The proposed Convention on Cultural Diversity: a developing world perspective

May 2005 -

Mike van Graan from the Performing Arts Network of South Africa about the Unesco Convention on Cultural Diversity.

Recently, Google, an American search-engine provider, announced that it will place 15 million books from five leading libraries in the United States and Britain on the internet. In this way, said a Google spokesman “the entire world has access to our collection.”

In reaction, President Jacques Chirac of France announced that he will launch a counter-offensive against this perceived American attempt at cultural domination, by working with various European governments to put the whole of European literature on-line.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, a gala fundraising dinner aimed primarily at the private sector is held to raise funds for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development’s (NEPAD) first major cultural project i.e. to build a library in which to house 13 th century manuscripts discovered in Timbuktu in Mali. These manuscripts provide evidence of reading and writing in Africa at very high levels of sophistication, hundreds of years before the advent of colonialism.

In these three paragraphs, the essence of the struggle for global cultural diversity is epitomized. The wealth of America – digitally copying each of the 15 million books will cost US$7 each – means that they have the resources to back their cultural hegemonic project. Those who seek to counter this hegemony in the north, also have the collective resources to do so. However, in the developing world, simply to archive manuscripts that celebrate African cultural achievement, requires a special fundraising effort – in a different country to the one where the manuscripts were found – and which produces less than US$1 million.

The structure and pattern of world trade, the inexorable need for corporations to find new markets, the ownership of media and cultural conglomerates in the north and their global reach, the advancement of technology all mean that the values, the worldviews, the ideas and the interests of those who have resources will come to dominate increasingly. Where there are alternative values, ways of understanding and viewing the world, alternative systems of thought and patterns of human behaviour in relation to each other and their environment, there simply are not the resources to project these into the global terrain where they may compete with those of the resourced.

The aim of the proposed Convention on Cultural Diversity is to arrest this inevitability, to attempt to level the playing fields, to allow governments to protect and develop their own cultural values and products, and to ensure a culturally diverse world, rooted in the notion that all cultures and languages have equal value and legitimacy, and a right to exist.

In reality though, it is difficult to be anything but cynical about the effect of such a Convention, even if it manages to achieve unanimous support from UNESCO’s member states.

First, the nature of global capitalism is such that it shows little respect for conventions, and profit is the primary driver of “development” and trade, rather than noble ideals about human rights, cultural diversity and equality.

Secondly, if the USA has shown so little respect for multi-lateralism and has gone to war in Iraq despite the United Nations’ position to the contrary; if they can reject the Kyoto protocol on the environment that has to do with ensuring a sustainable future for everyone on the planet, and if they can refuse to participate in a world court dealing with war crimes, then it is unlikely that they will show any respect for a Convention that has noble ideals, but which may present an irritation or obstacle to the logic of “the market”.

Thirdly, many developing countries that will probably support the Convention themselves show little support or respect for cultural development, for the creative industries and for artistic practice. Signing such a Convention means nothing without investing in, and creating the conditions in which artists can produce and distribute quality products that can compete with those from the north, thereby offering concrete “cultural diversity” i.e. the option for consumers to choose between various products.

Having said this, it does not mean that progressive forces should not continue to struggle for a Convention that enhances and protects cultural diversity. At best, a good Convention will slow down economic and cultural neo-colonialism, and at worst, it will provide a useful tool for artists and activists at a local and national level to fight for increased support for their work from their governments.

Mike van Graan is General Secretary, Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA)