Are African cultures for sale?

Elements concerning the situation of the cultural sector in Africa

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This text resumes the expose given as part of the « Now Africa! » seminar organised by CulturesFrance (on the 24th and 25th of October 2006 at the National French Library in Paris). It was quite a perilous task because it meant not only giving an insight into the state of the cultural sector but also summing up its current stakes. This all-encompassing presentation is necessarily incomplete but it attempts to delimit the boundaries. The constraints which weigh on the development of the cultural operators.

Before getting down to the nub of the argument, it may be useful to recall three things. Firstly, what do we mean by culture? Need it be said that the conception of culture can perceptibly differ from one country to another, from one continent to another? According to the world conference on cultural politics organised by UNESCO in Mexico in 1982, « culture can now be considered as an ensemble of distinctive traits, spiritual and material, intellectual and emotional, which characterize a society or a social group. It includes arts and literature, lifestyles, fundamental human rights, systems of values, traditions and beliefs. »
That says a lot about the extent of the cultural domain. This definition covers a wide anthropological sector which is in league with the notion of development. Well beyond the limited domain of artistic creation, this acceptance seems to prevail today in Africa. It is in line with a wider reflection on the modalities of sustainable development on the continent.
Secondly, must we recall that Africa comprises over 50 countries and 925 million inhabitants? More than one thousand two hundred languages are spoken there, each being the vector of its own culture. Africa is the continent of diversity par excellence. What do South Africa, where the average income per inhabitant is 10 910 $ (2001 figures (1); source: World Bank) that is, more than in Brazil or Russia, and countries that are among the poorest in the world such as Chad and Burkina Faso, have in common?
The situation of civil societies, artistic fields and cultural politics differs noticeably from one country to another. There is no cultural economy on the continent but a great diversity of cultural cases, practices and development. An overly simplistic use of the singular needs to be avoided as far as possible in favour of a more suited plural: the economies of the cultural sectors, the ways of development, etc.
Moreover, in the current context of globalization, the economy of cultural sectors in Africa cannot be studied by limiting it to the geographical frontiers of the continent. The numerous connections with other regions of the world, which take place at every stage of the valorisation chain of cultural products (from their origin to distribution, via creation, production and promotion) and the nature of the decisive relation with the Diasporas have to be taken into account. The Diasporas are actually today considered by the African union as representing the sixth region of Africa.
Finally, as we know, today as never before, what we call the cultural or creative industries represent major economic stakes, on a planetary scale.
According to UNESCO and UNCTAD statistics, the international trade of cultural goods is one of the most dynamic sectors of the world economy. In less than twenty years, between 1980 and 1998, the international exchanges of cultural goods (cinema, radio and television, magazines, literature and music) have multiplied fivefold. The cultural industries apparently represent globally up to 7% of world GNP and 3% in the developing countries. In the United States, they contribute to 12% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and to 9% of the creation of jobs! They are their first export product.
And in the about fifty less advanced countries, according to a 2001 UNCTAD report, the proceeds of the musical industries reaches « 50 billion dollars per year, that is much more than the 17 billion brought in by coffee, the 20 billion brought in by cotton, the 21 billion brought in by tobacco or the 27 billion brought in by banana. »
The world marketisation of culture
Are African cultures for sale? Not without provocation but also with some lucidity, we can now ask ourselves this, given the general situation of artistic fields in Africa. We’ve got to say that the deep changes seen for about the last fifteen years and the extent of the economic challenges now linked to the cultural goods are to say the least worrying.
According to the excellent study titled « The cultural industries of the countries of the south, stakes of the project for an international agreement on cultural diversity » carried out in 2004 by Francisco d’Almeida and Marie Lise Alleman, (2) while the international exchanges of cultural goods and services keep on increasing, their development is unbalanced. « It’s mainly between a limited number of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan on the one hand and India, China, Brazil, a few countries in South America, South Africa, Egypt, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia on the other hand. The imbalance of these exchanges and their concentration are particularly obvious in the sectors of cinema, television, music, and editing ».
For the cinema, thirteen countries, with the United States first, are responsible for 80% of production and world exchanges. Similarly, for the editing sector: thirteen countries are mainly responsible for the world trade of books and magazines. The United States and the countries of Western Europe contribute up to 67 % of this sector.
The study thus describes the cultural and political consequences of this concentration and imbalance. « The domination of the cultural goods and services market results in the impoverishment through self-deprecation of the local artistic expression, and by an unconscious aesthetic imitation which generates works out of step with their cultural environment. The control of distribution networks by the main conglomerates rarely gives the cultural industries of the south the chance to make them known, to contribute to a diversification of the offer. […] The concentration of the market gives the main cultural industries the possibility to influence cultural references as well as the audiences’ identity-based references. »(3) It could not be clearer… and these conclusions really aren’t wonderful news.
It seems important to recall this context before more precisely tackling the mutations of the cultural sectors in Africa. Main economic stakes, struggles of influence between the United States and Europe for the control of the distribution circuits, acknowledgement of the necessity to preserve a cultural diversity endangered in the entire world…the international context is influenced by this intense marketisation of culture.
We know that the Africa’s part in world trade is given as insignificant: it would be of about 1%. We know the continent has an abundance of mining and natural wealth though, which, once exploited, constitutes a considerable proportion of international trade. But this wealth is not or little exploited by African companies. That is what explains the weakness of the continent’s part in world trade.
What if Africa were facing a similar challenge today? How to exploit its huge cultural wealth? How to control its valorisation and distribution processes, the added value, so these can benefit as best they can the continent’s development? So many crucial questions which are imperative given the mutations of the sector and the stakes that are connected to it.
Eminently political and economic, the question of the development of the cultural industries in Africa was for long considered as secondary, far behind great humanitarian causes. It became obvious only recently, in the years 2000, on the occasion of great international forums.
In October 2006, in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, the second meeting of the Ministries of cultures of the ACP countries (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific), which preceded the holding of the first ACP festival and of the professional forum of the cultural operators of these countries, shows the revival of political interest in this field in the middle of social, economic and technological mutation.
The significant emergence of non-state actors
It is without a doubt the main trait of the evolution of African cultural landscapes during the last fifteen years. Indeed, until the turning point of the nineties, in a majority of countries, every action, from the education of artists to the distribution of the works, were almost exclusively missions from the states.
Thanks to the wind of democratization which came from the countries of Eastern Europe but also globalization and the recommendations of the Bretton Woods international institutions, processes of decentralisation and liberalisation have appeared in numerous African states at the turn of the nineties. They have had a considerable impact, both in positive and negative respects, on African societies. In every sector, it has gradually become accepted that development is the shared responsibility of the states, the local public powers and civil society.
Séverine Cappiello, author of a postgraduate degree thesis on African cultural development and author of an article on this subject in issue 65 of Africultures sums up: « Since the nineties, we have seen the emergence of autonomous civil actors, from Africa or elsewhere, operating in the African cultural field and being the link between artists, work and public. Fundamental intermediary between the individual and the collective, the artistic and the political, the local and the international, it’s at the heart of all tensions: the stake of a structural African cultural development crystallized around it.
Who are the African cultural operators? Mostly, artists who became producers or cultural structure directors, assuming the role of operator out of necessity or by default. In Africa, cultural operator isn’t a profession governed by a collective convention, so its status isn’t recognized. » (4)
Souleymane Koly is one of them. Of Guinean origin, living in the Ivory Coast for more than thirty years, he is the founder and the director of one of the most popular companies in West Africa: the Koteba Ballet from Abidjan created in 1974. Dancer and choreographer, author and director, he became producer « by dint of circumstance » to use his expression in an interview given to Africultures (see issue 14 of Africultures).
There are nevertheless more and more specialised operators who don’t wear the two hats of artists and entrepreneur, such as the musical producer Mamadou Konté in Senegal or Ali Diallo in Burkina Faso… The list of cultural operators would be very long to draw up on the scale of the continent, but it would remain relatively short in many countries. Nevertheless a thorough identification process has yet to be carried out. Some operators work actually completely informally, without any support, either from the state, or from private sectors, or from international cooperation organisations.
Finally, there are all the art critics and cultural journalists who take on functions in different structures and also contribute to the structuring of the sector, through the newspapers they create, the networking they carry out or the functions they hold (such as Yacouba Konaté, vice-president of the international association of art critics).
Globally, even if their number keeps on growing, the lack of professional operators relates back to the reality of numerous countries: the lack of recognition that cultural actors still suffer of in many societies, the lack of status, and the weakness of the organisation and professional trade unions…
In the new and precious manual on ACP cultural industries, (5) the constraints that weigh on the structuring and the development of professional cultural operators are listed as follows: (6)
– The general situation of the economy
The development of the cultural industries requires a series of basic facilities (reliable transportations means, constant electricity supply, information and communication technology access) that not all countries have.
– Some national political situations
They can have very negative effects on cultural and artistic expressions. Authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, situations of conflicts and insecurities considerably curb the development of cultural industries.
– The poverty of artists and operators
The Manual insists on the weakness and the instability of the revenues of artists and operators. Most have to have other more well-paid activities to sustain a living, so they cannot become full-time professionals. Artists’ poverty leads them to accept any type of work and payment conditions and takes away the possibility to invest. It’s also a brake for innovation because it prevents risk-taking and encourages the copy of already tried and tested products.
What’s even worse is that poverty can « lead production towards the safe markets of tourism, religion, political propaganda, dedications… Poverty forces people to favour short-term profits to the detriment of strategical approaches to the longer term. Combined with qualifications problems, it brings about a lack of confidence which paralyses the enterprising spirit. » (7)
– The lack of regulation of the cultural sector
It indeed remains very largely dominated by the informal. Even the functioning of the formal sector isn’t very regulated. The markets, whether they are local, national or regional, lack organisation and the lack of status which would guarantee the artists a minimum wage and social security traps them in a situation of precariousness.
– Insufficient royalties’ management
Even in their current state, still points out the report, the cultural industries could induce bigger incomes if royalties were better managed. Artists and operators often aren’t aware of their rights, but above all financial means and human resources lack to insure a better collecting and redistribution of these rights.
– Major funding difficulties
We know that cultural actors need subsidies or credits. The existing subsidy mechanisms are very insufficient compared to the needs. The fact that they are for the most part not only financed but also directly run by Northern organisations poses the eternal problem of the influence on the contents. As for sponsoring, it’s still not very widely developed, especially in the francophone countries.
– Lack of facilities
Still according to the Manual, in many countries, the situation regarding cultural facilities and especially distribution facilities has deteriorated during the last twenty years. Between the sixties and the eighties, numerous states had succeeded in creating cinemas and community socio-cultural centres on their territory. Today, a lot of these places have been taken over by churches. There is often only one big public facility (such as a national theatre or a culture centre) left in the capitals. Often without financial means and barely maintained, this facility is anyway only accessible to renowned artists.
This situation needs nevertheless to be qualified. As far as cultural facilities are concerned, the North African and Anglophone countries, in particular South Africa but also Nigeria and Ghana, are much better provided for than the French and Portuguese-speaking sub-Saharan countries. This difference deserves to be noticed and questioned.
Finally, to finish this long list of constraints which weigh on the development of cultural operators, seven other essential points are mentioned:
– Lack of qualifications
It’s the crucial question of setting up adequate training courses. The development of cultural industries indeed requires people who are highly qualified in the artistic, technical and management fields. The training offer is still largely insufficient and often too theoretical. Moreover, often designed from the outside, this doesn’t always adequately answer needs.
– Lack or weakness of support structures
These structures which help artists and operators to handle different aspects of their projects or of their career either don’t exist or are dormant. They could notably compensate for some qualification problems.
– Lack of information
All the parties interested in the development of cultural industries remain for the most part very badly informed on crucial issues: the potential of cultural industries, their logic, their functioning, international conventions the states have vowed to respect, royalties, work regulations, potential funding sources…
– Often unfavourable taxation
In many countries still, tax systems don’t take the realities of the cultural sectors into account and hinder their development. The organisation of a show, for example, is often heavily taxed.
– The difficulties of circulation of people and works
It’s one of the main problems. The difficulties to go from one region to another in Africa are huge. For example, to go from Ouagadougou to Kinshasa, it’s easier to go via Paris or Brussels than to try and get to this destination without leaving the continent. This isn’t an isolated example. Intra-continental circulation is in a catastrophic state.
As for circulation towards the north, it has been made terribly difficult by the tightening of immigration regulations. A completely pernicious climate has set in. More and more visas, sometimes just transit visas, are refused to artists coming from Africa. This state of affairs reveals the sometimes manifest incoherence of the foreign policies applied by the same state … which supports the creation of artists that it refuses to welcome… This kind of « political schizophrenia » again deserves to be noticed and debated…
– The weakness of the representation of professional interests
National associations of musicians, visual artists, producers, cultural animators…these organisations designed to represent the interests of different categories of persons exist but they are not always efficient.
Finally, the last point of this too long list:
– The difficulty of networking
Since the end of the eighties, the networking process has played a fundamental role in the growth of the cultural industries of the countries of the north, but it’s not always efficient in Africa. Subjected to the difficulties of local survival, cultural actors don’t always have the human resources, the material means and tools necessary to network. In recent years, several networks have been encouraged by Northern institutions (network Ocre by Afaa or Chesafrica by IETM) but their efficiency was or is questioned. On the other hand, a lot less formal networks, that are usually also less extended, have also been created by private operators. Generated by clearly identified artistic solidarities and common interests, these networks sometimes have a considerable local impact. The network of rap festivals which built itself around big operators such as Awadi in Senegal or Ali Diallo in Burkino Faso today shows a real capacity to combine its means, its capacities and its experiences.
We cannot ignore this long list of constraints identified by the Manual on the ACP cultural industries if we want to give an account of the current cultural landscape of numerous African countries.
Complex relations with the authorities
The emergence of private cultural operators in Africa doesn’t exclude, of course, the question of the role of the state in this field. On the contrary, it makes it more acute. For the development of African cultural industries cannot happen without a positive political, economic and juridical frame.
Let’s recall that after Independence, many African states adopted an ambitious cultural policy, which put the accent on the construction of a cultural identity as a factor of national unity and on the role of the state in this matter.
Léopold Sédar Senghor, of course, but also Sekou Touré or Kwame Nkrumah made culture one of their priorities. Then, little by little, especially from the nineties on, numerous states diverted from culture, encouraged by international backers who preferred to focus their help on sectors deemed more of a priority. Culture wasn’t part of their development plans…
This disengaging didn’t stop some states from trying to keep the control of culture. « The political sphere has always been aware of the power of culture. So it is difficult to let it develop freely, » notes Damien Pwono, cultural development expert, in the interview he gave to Africultures on the occasion of this special dossier. Effectively, culture has maintained and still maintains complex relations with the authorities in numerous African countries.
Nevertheless, after more than forty years of failure of international help on the continent, the context has completely changed. Culture has returned to the centre of the concept of sustainable development. The Cotonou agreements, signed in 2000 between the European Union and the ACP countries, explicitly refer to it. And in view of the new challenges of the globalized trade, as they today see their cultures very clearly threatened, the states finally seem to want to redefine cultural policies in step with the new stakes. But in particular, they’re finally starting to take the huge economic potential of their cultural diversity seriously.
The evolution is too slow… without a doubt! Culture stills looks like the poor relative in national budgets or in international help programmes. For information, Mali is currently the country in West Africa that invests the most in the cultural sector.
According to Chab Touré’s article (« Culture Money in Mali »), the ministry of culture’s budget stood at 3.7 billion CFA francs in 2006, that is 5659 154 euros. That represented only 0.74% of the national budget. And out of this total sum, only 930 million CFA francs, that is 25% of this budget, are devoted to investment. All the rest, that is 75%, is for the functioning and payroll charges of the ministry.
On the other hand, the very significant part of foreign institutions’ funding appears in the composition of this budget. We know about the European Union’s considerable provision in financing cultural sectors in numerous African countries. Thus, from 2005-2008, the budget of the Support Programme for the Development of Artistic and Cultural Initiatives (PAVIA) was 3.2 billion CFA francs, that is 4,9 million euros. This budget was shared out between, on the one hand, a « creation support » provision implemented by the Cultural Initiatives Support Programme (PSIC) and on the other hand an « institutional support » provision at the ministry of culture.
If we add France’s financial support (through the cultural cooperation and action department of its embassy and the French cultural centre in Bamako), the contribution of the European Union and the contribution of the intergovernmental organisation of the Francophonie in the Malian cultural sector, we would come to a proportion of about 80% of the national cultural budget… Once again, do these situations not deserve to be known, clarified, and questioned?
Develop cultural actors’ « strategic skills »
What has to be done to reintroduce a necessary debate about the real stakes of cultural development in Africa? How to overcome the current lack of theoretical dialogue, thinking, construction? This Africultures special dossier, just like the « Now Africa » seminar, wish to contribute and reopen the debate, especially in French-speaking Africa. A certain number of choices, of views, of challenges have to be known, structured, and talked about collectively. I would like to name a few of these ideas for thought, debate, and action:
– Work for the acknowledgement of the artist as an economic actor and creator of wealth
Let’s not forget that cultural industries directly create jobs. The cultural sector covers a large corporate body (artists, craftsmen, technicians, training officers, shopkeepers, operators, and so on) with different skills transferable to other sectors. On the other hand, extensive economic activities are developing around cultural activity, such as catering, hotel business, tourism, small shops and so on. Last but not least, cultural specificity remains a significant comparative advantage in a system of world competition: it’s one of the keys of the success of Jamaican reggae which knew how to take advantage of its lack of means to assert its identity and its styles.
– Take into account the digital revolution
Today we are witnessing an opening up of the physical constraints of the market. Internet offers not only new creation opportunities but also cultural goods circulation and distribution opportunities. Internet can play a triple role in the structuring of cultural industries, in their networking, in the stakes of visibility and promotion of artists of the South but also directly in the distribution of cultural goods: CDs, movies, books, by-products, and so on. These questions naturally lie at the heart of the debates we wish to raise. How African cultural products can insert themselves at best in this new economy? Which global strategies can be put into place? With whom?
– Introduce the idea of competition in the cultural vocabulary, as well as the idea of cooperation
The world cultural economy evolves at high speed. If in the agricultural industries sector, the South countries obviously cannot compete with the Northern countries, maybe they can in the creativity sector? While sugar and banana are locally on the decline, cultural industries already turn out to create more wealth than traditional industries on the continent! Why do the African countries support them so little? Why do they seem to refuse entering the competition, in these sectors in which they clearly have unique comparative advantages? The assessment is nevertheless clearly obvious: the only sector where Africa is respected worldwide, today as well as yesterday, is the cultural sector. « Where politics failed, artists have succeeded », sums up Damien Pwono.
– Have the courage to discuss the perverse effects of the arts funding systems
Of course, it isn’t about wanting to suppress them but to question them in order to reduce the negative consequences on the sustainable development of the continent. Last October, a cultural operator had the courage to question itself this way at the ACP professional meeting in Santo Domingo: how far can we go with this cooperation system? Rather than subsidising creation, wouldn’t it be better to help us create new markets?
– Develop the links between the cultural actors in the countries and their Diasporas
Do we know that the international public aid represents only a third of the contribution the Diasporas send to their countries of origin? The Diasporas/networks countries unquestionably deserve to be reinforced.
– Invent, innovate, dare, risk…
In these times of globalized trade and marketing, are we still capable of ideological inventiveness? Do we give ourselves the means to explore the range of possibilities? Do we measure and do we use all the resources of Africa’s cultural capital? There is a « problem of the culture of the cultural sector », underlines Damien Pwono. We cannot afford not to reflect upon the responsibility of the artists. « The enemy of the cultural sector isn’t always commercial or political, he continues. Sometimes it can be the artists themselves. What are their commitments towards their sector? Not only in what they do, but also as citizens? Stars rally against hunger, war or Aids. That’s very good. But what do they do to defend the cultural sector when, for example, the schools’ art education budget is done away with in a country? »
– Start to undo one of the essential ties between Africa and Europe: the hierarchical system
This hierarchical system and this domination, which is both economic and aesthetic, occur in the cultural sector. All its actors acknowledge today the trap of the inequality of exchanges between the North and the South. Isn’t it time to clearly pose the sensitive issues linked to the intercultural cooperation with Africa?
Severine Cappiello thus highlights the particularity of these « exchanges »: artistic demands prevail over structural quality. There is a huge confusion between « demands » (usually on the part of those who can afford it) and « exchange » (an enrichment that should be mutual but which, because it is unequal, is confronted with a lack of openness). In reality, cultural development isn’t the first objective. The advantage of the immediate artistic visibility undeniably overtakes the long-term structuring factor.
It is thus high time to rebalance the powers and influences not only through a new ethic of these exchanges but also by developing South-South cooperation.
– Thinking about African cultural development, also of course means thinking about European cultural development
Highlight their interactions, their solidarity and their conflict of interest.
– In short, it is urgent to develop what Balandier calls « the strategic skill » of Africa’s cultural actors.
One of the true challenges is to be able to create bridges between the States, the cultural operators and the private sector to work for a sustainable development on the continent. None of these three actors can act alone today. We must think, invent and set up real partnerships. The countries where cultural industries are flourishing are the ones where they have managed to form an alliance between state actors and business sectors.
Have we answered the question: « are African cultures for sale? » What’s certain is that they possess a huge economic potential and that the cultural stake of development is indeed the one of political sovereignty.
We shall finish this presentation with the words of the historian Joseph Ki-Zerbo, who, in his essay entitled « A quand l’Afrique » (« Still Waiting For Africa »), (8) throws light on the stakes of cultural globalization for the continent:
« It’s by its « being » that Africa will really be able to access the asset. An authentic asset; not an asset of hand-out, of begging. This is about the problem of identity and the role to play in the world. Without identity, we are an object of history, an instrument used by others: a utensil. And identity is the role adopted; it’s like in a play where everyone is given a role to play. […] Because Africans cannot content themselves with cultural elements coming from the outside. We are built, moulded, formed and transformed by manufactured products from industrialised countries of the North, by what they carry of cultural content. While we send to the North objects which have no cultural message to bring to our partners. The cultural exchange is much more unequal than the exchange of material goods. Everything that is added value carries culture. […] In other words, we’re being confined in areas where we produce and earn as little as possible. And our culture has fewer opportunities to spread, to participate in world culture. That’s why one of Africa’s great problems is the struggle for fair cultural exchange. For that, we need to give our cultures infrastructures. A culture without material and logistic base is only passing wind. »

1. Quoted in the presentation document of the Agency of the Francophonie 2004-2005 programme, p. 37.
2. « The cultural industries of the countries of the south, stakes of the project of international agreement on cultural diversity », Francisco d’Almeida and Marie Lise Alleman (in collaboration with Bernard Miège and Dominique Wallon), Intergovernmental Agency of the Francophonie, 2004, p. 24.
3. « The cultural industries of the countries of the south, stakes of the project of international agreement on cultural diversity », Francisco d’Almeida and Marie Lise Alleman (in collaboration with Bernard Miège and Dominique Wallon), Intergovernmental Agency of the Francophonie, 2004, p. 24.
4. « African Cultural development. What positioning for a cultural operator of the North? », Thesis defended by Séverine Capiello, 8th District Paris University, November 2004.
5. Drawn up for the Secretariat of the ACP countries by the Consultation of Cultural Actors of West Africa (Cacao/Ccawa), non-profit organisation created in 2003 by non-state actors, this Manual was made public for the first time in August 2006. Also see in this special dossier, the article of Isabelle Bosman: « African cultural politics and European cultural cooperation: the Manual of the ACP Secretariat ».
6. The formulation and the list of these constraints are directly taken from the « Manual on the ACP cultural industries », ACP Secretariat, 2006.
7. Manual on the on ACP cultural industries »,, ACP Secretariat, 2006, p.9.
8. Joseph Ki-Zerbo, « Still Waiting for Africa », Aube Editions, 2003
traduction : Lorraine Balon///Article N° : 8126


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