Why the Arts Matter to Development

Peter McNally discusses the intellectual and practical links between the Arts and Development. Here Peter demonstrates that artistic creativity and cultural enterprise can be a force for human, social, and economic progress.

John Ruskin once said that ‘the entire vitality of art depends upon its being either full of truth, or full of use’.

The arts – taken broadly to comprise numerous creative activities – exist in every community across the globe. With this in mind, it makes sense that those interested in aiding the development of any given area should consider how, exactly, the arts may be ‘full of use’ to them.

However, not enough thought is given to what exactly the arts can do for development, and why this should even matter. Were these questions contemplated more widely, their answers could serve to bolster any development effort by enlightening those involved as to the arts’ instrumental value;  the growth of movements like Agenda 21 for Culture reflects the fact this is – to an extent – happening already. However, the arts still stand to contribute so much more.

In order to briefly illustrate this, here are three examples of the arts’ uses in this context.

Firstly, instrumental value comes in the form of the arts’ capacity to deliver self-fulfilment. Specifically, they provide opportunities for expression rarely found elsewhere. Social research suggests that this forms a key component of how people experience their lives, delivering a sense of purpose and inclusion in a social fabric. Artistic opportunities make the fulfilment of these things more possible, especially where fewer alternative means – economic and otherwise – are available.

Duncan C / Creative Commons License

Duncan C / Creative Commons License

As well as the obvious positives of people feeling more fulfilled, this has numerous benefits for development efforts. For example, opportunities for expression mean that the situations of communities can be better understood. On top of this, an artistic outlet facilitates the affirmation of cultural identity, and inclusiveness can enhance cohesion and allay conflict.

Beyond this, the arts are also valuable for their ability to preserve and promote cultural diversity. This refers to the idea that different cultures must be protected and promoted, particularly in the face of dominant global cultural forces. By doing so, autonomy and identity can be better maintained, and more inclusive and resilient societies cultivated. UNESCO’s 2005 convention on the subject called on governments to ‘create environments that encourage individuals and groups to create, produce, distribute and have access to their own cultural expressions’ and ‘to support cooperation for sustainable development and poverty reduction’. Given the capacity of the arts to facilitate such expressions, their value here is clear.

Finally, the arts can deliver developmental benefits on a macroeconomic level. If we look at ‘cultural industries’ – essentially, sectors which produce and distribute cultural goods – we find that they are particularly suitable vehicles and instigators of effective development. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, they can operate in a decentralised way, especially in their more informal elements: cultural production and consumption can take place anywhere, without the need for an industrial centre. Secondly, they can bring unprofessional activities into the economy, making them financially productive for their practitioners. In particular, they attract young workers who can hone transferable professional skills in these industries. Finally, cultural industries require little to no resources to operate – leading some to call them the ‘remaining enduring resources in the developing world’.

This all combines to represent serious development potential: the cultural industries can be an accessible, decentralised sector which can simultaneously bring economic benefits and provide platforms for the non-economic benefits of the arts already mentioned.

Sylvar / Creative Commons License

Sylvar / Creative Commons License

This potential is illustrated by the example of Nollywood. Nigeria’s prolific film industry produces hundreds of low-budget titles each year, with films typically being shot and released very quickly through established networks of shops and traders. These networks distribute them nationally and internationally, helping the industry to gain global appreciation. As a result, Nollywood has become a major source of employment, tax revenue and export earnings for Nigeria.

These examples offer just a small insight into why the arts matter to development. They show how the arts can operate on personal, societal and national levels to bring considerable developmental benefits. Indeed, the realisation of arts’ potential value has already contributed to some of today’s more culturally-sensitive and inclusive development paradigms. However, the fact that the arts’ role in society is hard to quantify, at times requiring of public subsidy, and threatened by globalisation means that this potential still risks going unfulfilled. It is therefore vital that the development community properly appreciates what the arts have to offer if incorporated into their activities, and seeks to protect and utilise them accordingly. This way, their significant potential can be increasingly realised, and their output increasingly enjoyed by creators and consumers worldwide.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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