On April 22, UNESCO organized the first virtual meeting of Ministers of Culture. The meeting lasted more than seven hours and gave the floor to 130 ministers from all continents. The IFCCD team attended the meeting and was thus able to improve its monitoring of measures in support of the cultural sector, but also to identify a number of global issues and opportunities for culture in times of pandemic.

  1. Recognition of the importance of culture

Most ministers stressed the invaluable contribution of culture in helping people through the crisis. Several of them illustrated the social function of culture or associated culture with a right:

  • Culture and art are powerful tools of struggle that can help us overcome the common challenge (Jordan)
  • The right to culture is not a luxury, it is a pillar for our economies and for the achievement of sustainable development goals (Germany)
  • We experiment therapy through art, book, smile (Armenia)
  • Culture is the foundation of society (Netherlands)
  • Culture is a process of humanization, with a restorative power. The pandemic is frightening, culture will be able to save us, while waiting for a vaccine (Argentina)
  • Culture is a means of communication and protection against stress. Cross-cutting public policies are needed to make culture a human right (Panama)
  • Culture is a form of resistance (Bahrain)
  • Culture is a common good, a right for citizens. It has a role of social cohesion. The crisis shows that culture can be a lifeline. Its contribution to physical and mental well-being must be recognized (Spain)

Several ministers stressed the contribution of culture to sustainable development and even to the objectives for 2030 (Greece, Lebanon, Spain, Costa Rica, Germany), while others, such as Cuba and Azerbaijan, see this crisis as an opportunity for the revival of artistic creation and a broad extension of artistic and cultural practices in society through digital dissemination and communication.

  1. An important mobilization for culture

Despite the inequalities between the various countries, support for the cultural sector is very significant. The measures most often used are the adjustment of contributions and dues, deferral of obligations (social security contributions, taxes), the granting of wage subsidies and loans, the conduct of surveys and impact analyses, the establishment of emergency funds and even food assistance.

Mali sees in the current crisis, despite its disastrous consequences, an opportunity to align the cultural policies of African countries with the objectives of the Charter for the Cultural Renaissance of Africa: “any African cultural policy must necessarily enable peoples to flourish in order to assume greater responsibility for their own development”. Other countries, such as Jamaica, are trying to encourage the transition of their informal economy to the formal economy, which would better protect artists and creators. Elsewhere, cultural sponsorship appears to be a realistic source of income for the cultural sector.

Among the many measures enumerated by Peru, some are targeted at indigenous peoples, particularly in the Amazon, to isolate them from the pandemic while giving them access to culture. The recommendations produced had been translated into 20 languages, a measure similar to that implemented in Mexico, where health manuals had been translated into 60 languages.

Large parts of the cultural sector, particularly heritage sites, festivals and museums, depend on tourism, which has a major impact on attendance and attendance. If the crisis is affecting the cultural sector even in countries where there are no reported cases, such as Lesotho or the Cook Islands, it is because tourism has been completely devastated by the pandemic. Indeed, several ministers placed more emphasis on this sector than on the cultural sector. Some countries want to focus on domestic tourism, but not everyone can do that. Others, such as Kazakhstan, where the national tourism agency organizes virtual tours of the country, are relying on digital technology to remain an attractive destination.

  1. Towards an explosion of platforms and online offerings?

It seems that in all regions of the world, dozens of platforms are being created with the support of governments and public institutions. Many measures have been put in place to provide virtual access to museums, libraries, heritage sites and galleries, while other platforms provide access to cultural expressions.

In Azerbaijan, for example, the measures adopted have made it possible to redirect 80% of cultural activities towards the Internet, including dissemination on social media. After the crisis, one of the challenges will be to ensure that culture is not confined to the virtual sphere. For the Minister of Bahrain, the opportunity must be seized to promote virtual reality, archaeological discoveries, access to intangible heritage and online music.

  1. The pandemic is likely to increase global inequalities

Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO, stressed this at the very beginning of the meeting: inequalities, which are already significant, are likely to increase even further as a result of the pandemic.

The minister from Dominica said her country is barely recovering from the consequences of Hurricane Maria, which caused a 226% drop in GDP. Other countries, such as Mozambique, which was hit by two cyclones last year, or Lesotho, would like to develop an online content offer that respects copyright, but would need help from international partners.

The vital need to accelerate the digital transition highlights digital divides that will aggravate inequalities between countries, but also within territories. The Chilean minister pointed out that several communities in her country do not have access to the Internet and this is the case in many countries. Several other countries reported a lack of training and technical skills and the difficulties encountered by more vulnerable groups (migrants, indigenous people, women).

  1. A call for international cooperation

Many countries have called for substantial international support. The Sudanese minister explained that developing countries already allocate few resources to culture in normal times. Currently, the fight against the virus is taking up all the space. The Chadian minister referred to the “competition of emergencies” in his country which, like others in the Sahel, is caught up in the problems of terrorism.

There were fewer responses. Germany stands out for the development of partnerships in Africa and the Middle East for cultural projects and the development of digital platforms by the Goethe Institute. His Minister added that no country faced the challenges alone and that these approaches were a source of learning for them. For his part, the Minister of San Marino proposed that cooperation between states be made more concrete by encouraging the circulation of works of art.

  1. A call to make Web giants pay

In her introduction, Audrey Azoulay suggested integrating platforms that disseminate cultural expressions via the Internet into cultural policies and funding mechanisms. However, relatively few ministers referred to this type of measure.

The ministers of Canada and Quebec were the only ones to make this call so clearly. The Canadian minister wants to adopt measures to ensure that all players contribute to national cultural ecosystems. The Quebec minister wants multinational companies to contribute to the system, particularly by promoting the discoverability of content, and for creators to reap a better share of the benefits.

Ministers from Lebanon and Belgium stressed the importance of intellectual property rights and fair remuneration of artists on online platforms.

  1. What role for UNESCO?

The Algerian minister stressed that culture has become one of the rare areas of collaboration between States and that UNESCO’s role is to foster exchanges, set up international mutual assistance mechanisms and develop digital platforms to promote access to heritage and culture.

The Minister of the United Arab Emirates, for her part, proposed that UNESCO develop a model for the protection of intellectual property in the context of the digital transition.

Finally, others called on UNESCO to document the impacts of Covid-19 on culture.

What prospects for the diversity of cultural expressions?

Very important issues were raised during this long meeting and UNESCO’s efforts to support a global space for exchange and reflection are to be applauded.  The ResiliArt initiative is very relevant in this regard and the IFCCD is very pleased to collaborate with UNESCO in organizing a second debate on May 14.

This discussion highlights at least two urgent needs to support a revival of cultural activities that is sustainable, more equitable and ensures a diversity of expressions. First, that of rethinking cultural cooperation at a time when the health crisis is putting pressure on already scarce resources in this field and when restrictions on mobility could last for a long time. Secondly, that of guaranteeing the contribution of the giants of the Web to cultural ecosystems in order to generate new sources of income and enhance local cultural expressions.

Culture in times of pandemic: a remedy that needs to be taken care of

Article
IFCCD
28 April 2020
COVID-19, UNESCO
Photo © UNESCO