Minister Koenders: "Culture is an intrinsic part of combating poverty"

November 2007 -

"Central in the policy of development cooperation is how people want to be helped. That takes creativity and awareness. Culture gives the power and the space to work on the millennium objectives. It is an intrinsic part of combating poverty." Never before has Bert Koenders, the Netherlands' Minister of Development Cooperation, been so outspoken about the role culture plays in development.

"To me, culture is especially about innovation and breaking away from patterns and taboos; it counterbalances cynicism. The positive sides of development are mediated by culture. I believe that contemporary expression of culture is more important in that respect than retaining cultural heritage or folklore. Although in Afghanistan, for example, where so much has been destroyed, the reconstruction of the national museum is of eminent importance. In general, however, one might say that cultures are increasingly internally focused. You can break through that by seeing cultures as being dynamic. Cultures need to communicate again. Culture should be a focus of interest throughout the entire policy of development cooperation. It is now seen too much as a separate box, while every project should actually devote attention to the cultural component."

Koenders appears to be very much in favour of change, and will certainly not stop with policy intentions. He knows from personal experience, for example, the part that theatre can play. "Why don't we assign a larger role to culture in helping in conflict situations? In Rwanda and Darfur, extensive use was made of theatre as a tool to help people work through their traumatic experiences and rediscover their identity. Theatre is the perfect instrument for that. But today's cultural programmes are much too static. It is important to expand the dialogue with developing countries, the communication between cultures and exchanges with organisations and artists in non-Western countries. Thus reciprocity is extremely important. In supporting culture, it is important to listen to the local issues. We must avoid supporting the art that we ourselves like best. The objective is enabling cultures in development to develop in their own way. The policy is therefore on-demand. That also means that embassies must have more know-how in recognising and supporting good projects. The enormous growth of the number of young people in the poorest countries is important to me. They are the changers in these societies, but are still often caught in a split between traditions on the one side and MTV on the other. Culture gives them instruments to shape their own lives."

Policy is on the move in culture and development. A coalition of seventeen Dutch organisations in the cultural sector and a number of organisations for development cooperation has been working since the spring of 2007 to get a stronger role assigned to culture in development cooperation. On 30 June 2007, Koenders signed an agreement to that extent in Schokland, specifying measures that include the intention of doubling the Foreign Affairs funds, which means that the culture budget will be increased by ten million euros. "A sum of that size cannot be found in the existing budget, but there is room to intensify efforts," according to Koenders. "I want our activities here to be on-demand as well. The details of the Schokland agreement are still being determined. It may seem to be taking a long time, but we all know where the path of good intentions leads. So I would rather wait until the plans of the field are clearer. Thus we are developing a new way of working in which culture is an integral part of the development policy. We also want to strengthen the debate in the Netherlands. Interest from the Dutch society is extremely important in developing the policy. The coalition that compiled the Schokland Agreement on culture is organising a conference on 31 March 2008. I hope to hear about the plans then, after which we must finalise the allocation of funds."

Culture as the ninth millennium objective is hopeless according to Koenders. "It is undermining because the results are so difficult to measure. I do not support that at all." Koenders does support culture as an economic power, in which he also includes the Unesco convention on cultural diversity. "The French viewpoint of protectionism is ridiculed a lot, but of course we must all work to protect vulnerable culture."