax evasion by tech companies such as Amazon and Apple, as France has proposed, but other governments blocked the initiative for a digital tax. With a fully-fledged banking union, citizen’s savings would be secured, and taxpayers would not have to pay to save banks, but the Eurogroup postponed the necessary decisions.

Many people no longer believe that the economy serves their interests. This is not ‘just’ a view held by populists.

The EU could also do more to fight unemployment. As matters stand, there are still around 17 million people unemployed in Europe, including one in three of young persons in Italy, Greece, and Spain. There is arguably no more convincing way to address citizens’ widespread concerns about economic fairness. Today the EU spends most of its budget on agriculture and regional policy. That does not reflect public opinion. When asked what the EU should be spending its money on, people’s first priority is for the EU to spend more on social affairs and employment. Plans for the EU to set up a European Unemployment Insurance Scheme are far advanced.

Such a fund, which would help recession-hit countries with high unemployment, would be a concrete, visible way the EU to strengthen its bond with citizens. It would put flesh on the bones of Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a Europe that protects (“l’Europe qui protège”), and it would answer the populist accusation that the EU is a stitch-up between business and political elites. The idea has been embraced by the European Commission and by former German Finance Minister, now Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. It was discussed by the Eurogroup, but Germany’s CDU/CSU does not support it.

The EU could also play a more effective role in addressing people’s concerns about democracy. National leaders could give citizens a meaningful vote in the selection of the Commission President (“Spitzenkandidaten”). They could create a genuine common electoral system for the European elections. And they could, if only occasionally, stop blaming ‘Brussels’ for unpopular measures agreed by national governments, while claiming personal credit for European decisions. The EU’s democratic deficitis real. To counter it, national leaders will have to show honesty and courage.

The EU could counter tax evasion by tech companies such as Amazon and Apple, as France has proposed, but other governments blocked the initiative for a digital tax.

The third, cultural dimension of popular discontent is the most difficult for the EU to deal with. Some steps have been agreed in response to the widespread unease about migration. Although governments failed to endorse the Commission’s sensible proposals for a European distribution programme, they did accept to strengthen border protection. A more ambitious proposal for a standing corps of 10,000 operational staff with executive powers and their own equipment is included in the Commission’s draft budgetary framework. But managing migration is not the only issue here. Much more must be done to stem the rising, toxic tide of exclusionary nationalism.

About the Author
Gijs de Vries

Gijs de Vries is a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is a former member of the Dutch government and of the European Parliament. He has served as a board member of the European Cultural Foundation and was a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.