Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 6. Nr. September 1998

Cultural development and cultural information systems

Máté Kovács (Paris)
Head of the Unit of Cultural Research and Management, Sector of Culture, UNESCO

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

When taking the floor in this opening session I should like first of all to tell you that it is a great honour and pleasure for me to represent UNESCO in this Conference for which I wish you every success.

I should like also to thank Dr. Arlt and Professor Lichtmann for having associated UNESCO to your work by inviting me to participate in this meeting which presents a great interest for our activities and for me personally as I have been dealing over the last 19 years with UNESCO's programmes concerning cultural policies, the cultural dimensions of development and related problems such as cultural research and information.

But before coming to the topic of the meeting, I should like to tell you my satisfaction of returning to Debrecen, where I was born, and to the Debrecen University, which I visited quite often when my father was the director of the University Library.

After this personal remark, I should like to congratulate the organizers for the choice of the central theme of the conference which I consider as a very important and timely topic, but which is unhappily to often neglected in both the national priorities and the international co-operation efforts. In spite of rapidly growing number of administrative, professional or commercial data bases, of all kind, entirely or partially devoted to culture, using the practically unlimited possibilities offered by the computer technologies, we can say that culture is probably one of the sectors in which the data bases and information systems are the least advanced. This can be explained mainly by the low priority given to this issue in cultural policies and budgetary choices, but also by the difficulty that cultural research has to face in describing and quantifying cultural phenomena linked with complex qualitative processes.

As a consequence of these problems, in many countries there are no specialized services, in most of the others the information in the field of culture remains mosaic-like and scattered, in spite of the multitude of research institutions, documentation centres, networks, data bases, web sites as they are lacking a coherent framework through which the professional users or the citizens could easily check what information is available and where.

Cultural statistics, where they exist, are generally limited to the institutional aspects of cultural life or to the figures of cultural consumption. The data available rarely permit international comparison, the lack of appropriate methods and indicators make difficult the meaningful interpretation of the data and ongoing processes. This situation, in a vicious circle, seriously affects the efficiency of cultural development efforts and reduces the chances of obtaining the effective recognition of the essential role of culture in development or negotiating successfully an increase in the resources for cultural purposes as decision-makers tend to make in budgetary matters in terms of cost and benefit.

We could continue to enumerate the problems we have to solve in this field, but, due to the short time available I will not attempt to give an exhaustive overview of all the different aspects of the problem. Therefore I intend to concentrate my intervention on three topics related with

  1. the role of cultural information in cultural development;
  2. the importance of integrating cultural information in economic and social development strategies;
  3. UNESCO's action in the field of cultural information.


The role of cultural information in cultural development

In spite of the insufficient attention paid to this issue in the practice, we can consider that everybody will agree that the development of cultural information systems and interconnected networks of data bases constitute a key instrument of cultural policies and a fundamental condition for the efficient preservation and development of cultural life as well as for the promotion of cultural co-operation. This is the most immediate and obvious level of the problem.

When designing cultural policies, governments need to have, or at least should have, a thorough knowledge of the realities of the cultural life of their countries. They need to know what are the present problems and foreseeable trends to cope with, what are the cultural needs and aspirations, which are the resources and facilities, who are the actors and possible partners on which they can count in their efforts. They need coherent, up-to-date and reliable information, in order to be able to co-ordinate the efforts, to preserve the cultural heritage and cultural diversities, to adapt their policies and priorities to the changing realities. Through information countries can benefit from each others experience, failures and achievements.

How to adopt appropriate legislation, how to identify the strategic priorities of a pluralist democratic cultural policy or how to make the best use of the generally insufficient means available for cultural purposes, if we do not have comprehensive information of what is really going on in this field?

Cultural workers, artists, institutions, and associations also need to know from where they can get support for their initiatives and creative work. Depending on the demand and the trends of the market, producers and artists have to be aware of the expectations of the audience and to make themselves and their products known within their countries and abroad.

The role of cultural information is gaining even greater importance in the perspective of the recent evolution trends of cultural markets and decentralized policies, which have led during the last decade to the emergence of new protagonists in cultural life. Among the major changes in this respect, we should recall the growing role played by regional and local authorities, the civil society, the private sector, associations and foundations of all kind, professional organizations, cultural industries and market. Relying on the possibilities offered by the new electronic and audio-visual communication technologies the rapidly developing national and transnational cultural industries are producing and disseminating cultural goods and services across borders, on the background of globalization processes, the worldwide cultural market is gaining an overwhelming weight vis-à-vis the national cultural policies.

In addition we have to realize that many of the decisions affecting cultural life are taken outside of the culture sector, in fields such as social policy, education, communication and the media, urban and rural development, beyond the reach of those in charge of cultural development policies.

In this situation, State cultural policies had to evolve from direct intervention to co-ordination and concertation, monitoring and regulation of the action of the multiple partners and stakeholders in the light of cultural policy objectives. The only way to cope with this task for the public authorities is to keep themselves continuously informed on the changing realities, an in-depth knowledge of which should be the starting point of designing and evaluating cultural policies. This makes it necessary to create and develop appropriate structures for cultural research and information. Answering in advance the possible reservations with regard to the eventual monopoly of information thus made available to the public authorities, I should like to stress that such an information system should be operating as a non-hierarchical structure, based on freely accessible, horizontal networks of interconnected professional data bases.


The importance of integrating cultural information in development strategies

Coming to my second point, I wish to underline that the problem of cultural information has to be considered at a more general level transcending the sector of cultural affairs. The reflection carried out in UNESCO over the last 20 years, and more recently in the framework of the World Decade for Cultural Development and of the World Commission on Culture and Development, on the problems of the cultural dimensions of development, has shown that sustainable human development, the effective exercise of human rights and authentic democracy cannot be achieved if we ignore the complex interactions of these processes with the peoples' culture, understood in its broader anthropological sense.

In this perspective the role of cultural information gains a wider significance and it becomes obvious that the problem of cultural information cannot be looked upon as a merely sectorial, technical or instrumental issue, but in fact as an issue closely linked with our societies' fundamental questions.

As early as 1982, it was stated at the level of the principles by the World Conference on Cultural Policies in the Mexico Declaration on Cultural Policies,

"development is a complex, holistic and multidimensional process, which goes beyond mere economic growth ... Balanced development can only be ensured by making cultural factors an integral part of strategies designed to achieve it; consequently, these strategies should always be devised in the light of the historical, social and cultural context of each society."

Since 1982 much work has been carried out on the theoretical, methodological and practical implications of this principle, in particular in the framework of the World Decade for Cultural Development, launched in 1988 under the joint auspices of the UN and UNESCO, with a view to promote the acknowledgment of the cultural dimensions of development. Among the 1200 initiatives carried out in this framework, two flagship projects have to be mentioned as particularly relevant to the subject of the present meeting:

The report « Our Creative Diversity » is the result of a three-year study by the World Commission for Culture and Development, established in 1993, which gathered a panel of high level specialists under the chairmanship of former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.

It responds to a crucial question: Is culture the last frontier in development? The book provides fresh perspectives on the interactions between culture and development and puts forward proposals to help the world's communities to forge their own paths towards development while preserving the distinctive characteristics inherent to each particular culture. The Commission considered that

«the cultural dimensions of human life are possibly more essential than [economic] growth. Most people would value goods and services because of what they contribute to our freedom to live the way we value. What we have reason to value must itself be a matter of culture».

The report focusses on three major objectives :

Based on an overview of the present global situation, it formulates from a cultural perspective recommendations for development strategies and policies for the coming decades, enlightening the crucial importance of culture for sustainable human development. In this perspective the report discusses the ten priority issues as follows

Directly or indirectly, most of these problems are linked with the issue of cultural information. As to cultural heritage, cultural policies and research needs it appears obvious that any further development requires creating and developing cultural data bases. Similarly the conclusions and recommendations of the Commission concerning pluralism and the media make it necessary to underline that cultural information should be developed in the respect of diversity. Everybody should have freedom and capacity not only for accessing to existing data but also for producing and disseminating information on cultural issues of his or her interest.

In the light of the conclusions of the report, the Commission has also formulated an «International Agenda», intended «to mobilize the energies of people everywhere in recognition of the challenges of today». This Agenda contains in particular a proposal directly linked with the theme of the present conference: the publication of an annual report on culture and development that would:

  1. survey recent trends in culture and development ;
  2. monitor events affecting the state of culture worldwide ;
  3. construct and publish quantitative cultural indicators ;
  4. highlight "good" cultural practices and policies at local, national and international levels, as well as expose "bad" practices and unacceptable behaviours ; and
  5. present an analysis of specific themes of general importance, accompanied by policy suggestions.

In this respect I should like to add that this recommendation of the Commission has been implemented by UNESCO with some modifications, and the first volume of the periodical World Culture Report, to be published on a biennial basis, will officially be presented to the Executive Board of UNESCO in the second half of October. UNESCO has also convened in March 1998 in Stockholm at an Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development, the conclusions of which contain several explicit recommendations to the Member States and to UNESCO for developing cultural information and research.

As to the other flagship project of the Decade, that is the methodological research, its first phase resulted in the publication of the book «The Cultural Dimension of Development : Towards a Practical Approach» constituting a synthesis of the reflection realized and the experience gained at the level of the international development co-operation as to the integration of qualitative factors and cultural dimensions in development planning processes. The second phase of the research aimed to set forth methods of designing, implementing and evaluating development strategies, programmes and projects for sustainable development in a cultural approach, for promoting bottom-up and participatory planning, holistic, long term and flexible planning systems designed in the respect of the diversity and creative dynamics of the different cultures, with a view to tailor projects to specific situations and to facilitate change within continuity.

A specific chapter of this planning manual is devoted to the problem of how to collect, process and stock the socio-cultural information needed to this effect and also to the issue of generating the cultural indicators of development required for measuring the relevance of the projects in the perspective of the interactions between culture and development.

It is obvious that this requires the setting up of complex, integrated data bases making available for decision makers, planners and field workers the relevant information on cultural, ethical and spiritual values, traditions, ways of life, social structures, and behaviours of the beneficiary population and their relationship and perceptions with regard to time and nature, as well as other factors which may affect the success of development efforts. The building up of such data base supposes to carry out what we could call country cultural assessments. A huge methodological effort should also be undertaken for aggregating a set of cultural indicators of development, which could facilitate to establish the relationship between cultural, socio-economic and technological transformations.


UNESCO’s action in the field of cultural information

As I said earlier, my third point aims to give a comprehensive summary of the other actions we have undertaken and carried out in UNESCO in the field of cultural information.

For several decades UNESCO has been involved in developing cultural statistics and cultural information. In the 70's for example it undertook the project of the UNESCO framework for cultural statistics and in the 70 it sponsored a series of studies and meetings concerning the establishment of a European Cultural Data Bank proposed by the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. However, in the 80's, due to budgetary constraints these activities were progressively abandoned.

Later on, some ten years ago, when UNESCO and the United Nations were about to launch the World Decade for Cultural Development, I proposed that the creation of an international cultural information system should be one of the most important tasks for UNESCO in this framework. It could benefit, on the one hand, all those involved in cultural work and, on the other hand, the people at large, it could have a long term multiplier effect and become a permanent and efficient instrument, not only of cultural development, but also of a better human life and a more peaceful and tolerant world.

For different reasons, this proposal has not then been selected as a priority, but when the Member States took the initiative of setting up national and regional cultural information systems, we renewed our effort in this field.

With a view to support the harmonization of the methods of data processing and exchange we have published two methodological documents proposing a Common Communication Format for Information on Cultural Development and a Model Data Base for Cultural Development using the freely available CDS/ISIS software. We have also organized several expert meetings on the development of cultural information systems at the international level (Paris and Zagreb) as well as in Europe (Bonn), Central Europe (Budapest), Africa (Dakar, Lusaka and Maputo) and Latin America. These efforts have permitted, and the launching of two regional projects, the Southern African Cultural Information System (SACIS) and the Cultural Information System for Latin America and the Caribbean (SICLAC) as well as the establishment of a worldwide information network called CULTURELINK. Presently we are planning to create in Budapest, in co-operation with the Hungarian National Commission for UNESCO, a resource centre provisionally called International Observatory on Financing Culture in Central and Eastern Europe.

From all these projects, I should like to deal in more detail with CULTURELINK which is a worldwide Network of Networks for Research and Co-operation in Cultural Development. It embraces some 1000 networks, institutions and specialists working in all the regions of the world in the field of research, information and documentation concerning cultural policies and development as well as cultural co-operation. It was established in 1989 as a follow-up to the recommendation of an International Consultation of Regional and Sub-regional Networks organized by UNESCO and the Council of Europe. Its focal point was hosted and developed, with the support of these two organizations and the European Cultural Foundation and the Croatian Government, in the Institute of International Relations, in Zagreb. Its first regional focal point was created last year in Seoul for the countries of Asia and the Pacific, the establishment of other regional focal points, namely for Africa and Latin America is being negotiated.

Among the services developed by Zagreb focal point, some of you may know the quarterly journal Culturelink, published since 1989, constituting a unique instrument for circulating information across regions and countries, various fields and networks as well as different data bases, accessible on internet, among others on cultural policies and networks.


Mr. President, Ladies and gentlemen,

In conclusion I should like to reiterate my best wishes for the successful work of the conference, from which I expect to learn a lot more about this complex problem from your reflection and experience relating to culture, data bases and Europe.

Thank you for your attention.

© Máté Kovács (Paris)

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