Opinions and Outlook Culture, development, human rights and democracy in Africa: joining the dots

In 2000, leaders of 170 countries met at the United Nations and agreed on 8 development goals to be achieved by 2015. Given the conditions in Africa, the millennium development goals are most relevant to this continent.  

This is a shortened version of the original article. To read the full article, download the Goethe-Institut magazine, issue 2/2012 (in German) 

What is “Development”?

The 1998 UNESCO report on Culture and Development provides two views of “development”. a. development as a process of economic growth. b. development as ‘a process that enhances the effective freedom of the people involved to pursue whatever they value’. The second definition is based on the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) understanding of development as “human development”. The aim of development should be human development, and with it, the realisation and practice of human rights and freedoms as contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948.

Economic growth as a measure of development
Traditional development wisdom is that countries need to grow their economies in order to have the means to engage in social and human development. According to the International Monetary Fund, 7 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world from 2001-2010 were African. It is not that economic growth is not taking place in Africa, it is a case of what kind of growth and who its chief beneficiaries are.

The gap is widening

According to the African Development Bank, the countries with the largest economies in terms of Gross Domestic Product are South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Angola, Sudan, Tunisia and Ethiopia. In South Africa’s case, while there has been significant economic growth over the last 17 years since the advent of democracy, we have also seen a huge rise in unemployment, the gap between rich and poor has increased to one of the largest in the world. One may conclude then, that economic growth is not necessarily a precursor to social and human development.

Development and the interests it serves

Development is not necessarily driven primarily by the needs and interests of its supposed beneficiaries; it takes place in the context of a world order with huge structural wealth divides. Development then, is not a neutral activity. It is, in fact, both a political act and an act of culture. Through the development process, the values, beliefs and ideas of the intended beneficiaries, are acted upon and change; and/or these values, beliefs and ideas obstruct the development action, so that development and culture co-exist in a dynamic and creative tension. Historically, the links between culture and development have almost been always considered in terms of the culture of the supposed beneficiaries. It is equally important to turn the looking glass the other way to consider the extent to which the values, ideology, beliefs, customs, ideas and morals i.e. the culture of the west or global north and their economic and security interests, pose obstacles to real development and/or dictate, define or place pressure for certain kinds of development to take place.

Human rights and freedom for all

South Africa has held four free and fair elections since 1994 and is seen as a beacon of democracy on the African continent, yet since 1994, the gap between rich and poor has widened. Just as economic growth does not necessarily lead to development in the interests of the majority, so democracy does not necessarily lead to development, respect for human rights and changes in the lives of the majority of people. For these reasons, Arterial Network defined development as “the ongoing generation and application of resources (financial, human, infrastructural and other) to create the optimal conditions (political, cultural, social, economic and other) in which human beings may enjoy the full range of human rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. For us, the end of development is fundamental human rights and freedoms for all, and development must then integrate social, economic, political and other strategies to create the conditions in which such freedoms and rights are enjoyed.

Culture and Development

What does all this have to do with culture? UNESCO declared 1988-1997 the World Decade for Cultural Development revealing the limitations of a development concept based primarily on quantitative and material growth. The two principal objectives of the World Decade for Cultural Development- greater emphasis on the cultural dimension in the developmental process and the stimulation of creative skills and cultural life in general – reflect an awareness of the need to respond to the major challenges which shape the horizon of the twenty-first century.

Development strategies are not transferable

Culture is hardly considered in contemporary development strategies; development tends to be imposed to meet particular ends. More recently, the cultural dimension has largely referred to the potential importance of the creative industries as economic drivers of development. The lessons of post-colonial development have not been learned i.e. that economic models and strategies that might have worked in the global north, may not work in the global south because of cultural and other factors. The arts are reduced to their economic value and their broader value to society is compromised as investments and subsidies are made primarily to those disciplines and cultural activities that yield the best economic return.

There are three broad categories of artistic practice that have relevance to the ‘cultural dimension of development’.

  • the arts practised for their own sake and as the creative means through which a society or community reflects on itself
  • the arts utilised for overt developmental purposes such as the use of theatre to spread health messages
  • the creative industries where the primary drivers are the generation of profit
In an African context, all of these are relevant and necessary. Given the conditions on our continent, the starting point should not be economic, but rather human rights and freedom. The goal of the creative industries and development should be to serve human rights and freedom, rather than have these fundamental rights subservient to global north understandings or perspectives on economic growth and/or development.