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Point of view

On Local Content Development and Cultural Expression

Abby Hampton discusses producing local content for cultural diversity on the recent International Forum on Local Cultural Expression and Communication held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on 3-6 November 2003.
Excerpts from A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Information Highway, a discussion paper presented by Abby Hampton

While there is a small but burgeoning movement in the international community that promotes the notion that the propagation of local content is a critical aspect of social development, there is a wide range of how people define what local content really means and why it is so important. This is in part owing to the fact that the concept of ‘local’ is so vague. In the case of broadcast regulation and government production subsidies, ‘local’ is generally equated with a national policy mandate. Otherwise, ‘local’ may be defined by language, cultural group, or special interest. It may also refer to a geographic unit of measure – ranging from community, to sub-national region, to country, or to part of the world.

‘Local content’ has therefore come to represent a vast number of assumptions, which is unhelpful to its cause. Perhaps the biggest problem created by the phrase relates to qualifying 'content' with the term 'local'which is most commonly interpreted as a geographic indicator. The landscape to which it refers, however, is a virtual one. In fact the very notion of what is now widely referred to as our ‘global village’ is a phrase that was coined by a pioneer of media and social theory, Marshall McLuhan, who was among the first to explore the impacts of communication technologies on social development.

It should also be clarified that local content and cultural diversity are synergistic but not one and the same. Local content is a form of cultural expression and is therefore a quintessential element of cultural diversity, but cultural diversity can only be achieved on platforms where broad representations of those expressions coexist. While the issue of cultural diversity has become an increasingly popular focus of international meetings, in practice there is a scarce track record of any meaningful and coordinated follow-through. This is in part owing to a lack of international mechanisms and platforms with such a mandate (if diversity is defined as a broad and balanced spectrum of cultural perspectives as opposed to singular and isolated cultural initiatives, of which there are a countless number).

In November 2002, UNCTAD in collaboration with UNESCO held a meeting on Audio-visual Services: Improving Participation of Developing Countries. A key finding was the recognition of a need to develop capacities at the national and international levels in the establishment of audio-visual policy.

“Audiovisual services, like other cultural industries, have a significance that transcends their economic value. Experts agreed that audiovisual services were a nation-building instrument that ensured due respect for cultural diversity, traditions, national values and heritage. Audiovisual services contribute to the dialogue among cultures that is the basis for long-lasting peace and sustainable human development. They are a means of education, delivering ideas and raising consciousness about public goods. In addition to their primary importance as a carrier of culture, audiovisual services have become increasingly important for economic development, especially in terms of generating employment and wealth, and are creating opportunities for economic diversification into nontraditional sectors; in other words, they are a pillar of the new economy. Audiovisual services would also seem to be relevant for international trade, since they help promote the image of a country abroad and thus enhance tourism. Therefore, they have major implications for development” (UNCTAD, p. 2).

It has become widely accepted that the dissemination of local knowledge is a necessary condition for human progress, and the development community readily acknowledges the impact of the media. Even the general public concurs with the need to find ways of expressing their own local cultures. The Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed 16,000 people in 20 countries and the Palestinian Authority in May 2003, and more than 38,000 people in 44 nations in 2002. The findings are summarized as follows:

“While anti-globalization forces have not convinced the public that globalization is the root cause of their economic struggles, the public does share the critics’ concerns about eroding national sovereignty and a loss of cultural identity. Large majorities in 42 of 44 countries believe that their traditional way of life is getting lost and most people feel that their way of life has to be protected against foreign influence.”

This statistic speaks to a widespread belief that most people feel that their own cultural identity could be better expressed among the heavy traffic of foreign cultural content. The European Union is an interesting model to consider when exploring a cultural diversity paradigm that embeds a ‘local’ expression of identity within the framework of a broader cultural community. In a document prepared by the Commission of the European Communities, Towards an International Instrument on Cultural Diversity, the conclusion is put forward that “Europe as a continent of culture can neither accept the threat of cultural homogeneity, nor the threat of the clash of civilizations. The European answer to all this is to invest in safeguarding and promoting cultural diversity” (CEC p.4).

“Preservation and promotion of cultural diversity are among the founding principles of the European model. They are enshrined in the Treaty, in Article 151; in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, under Article 22, and will figure prominently in our future Constitution … European policies support and implement certain specific objectives of the UNESCO Universal Declaration, such as developing viable local cultural industries and improving the distribution of cultural works at a global level, particularly works from developing countries”(CEC p.3).

For the most part, the debate about local content in the context of less represented parts of the world has been dominated by the international development community, whose concern is primarily focused on development education. Much of the international support that has been directed to local content has been with a view to improving the capacity of less developed regions to become more informed about issues that have been identified as priorities for them. Current agency priorities are consistently in the areas of health promotion, gender, human rights and the environment. To this effect, the bias on local content development has been less an issue of supporting cultural industries and more an extension of development education priorities. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that the role of the media has yet been elevated to the sectoral level in development policy. While many international donor agencies and foundations collectively designate huge sums of funding to the production and dissemination of development education materials – a strategic and coordinated approach to communications tends to be an afterthought rather than being integrated into the overall development process. However, in order for local content to be successful in meeting its objectives, it must first and foremost be responsive to local needs, demands and opportunities before international priorities. This requires that the process of local content development must be locally owned and driven. The plight of local content initiatives has therefore tended to rest with [1] international agencies which have the insight to recognize that the progress of their mandated issues will only be achieved by packaging information in a way that is relevant to their target population at the local level; [2] governments which have a particular commitment to promoting their national heritage, and; [3] forces of the international marketplace on cultural industries.

Since the priority of national governments is to promote their own domestic agenda, and the inertia of global markets seems to favor media content that is produced in regional centres of media production, there is a growing need for international leadership in building global platforms with the express objective of nurturing an environment of cultural diversity. In seems apparent that the mutual requirements of local content and cultural diversity platforms requires a two-pronged but simultaneous approach:
1. The development of international platforms which promote a balanced representation of cultural expressions (local content which resonates in the global consciousness) with the express purpose of nurturing a global environment of cultural diversity. To borrow from McLuhan’s analogy of a global village, local content in this respect might be considered to originate from a ‘cultural neighborhood’.

2. The recognition that issues of communication and self-expression are a fundamental backdrop to all aspects of human development and that the propagation of local content should be promoted as an integral element of national and international development policy. To this end, local priorities for the use of ICTs need to be identified and supported.

An important and hopeful exception in the international community is UNESCO, which holds a unique mandate in the field of communication development. Specifically, its International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) has been in operation for over two decades, with the goal of strengthening the means of mass communication in developing countries by increasing technical and human resources for the media,developing community media, and modernizing news agencies and broadcasting organizations. In addition, The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and a supporting Action Plan was adopted unanimously by UNESCO in November 2001. Since that time there has been considerable momentum and bilateral collaboration on a range of issues that confront the development of locally produced content.

The plight of local content initiatives has therefore tended to rest with [1] international agencies which have the insight to recognize that the progress of their mandated issues will only be achieved by packaging information in a way that is relevant to their target population at the local level; [2]governments which have a particular commitment to promoting their national heritage, and; [3] forces of the international marketplace on cultural industries.

Since the priority of national governments is to promote their own domestic agenda, and the inertia of global markets seems to favor media content that is produced in regional centres of media production, there is a growing need for international leadership in building global platforms with the express objective of nurturing an environment of cultural diversity. In seems apparent that the mutual requirements of local content and cultural diversity platforms requires a two-pronged but simultaneous approach:

1. The development of international platforms which promote a balanced representation of cultural expressions (local content which resonates in the global consciousness) with the express purpose of nurturing a global environment of cultural diversity. To borrow from McLuhan’s analogy of a global village, local content in this respect might be considered to originate from a ‘cultural neighborhood’.

2. The recognition that issues of communication and self expression
are a fundamental backdrop to all aspects of human development and that the propagation of local content should be promoted as an integral element of national and international development policy. To this end, local priorities for the use of ICTs need to be identified and supported.

An important and hopeful exception in the international community is UNESCO, which holds a unique mandate in the field of communication development. Specifically, its International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) has been in operation for over two decades, with the goal of strengthening the means of mass communication in developing countries by increasing technical and human resources for the media, developing community media, and modernizing news agencies and broadcasting organizations. In addition, The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and a supporting Action Plan was adopted unanimously by UNESCO in November 2001. Since that time there has been considerable momentum and bilateral collaboration on a range of issues that confront the development of locally produced content.

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  • On Local Content Development and Cultural Expression
    Author Abby Hampton