Culture and Development in Central Asia
About the role of culture in development strategies, the importance of strengthening regional links and the mobility of cultural actors in Central Asia
Florent Le Duc (Brussels, Belgium) [BIO]
The important economic role that the cultural sector can play in economies is not yet given its due recognition and cultural initiatives too rarely benefit from public support, although representing a concrete source of economic benefits in terms of job creation and incomes. Moreover, in a context of globalisation, local governments are inclined to decrease subsidies to the arts, while international development programmes focus mainly on concrete and tangible aspects of development like housing, education, healthcare, etc. There is a risk that activities of local artists and cultural industries might decrease, resulting in a loss of work for local cultural actors but also in major consequences in terms of local identity and social cohesion.
Over the last fifteen years in Central Asia, culture, as other social sectors, has been through a difficult transition period. The persistent leftovers of the Soviet period in the institutional and regulatory frameworks as well as in the decision-making process continue to hamper the development of relevant cultural policies in the current context of globalization. With the redefinition of the role of culture in social and economic development that has entered global awareness, the acceleration of information flows and the growing centrality of the cultural industries, there is a need for renewed forms of cultural management in Central Asia. As culture played a major ideological role in Soviet times, it is still only seen by policy makers as an instrument for the (re-) construction of national identities.
Moreover, with the collapse of the USSR, state funding for art practice, cultural institutions and networks disappeared abruptly, and artists or administrators did not have the skills needed to adapt to new structural realities and to seek alternative sources of income. This has of course greatly weakened the whole cultural economy: creative unions (‘Soyuz’) have modified their activities, competent people have been dismissed and local cultural organisations have been used for new purposes, often far removed from their initial competence. Since then, little has been done to tackle this issue, and almost none of the Central Asian training institutions in the arts and culture provide students or young professionals with relevant management training. Some courageous self-made managers exist, but they are few and far between. Traditionally subsidized cultural sectors (classical theatre, classical music, literature or museums) and local structures (isolated from decision-making centres) have been the most affected by the transition to a liberal system and the necessary adaptation to modern management methods.
Sustainable development depends as much on the cultural dimension as on the economic, social and environmental dimensions. Arts and culture provide more than quality of life to a community, they provide valuable economic benefit that can be measured through local employment, direct or indirect, or sales of items. Creative cultural assets and rich cultural resources in developing countries could be transformed into economic value and a source of economic development. For the past two decades, the cultural sector has increasingly attracted interest from policy makers and private sector actors in developed nations who are increasingly aware of the important contribution the cultural industries make to their economies. Worldwide, the cultural sector is considered the 5th largest economic sector in terms of turnover, after financial services, information technology, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and tourism. Cultural industries have the potential to contribute significantly to the economies of countries. In some developing economies, the cultural industries already occupy an important place: these industries account for 3.2% of Brazil’s GDP and 3% of Southern Africa’s GDP; the Indian Bollywood industry produces about 700 films annually, compared to Hollywood’s annual output of 500.
Today, while Central Asian artists continue to work within the ex-Soviet regional network of artists, directors and curators, their concern is to increase their global connections to the world cultural market and their mobility. In particular, contemporary art, cinema and handicraft have proved to be new sources of regional and international connections for Central Asia. Thanks to the efforts of a number of dedicated scholars, curators and cultural organisations both in Central Asia and abroad, artists and artisans of the region have been increasingly participating in international exhibitions, master-classes and artists’ residencies abroad.
As they benefit from increasing international exposure, Central Asian artists are also rebuilding strong regional links. According to artists and creative workers in Central Asia, only a handful of national and international organizations are committed to supporting cultural projects in the region, which illustrates the still limited understanding of the role of arts and culture in political stability and economic development. Some of these organizations, as well as a few local cultural associations, play a crucial role in the development of regional cultural networks, thus promoting understanding and cooperation within the region.