UNESCO leads the way on a truly global approach to cultural economy

What happens when we reduce cultural value to the bottom line? @yakobusan Jakob Montrasio 孟亚柯

Last week, UNESCO launched its Creative Economy Report 2013 in New York. It’s a key document in a major reorientation of global cultural policy – away from creative industries and towards a more inclusive and sustainable creative economy approach.

Creative industries focus on culture as an economic sector, while cultural economy emphasises:

1) the wider ecology of profit and not for profit, subsidised and commercial, large and small
2) that cultural values are as important as economic values in framing policies for this sector
3) that these cultural values inform how we should organise that economy

The UNESCO report sets out a new framework for culture, economy and sustainable development over the next decade.

On one hand, the report is part of a concerted attempt to insert a cultural dimension into the next version of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, currently being negotiated for 2015.

On the other, it aims to correct bullish claims that creative industries are set to transform the economies of developing countries. Culture can provide jobs and wealth – but reducing it to an economic bottom line will simply repeat the mistakes of GDP-driven development.

In 2008 a widely cited and highly influential Creative Economy Report by the UN’s trade and development agency, UNCTAD, suggested developing countries were set to be “one of the most dynamic sectors of world commerce”.

Developing countries were stealing the march on the Global North, taking 10% of their market share and accounting for almost half the global export of creative goods and services. After three decades in which culture was seen as the humanising facilitator of sustainable, local development, creative industries were then placed right behind the wheel of rapid economic growth.

There has been growing disquiet in cultural policy circles about the “creative industries” in general.

The term is notoriously vague. It is often confusing as to what the creative industries sector actually consists of – digital, software, hi-tech, consulting? Advocates of a creative industries approach stand accused of over-emphasising the commercial aspects of culture, reducing creativity to intellectual property rights, ignoring the growing exploitation of creative labour, and becoming narrowly economistic, reducing cultural value to the bottom line.

A recent UNESCO workshop in Shanghai, co-organised with Monash and Shanghai Jiaotong University, suggested these concerns about the creative industries are now global in scope.

Though the creative industries have been promoted as an engine of development in the Global South, this ignores the deep-seated and persistent inequalities between North and South.

Indeed, the focus on high-value creative industries (such as digital marketing and communication design) in developing countries has led to widening imbalances between educated elites and the rest, and between metropolitan centres and poorer regions.

As to their growing share of world trade in creative goods and services, if China is taken out of the “developing country” category, the actual percentage falls to around 20%. If we take the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) out, it shrinks even further.

The new UNESCO report significantly changes tack. It builds on the 2005 UNSECO convention on the diversity of cultural expressions, suggesting that purely market-oriented development erodes local cultures and undermines the ability of individuals and communities to access material forms of cultural expression.

The uncritical adoption of creative industry policy nostrums from the Global North, wrapped in promises of a dynamic new source of economic growth, has become increasingly counter-productive.

In response the new report has moved towards the idea of a cultural or creative economy.

Here, economy is not defined exclusively in terms of markets, growth and GDP indicators. It is a return to an older notion of economy as a commonwealth – how we produce wealth and distribute the surplus, with all the political and ethical questions this entails. It is also an ecosystem, a complex balance of diverse entities and activities that cannot be reduced to a single metric or motivation.

Cultural economies do create jobs and wealth; but that wealth is not just about profit or GDP, but also about human wellbeing.

In the hitching of creativity to purely commercial outputs, the creative industries agenda has forgotten why people make and participate in culture. This is not an argument for some return to artistic purity and public subsidy.

Direct public funding has its place alongside a range of different policy tools around investment, taxation, regulation, education, research, development, and so on.

It is an argument that suggests a new approach to cultural economy would not just ask what kind of culture we want to produce – but what kind of economy we want to help us do this.