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Africa Dialogue Series: Harnessing culture for development

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Africa Dialogue Series: Harnessing culture for development

Africa’s rich culture should go beyond artistic decorations, music or dance and showcase a strong set of values that embrace change, generate innovations and to contribute to the world.
From Africa Renewal: 
6 May 2021
Cristina Duarte, UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa
Cristina Duarte, UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa
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Africa Dialogue Series (ADS) 2021 will take place around Africa Day marked on 25 May. For 2021, the theme is “Cultural identity and ownership: reshaping mindsets” and will celebrate the continent’s identity, culture, history and achievements, through exhibitions and conversations with African academics and experts from various fields, bringing together key stakeholders to discuss challenges and opportunities for Africa, and effectively making May Africa Month at the UN headquarters, New York. Ms. Cristina Duarte, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa, sheds light on what promises to be an exciting ADS:

What is the Africa Dialogue Series (ADS) all about? 

The Africa Dialogue Series is a dedicated advocacy platform by the UN Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA) to advocate for Africa and its development challenges. Beyond that, it aims to create a new narrative that reflects Africa's vision as enshrined in Agenda 2030 and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

What should we expect this year?

The ADS theme is usually inspired by the African Union (AU) theme of the year. This year’s AU theme is “Arts, culture and heritage: Levers for building the Africa We Want.”  OSAA approaches this theme from a development and forward-looking standpoints, recognizing that behind the disruptions created by the COVID-19 pandemic there are opportunities that can be seized by completely reshaping our mindsets.

This is why this year’s theme for the Africa Dialogue Series is “Cultural identity and ownership: reshaping mindsets.” We strongly believe that the AU theme is an appeal to us as Africans to revisit our roots and our soul, creating fertile ground to reset and reboot our way of thinking; to leave behind the colonial and post-colonial mindsets and adopt a forward-looking and re-shaped mindset that will enable us to exercise higher levels of ownership.

What do you mean by reshaping mindsets?

OSAA proposes to reboot our thinking in three key areas: peace, the economy and human capital, through three sub-themes:

The first one, “Sustainable peace for development: factoring in history”, invites us to look back into our history to understand and seek solutions for present conflicts. 

The second sub-theme, “Harnessing Culture and Heritage for economic transformation,” understands culture as an important ingredient that feeds into a much-needed structural socio-economic transformation, that needs to start from within Africa, leveraging our strengths, recognizing our weaknesses, facing our threats and seizing every opportunity.

An interview with Cristina Duarte.

The third sub-theme is “Human Capital: culture and heritage unleashing the potential.” COVID-19 has taught us that not prioritizing human capital was a huge mistake. In building forward better and recovering for the better, we have an opportunity to address this issue by putting human capital at the centre of policymaking. From the point of view of culture, this means, for example, that we need to cultivate a sense of identity in our children so they can become adults who are ready to exercise the ownership and responsibility needed to embrace modernization from the inside.

How can arts and culture shape the mindset of Africans and the perception of Africa by the rest of the world?

Arts and culture create perceptions and, consequently, influence how the rest of the world sees Africa. We need to go beyond the narrow concept of culture as just crafts, paintings, dance or music. These are demonstrations and symbols of a pre-existent culture.  But if you go to the etymology of the word, it means cultivating the mind, the spirit, and all those intangibles that create a society. In this regard, the most important aspect of our African culture is belonging to a community and the exercise of ownership by that community.

For centuries, African culture has been reduced by colonial powers to artistic and colourful expressions. It's important to acknowledge the value of African art and traditions, but we need to understand – and to show the world—that African culture goes beyond artistic decorations. That it is, in fact, a strong set of values and representations that can embrace change, generate innovations and is ready to contribute to the world’s cultural diversity as an important asset. From a cultural standpoint, we should not promote uniformity, but celebrate the world’s diversity.

How do you feel that culture drives sustainable development and the opportunity to reset and reboot, as you said?

The essence of culture is a set of values that instils the sentiment of belonging to a community, which in turn constitutes the basis of sustainable development. For example, when I was Minister of Finance in Cape Verde, I exercised my political function with this strong feeling of belonging to the Cape Verdean community and leveraged this sentiment to serve my community. This applies to a Cabinet minister, but also to a businessowner or a young person. As long as you have a feeling of belongingness, a common culture that unites you to your community, you are not going to evade taxes, you will not embezzle, you will not radicalize and attack your community, because you will be aware that every little step you take impacts your community. This relationship between culture and belonging to a community is a pre-condition for taking ownership, accepting your responsibility in developing your life, your community and your country. Consequently, culture is the first and necessary step toward developmental leadership.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected development in the continent, as well as culture and heritage?

COVID-19 affected Africa in different ways. The first impact was socio-economic. Before the first case of Coronavirus was detected in Africa, the continent was already suffering the pandemic’s negative impact through disruptions to global value chains. The second shock was when the virus finally reached Africa and governments had to address its health impact and the socio-economic effects of containment measures. We need to remember that the starting point of most African countries was one with a very small fiscal space to address these situations.

After 25 years of relatively strong economic growth, Africa had to face economic recession and hence a huge lack of financial resources to respond to the pandemic from a health standpoint, as well as to address socio-economic issues. In these cases, when you have very little financial resources, you need to make very painful budget reallocations.

Most African governments injected additional resources in the health sector, shifting from medium to long-term investments, such as social, institutional and economic infrastructure.

So, unless critical measures are taken to bridge the gap created in those areas, the bill that Africa will pay for making these necessary short-term budget allocations will be felt even harder in the coming years.

What opportunities have been created by the COVID-19 pandemic and what is your view of the youth response?

I think it's clear that Africa has innovation in its DNA.  COVID-19 just created an opportunity for that potential to be unleashed. More than 1,000 COVID-19 innovations came from Africans, and youths have been incredibly creative in response to the pandemic. I believe that COVID-19 presented an opportunity to assess, first, if we have set ecosystems for innovation, and if not, what is missing in this puzzle. Building forward better will not be possible if these innovations are not factored in permanently, from a policymaking standpoint. These innovations should be captured in a such way that down the road they become solutions to Africa’s problems. Maybe we need to pay more attention to building ecosystems to unleash Africa's potential from an innovation point of view

What is the role of young people on this?

African youth have been using arts and culture as the main channel to unleash their creativity.  COVID-19 innovations are evidence that indeed the creativity of the African youth is not just colourful artistic expression. African youth creativity is a huge intangible asset. If duly harnessed, it can contribute to Africa’s economic transformation, because transformation is about innovation. The absence of ecosystems on innovation has been preventing our societies from linking and leveraging creativity to promote economic transformation.

Leveraging on AfCFTA

I believe that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will create a common market and the required economies of scale, thus paving the way to industrialization. If the ecosystems for innovation are implemented concurrently, allowing Africa’s young generation to be an active part in building the AfCFTA, we might succeed in boosting employment generation accompanied by strong value addition.