World Trade agreements threaten cultural diversity

December 2004 -

The trade agreements made by the World Trade Organisation, including the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) are oriented toward liberalisation of the global market. These agreements also apply to the cultural sector. This makes it increasingly difficult for countries to support their own artists and cultural institutions with subsidy funding or other measures.

Unesco is currently preparing a convention that is to serve as the legal basis for an exception for the cultural sector. However, discussions on this subject are far from over and it appears that countries where the cultural industry represents significant export interests, such as the United States and India, will block these efforts.

On 27 November 2004, during the Netherlands Social Forum, HIVOS organised a workshop on this subject with Garry Neil, coordinator of the International Network of Cultural Diversity, Korkor Amarteifio, director of the National Theatre in Ghana, and Verana Wiedemann, media specialist for the German broadcasting company ARD in Brussels.

According to Garry Neil, the trade agreements primarily protect the interests of large multi-national corporations. These agreements pose a threat to democracy because they offer countries increasingly less leeway for pursuing their own policy, for example by supporting the national cultural production.

Korkor Amarteifio emphasises the importance of the UNESCO convention for protecting cultural diversity in developing countries. This pertains not only to the protection of traditions, but also to stimulating modern artists. Countries in which an institutionalised cultural sector is still under construction are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of the trade agreements.

Verana Wiedemann refers to a UN resolution from 2001 which states that cultural diversity is equally important to mankind as bio-diversity is to nature. She advocates that culture be named the fourth pillar of sustainable development, alongside the environment, combating poverty, and economic development.

It is imperative that the UNESCO convention be formulated as forcefully as possible. However, policy makers still devote little attention to the subject. The workshop therefore ended with a plea to draw as much attention to the importance of the convention as possible.