Report & Essay
Art, and the Road to Riches

Report & Essay

Art, and the Road to Riches
Rasna Warah

 Is there room for the creative arts in Vision 2030, Kenya’s blueprint to becoming a middle-income country within two decades? This is a question that was recently raised by a number of people on a writers’ group that I subscribe to.

The question was prompted by the fact that while the recently re-launched Vision 2030 focuses on areas such as tourism, agriculture, manufacturing and financial services, there is no mention of the role of the arts in promoting economic development. Although “cultural tourism” (whatever that means) gets a mention as something that needs to be promoted to attract higher tourism revenue, the creative arts – including writing, acting, painting and music – are not considered activities that require government support as they are not viewed as industries that generate revenue or promote economic growth.

Yet an increasing number of economists are making strong links between the presence of a “creative class” in a country and the level of its economic development. Among these is Richard Florida, a professor of regional economic development in the United States and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, a book that shows that the presence of highly-educated and well-paid workers in technology, entertainment, journalism, finance, high-end manufacturing and the arts is a good indicator of how well a city or a country will perform economically.

Florida argues that the key to economic growth lies not just in the ability to attract the creative class, but to translate that underlying advantage into creative economic outcomes in the form of new ideas, new high-tech businesses and regional growth. Thus, a distinguishing characteristic of the creative class, he says, is that “its members engage in work whose function is to ‘create meaningful new forms’; the creative class therefore not only includes novelists, artists and entertainers, but scientists, engineers, university professors, researchers and analysts who contribute their skills and add creative value to entrepreneurship. Cities and countries that attract intelligent, creative people are thus ranked highly in Florida’s Creativity Index.

Government support for the creative class – be they writers, actors, directors, or software engineers – can reap huge dividends. Bangalore in India is a good example of a city that has achieved remarkable economic growth as a result of national policies that encouraged the development of an information technology (IT) industry in the country. As a result, Bangalore has in the last two decades became the hub of large local and multinational software companies, whose contribution to the national economy was estimated to be more than 2 per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product, or roughly $10 billion, in 2004.

Software engineers are not ordinarily looked at as “creative types”, yet they are in the business of creating products that enhance the quality of life of millions. Similarly, writers, journalists, painters, actors and performing artists enhance people’s lives through their creations; these creations enhance a city’s liveability and its tourism potential. London’s West End and New York’s Broadway rake in millions of dollars every year as locals and tourists flock to theatres to see world-class entertainment. Calcutta attracts literary types because it has nourished legendary writers such as Rabindranath Tagore. Bollywood, India’s multimillion dollar film industry – is an integral part of Mumbai’s economy, which generates up to 40 per cent of the country’s total tax revenue. Barcelona mesmerises architects because it employs innovative designs to create urban spaces. All these cities are magnets for talented people – the very people who fuel innovation and economic growth.

In this part of the world, however, the link between the creative arts and the economy is still not understood or exploited. Zanzibar has put itself on the film festival map, but struggles every year to attract the best films or the best actors and directors. Writers in Nairobi are trying to find a foothold in the international literary arena, but on a shoestring budget. (The launch this week of the second Kwani Litfest, which will feature internationally-renowned African writers such as Ishmael Beah, Chimamanda Adichie and Aminatta Forna, is happening with no government support.)

Lack of government support for creative endeavours is one reason why our most talented people end up in Europe or America, where their talents are not only appreciated, but well-rewarded. Those who can’t leave find ways to survive by finding employment in the NGO sector, which funds most creative efforts in the country. This, says award-winning performing artist Bantu Mwaura, has led to the “NGO-fication” of art and culture in Kenya as most artists who might have spent their time in engaging in creative works of their own “are now acting, producing, writing and directing plays that not only have little entertainment value, but which are dictated to them by NGOs”. The result is a donor-dependant arts and entertainment industry that cannot sustain itself financially nor make any significant contribution to the national cake. If this trend continues, Vision 2030 will remain a static document, owned by no-one but those who created it.

*This article first appeared as an editorial in the Daily Nation

Ms. Warah is an editor with the UN. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations. (grasp@nbi.ispkenya.com)

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