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Carola Lentz and Johannes Ebert on October 28, 2021
“Creativity without Borders - For Innovative Foreign Cultural and Educational Policy in Uncertain Times”

Article by Carola Lentz and Johannes Ebert in the periodical “Politik & Kultur”

Afghanistan, Lebanon, Belarus – these are just a few of the countries that come to mind in conjunction with political and economic crises, authoritarianism, violence, and forced displacement over the past year. Unrest is sweeping the world. New centers of power have arisen where the values of freedom and rule of law often do not receive the same emphasis as they do in Germany. Members of the media, creative professionals, artists, and non-governmental organizations are increasingly seeing their freedoms restricted. This is happening to varying degrees not only in China, Russia, Egypt, or Turkey, but also in some countries of the European Union.

These developments have been further exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has accelerated the erosion of trust not only between countries, but also within the populations of countries themselves and has deepened divisions. But the crisis has also revealed opportunities: Digital spaces cannot replace real human interactions, but digital communication has allowed us to complement our physical offerings in clever ways for the purpose of extending our reach and appealing to new target groups.

We are noticing a global trend toward nationalism and exclusionary populism. At the same time, exchange across borders has never been more important in order to develop shared answers to the greatest challenges humanity faces. Human-induced climate change, the opportunities and limitations of digitalization, migration and forced displacement, social justice, and the triumph of diversity: Overcoming these and other all-encompassing challenges will require the knowledge and dedication of many people working together across borders.

This makes creativity without borders that is shared not only between countries, but also within our own societies vital to the future. Globalization has also changed the Federal Republic of Germany as a country. It was sixty years ago that the labor recruitment agreement with Turkey was signed. Today, it is symbolic of the societal diversity of our country, which we must take full advantage of in this joint mission to solve the greatest problems the nation faces. Immigration, particularly of specialized professionals, continues to play a major role in continued economic prosperity and maintenance of the social safety net. The immigrants belong here and they bring with them innovative impetuses that move our society forward, while at the same time acting as an important bridge to their countries of origin. How can we respond to these increasing internally and externally imposed limitations in a productive way? And what will the aforementioned global developments mean for the foreign cultural and educational policy of the Federal Republic of Germany over the next few years?

From the collapse of the Soviet Union to 9/11, from the European economic crisis to the presidency of Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic — in these turbulent times, tools like security policy, foreign policy, and classic diplomacy are undoubtedly important. Experience has shown, however, that these are only a few of the approaches needed to nurture global understanding and peaceful coexistence. It’s not just about national politics, but rather also about interacting with various cultural groups to establish common ground. It is about values, actual and perceived inequalities, and regarding stories, memories, and aesthetics from different perspectives. It is about listening, mutual acknowledgment, mutual respect, and shared learning. In short: It is about responsive and flexible foreign cultural and educational policy with high potential for innovation.

Smart foreign policy has always taken this experience to heart. The mandates, responsibilities, and even the budgets of the German cultural intermediary organizations — the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the DAAD, the Goethe Institute, the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa), and others — have grown over the past few years marked by monumental crises. If we want to maintain our peacemaking approach to foreign policy in the face of the current global situation, this growth should continue in the coming years.

Foreign cultural and educational policy is an essential contributor to peaceful, prosperous coexistence on our planet. It brings together people from around the world in residency programs, cultural events, or youth exchange projects. It creates platforms such as “Music Africa”, which provides networking opportunities for musicians all across the African continent and creates professional opportunities for them. Through German language teaching, it makes Germany more accessible to students, nurses, and engineers. It addresses the most important modern-day issues — climate and sustainability, digitalization and democracy — in artistic and educational projects, workshops for young people, and in open debates that raise awareness of these challenges and motivate others to act. It fosters cultural cooperation and coproduction. The process of producing a play together, for example, allows participants to gain a better understanding of each other and often forge lifelong cultural partnerships. Foreign cultural and educational policy supports creative professionals and educational institutions under pressure, with initiatives such as the international aid fund for non-governmental organizations or the Martin Roth-Initiative, which awards grants for creative professionals at risk. It champions cultural diversity in Europe and subjects populism and nationalism in Europe to close scrutiny, as is done in the project “Freiraum”, which is the product of a collaboration between numerous non-governmental organizations examining the state of freedom in Europe. It also strengthens diversity in Germany, through the centers for international cultural education at the Goethe Institutes in Germany. These are just a few examples of the varied and impactful ways in which foreign cultural and educational policy cultivates open exchange, international understanding, and innovative action that transcend the compulsions of daily politics.

Within the context of the coronavirus pandemic, it has become even more important for foreign culture and education policy to establish sustainable global cultural and educational exchange, while also offering opportunities for in-person interactions. To achieve this, it important for us not only to invest in innovative digital tools and formats, but also in the conceptualization and construction of physical spaces for interaction. Exchange also encompasses support for international education programs through measures such as stronger language promotion at over 100,000 schools worldwide where German is taught. We advocate for an understanding of immigration as an overall process that extends from the time before departure until an immigrant becomes established in German society — a process that requires German language instruction as well as cultural awareness training in the country of origin and newcomer support structures that feed into each other on both sides of the border. These are just a few of the mandates we are faced with in the coming years.

There is also a question as to whether foreign cultural and educational policy should extend its current focus on regions like Africa and the Eastern European partner countries of the EU to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region. While media and foreign policy currently remains captivated by China, we are advocating for causes that go beyond this to pursue even more intensive partnerships with strong or transitioning educational and cultural centers such as Japan, Korea, Indonesia, or Myanmar.

Critical self-reflection is an integral part of innovative foreign culture policy. We must ask ourselves: Is foreign cultural and educational policy propagating power asymmetries arising from our colonial past? Here it is vital that we are always transparent about the perspectives that inform our words and actions as well as those of our partners so that we can, ideally, reap the benefits of our differences. This is the only way to gain credibility and win trust — the most important prerequisites for open cultural exchange. Another paradox inherent in our work is the mandate placed on us, as the Goethe Institute, from a national German perspective — such as promoting the German language, fostering cultural exchange with Germany, and conveying a differentiated image of Germany — and the mandates that require us to act on a “post-national” level to facilitate transnational platforms. As part of the project “Museum Futures Africa”, for example, the Goethe Institute invites directors of African museums to enter into a mutual exchange of experiences for the purpose of developing shared perspectives for the African museum scene through peer-to-peer learning. The Goethe Institute practices, in response to the local requirements and expectations of our partners abroad, both approaches — as a representative of a German perspective or as an independent intermediary of multilateral processes. This approach is tried and tested and will continue to shape our work moving forward. A third challenging paradox is work in illiberal contexts. Ample intuition and pragmatism rooted in experience are required in order to safeguard free democratic values in an environment shaped by political or societal censorship. Here it is important to work with local cultural partners to develop intelligent and bold formats that create free spaces and shift the boundaries of tolerance without endangering partners and employees.

In order to successfully deal with these paradoxes, employees on-site must have a great deal of experience with international exchange, responsiveness, and listening, while also being prepared to constantly reassess their own roles. Proven professionals are therefore central to foreign cultural and educational policy — one of the reasons that the Federal Foreign Office relies on intermediary organizations like the Goethe Institute or the DAAD. Not only does the Goethe Institute offer professionalism, but it has also maintained a strong global network for many years now. The 158 Goethe Institutes in nearly 100 countries, with their countless connections in non-governmental and governmental cultural and educational institutions are the envy of many countries. What is especially important in times such as these, where travel is less common due to the pandemic or for sustainability reasons: Every Goethe Institute abroad must have a network deeply rooted in the respective cultural and educational milieus. At the same time, they act as spaces for interaction, learning, and free exchange. The Institutes are open to diverse opinions and ways of life. They inspire debate and are welcoming to cultural partners and learners alike. In short: In an uncertain world, Germany is working to foster realms of innovative, diverse, and democratic culture.