Sunday, December 27, 2015

What does UNESCO do to protect cultural diversity?

Most people know UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention (1972) that created the famous World Heritage Sites. But few know about UNESCO’s cultural convention from 2005 that protects and promotes the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. Nevertheless UNESCO’s 2005 Convention directly influences the diversity of our daily cultural environment: music, architecture, media and so on. At least that is what the 2005 Convention is supposed to do: it was ratified by 140 UNESCO Member States to prevent our cultural environment from being dominated by a limited number of cultural conglomerates. Star wars is very nice but we should also be able to see other movies that have smaller marketing budgets and that come from our own countries.

How does the 2005 Convention protect the diversity of our cultural environment? It does this by stimulating the international community to design policies that give cultural services and products an equal chance to be enjoyed by all citizens. It promotes the exchange of best practices which are contained in this monitoring report: here's the link, and here’s the summary. The report presents the concrete results and findings after 10 years of implementing the Convention. It presents four aspects of promoting cultural diversity, which are described below.

1/ Make cultural policies that favor diversity

  • Two innovations have fundamentally changed the functioning of the cultural production and distribution chain: technology (mobile connectivity, smartphones, iPods, evolving digital environment) and the media who use this technology (Netflix, Facebook, e-commerce). The good thing is that they open up channels for new voices and talent. This need to be encouraged.
  • On the other hand the increasing number of media outlets and greater choices doesn’t mean that these outlets are necessarily ‘freer’ nor that they are a guarantee of diversity of content and expressions. Therefore governments need to analyze how leveled and inclusive the cultural and creative sector is. They need to keep an eye both on the big and small players but also on freedom-of-information laws, internet governance and e-commerce. Do they still favor cultural diversity? The report suggests that these items be included in the scope of the Convention.
  • The report also reminds us that it’s not only up to governments to ensure cultural diversity: civil society has a role too as producer of cultural products and as ‘cultural watchdog’. The report suggests that more partnerships are needed between governments and civil society, namely to ensure a diverse offer of cultural products and also to help assess the impact and effectiveness of cultural policies.

2/ Balance the flows of cultural goods and services

  • Flows of cultural services such as audiovisual media are very unbalanced. They are still largely dominated by developed countries. In 2012 for example the US covered more than half of the global exports of cultural services (52,4%). The developing countries’ share was only 1,6% versus 98% (!) for developed countries.

  • Trade agreements can correct this by balancing the flow of cultural goods and services on the basis of principles laid down in UNESCO’s 2005 Convention. This already started happening: the report observes an increase in the number of ‘cultural exemption’ methods to exclude some cultural goods and services from trade agreements. But it remains rare. And although the number of references made to the 2005 Convention in trade agreements has increased, the impact of this needs to be assessed.

  • To preserve a heterogeneous world of ideas, values and worldviews the mobility of artists and their free access to international markets is crucial. Currently artists are still unable to travel freely in some parts of the world.

  • The growth of e-commerce is a booster of development but also a risk for small and medium-sized players given the advance of the big platforms.

3/ Recognize culture as factor of sustainable development

  • Development always takes place in a cultural context. Taking this cultural context into account provides economic benefits like the jobs generated by the creative and cultural industry. It also provides social outcomes like the raising of community awareness and participation. Artistic activity provides social cohesion by breaking down social barriers, reducing tensions and promoting intercultural dialogue. Artists can also be powerful ways to build national identity and reputation, also for developing countries. Lastly, the cultural sector can provide environmental outcomes via the adoption of green design principles and the use of the arts as a vehicle for environmental education.

  • Sustainable development means inclusive development, and cultural policies are powerful tools to ensure participation of all groups in this development. An example is Slovenia, which has introduced cultural policy measures to enable recognition of the rights of the Roma people.

4/ Recognize culture as an aspect of human rights

  • Women are strongly represented in the creative sector in most of the world. However they remain poorly represented in a number of cultural professions and decision-making positions in the cultural sector. For example only 3% of top classical music conductors is female. The report stresses the need for better access to the creative potential of the female half of the artistic community.

  • Artistic freedom of expression is an issue. The NGO Freemuse registered 237 attacks on artistic freedom in 2014 which is only the tip of the iceberg. As UN Rapporteur for Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune said: “We still live in a world where poets are sentenced to death”. To protect artistic freedom it needs better reporting.


We had to wait 10 years for this first monitoring report for the 2005 Convention but the next one is now planned in 2017. This is encouraging news. Because monitoring reports like this enable conventions to do what they are supposed to do: they give countries an overview of what is happening in the field and the opportunity to inspire and learn from each other. But this overview – and this is the report’s main message – needs more and better information from countries about their cultural policies and their impact in the field. Because a clear picture of cultural diversity policies requires reporting and therefore indicators, (sex-disaggregated) data, evaluation frameworks and impact assessments. Let this message be heard because however tedious and boring data collection may be, it is the hand that takes the blindfold off our eyes so that we can properly see and control the way our cultural environment evolves.

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

Friday, December 18, 2015

Le goût de la vie

Le jour où je sortirai de la vie
ce ne sera pas par la mort mais
par la fenêtre.

J’irai vers la lumière
pour voir enfin la réalité
dont parlent les philosophes.

Il paraît que cette réalité n’est qu’amour.
Disparaître ne serait que rejoindre une Solidarité Universelle
que l’illusion d’un « Je » nous empêche de voir
pendant notre vie d’homme.

J’aime ma vie d’homme.
Plus j’en entrevois les contours
plus je la mesure
plus je l’aime.

Car un jour je la verrai de l’extérieur
sans que je sache s’il fait chaud ou froid
où nous serons définitivement ensemble
peut-être en train de regarder le monde
depuis nulle part.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Art is more than the "finishing touch"

(I needed to write this blog after having listened to inspiring art activist
and Emmy Award winning documentary and filmmaker Deeyah Khan
who spoke at UNESCO on 13 November 2015

Art is the most deeply human form of expression we have. It connects us to ourselves, to what we are and feel as human beings. It creates a form of ambiguity in which we can - strangely enough - recognize ourselves. It produces a kind of "mist" that magically becomes a mirror, like a song that makes us "overflow" instantly because our soul resonates with it. Art cannot explain us, it just moves us. It is us.    

It would be a mistake to put art aside as mere entertainment, a sort of "frivolous thing". I do understand that we first need good health, a job, food and shelter to be able to enjoy art. But art is more than just enjoyment: it is also our unique way to express human life. Without art we would lose the creative muscle inside of us that enables us to explore our reality through the kaleidoscope of dance movements, chalk, wood, marble, paint, words or music notes. Our understanding of reality would become too direct if we discard the “art lens” through which we can access the hidden layers in our day-to-day reality.

Someone once told me that the two most important things in a house are the painting you hang on the wall and the sofa you put in front of it to enjoy it. That observation changed the way I look at homes, art and human life. It taught me that art is not the "finishing touch" but rather the "human touch" that we must place first. It creates the space in which basic things like identity and freedom can come alive and take shape. Why is this space so vital for us? Because although not everyone may have a comfortable sofa to sit on, there’s an artist in every person.
Twitter: @Oosterenvan

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Three reasons why I don't like Twitter’s “like” icon

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

When Twitter finally created its “like” icon recently (the little heart), at first I was very happy. Because for a year or so I was frustrated not to be able to thank tweeters by “liking” nice tweets like I do on Facebook. 

I did have the option however to give the sender a sort of “like” signal by favoriting the tweet via Twitter’s “favorite” icon (the little star). But I didn’t do that because I use the favorite icon for another specific purpose, namely to save potentially interesting tweets to read the links in it when I have time. My favorite tweets are just my tweets-to-read list, I don't know yet what I think about them.

And then suddenly Twitter gave us the long expected like icon! I immediately "liked" a tweet from a colleague that I had favorited earlier just because I liked it very much. I was already looking for a way to reward the sender but hadn’t found a solution yet. The tweet contained a selfie of the sender in his personal environment with an interesting thought about it. Typically a tweet I never would have favorited because there was no link in it to read later. And so finally I was able to happily thank him by sending him a well-deserved “like”. 

So far the good news about the like icon: it made it possible for me to quickly express my positive feelings about tweets to their senders. Now the bad news: when the like icon came out, the favorite icon disappeared. This caused the following three problems for me. 

First, I am no longer able to fill my tweets-to-read-list just by "mechanically" favoriting potentially interesting tweets without showing any judgement or emotional commitment. Worse: Twitter obliges me now to “like” all these potentially interesting tweets even though I might find out I don’t like them at all! 

Secondly, even if I do appreciate a tweet, I might not necessarily want to reward the sender by “liking” it. I like a lot of people, but don’t expect me to hug each one them each time I see them. Obliging me to do so makes me feel very uncomfortable.

Thirdly, even if I decide to “like” a tweet I appreciated after having read it, I still have to “unlike” it right away to clean up my reading list. The problem is that this gives the sender a very confusing message because it is shows as “minus one like”, as if I had changed my mind about it!

I want to conclude by a wish. I hope Twitter brings the favorite icon back or adds a “save tweet” option like Facebook has. This way I can quietly enjoy looking for information pearls without kissing and hugging the whole planet.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Une chance

Les "rrrrrrr" des moustiquaires
que les habitants remontent très tôt
me réveille.

Les fourmis sont déjà à l’œuvre
sur notre terrasse
avec vue sur la Méditerranée
dont elles ne profitent pas.

Il n’y a que moi pour en profiter
et lui donner le sens d’une bénédiction
et d’une chance :
celle ne pas vivre
que ma vie de fourmi
mais d'exister

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Fernando Pessoa : La poésie au secours de la philosophie

Twitter : @Oosterenvan

J’ai une déformation qui consiste à toujours vouloir conceptualiser tout. Pas nécessairement pour comprendre la réalité, mais pour la voir mieux en me la présentant autrement. La philosophie m’aide à le faire, car elle me fournit des concepts, des idées et des métaphores qui, en quelque sorte, donnent la parole à la réalité.

Mais la philosophie a ses limites. Elle est souvent très technique et empêche le lecteur à « faire pivoter » la réalité devant lui. C’est là que la poésie intervient. Tels que les Poèmes Païens de Fernando Pessoa, qui ont pour mission de voir les choses telles qu’elles sont vraiment, dans leur existence brute. Pour cela il faut, écrit-il, « se dévêtir de ce qu’on a appris [et redevenir] un animal humain que la Nature un jour à produit ».

Quel est ce « visage vrai » du monde que Pessoa a découvert ? Accrochez-vous, car ce qui suit n’est pas commun. Pessoa décrit une Nature qui n’est pas « un ensemble réel et véritable », mais seulement quelques « parties sans un tout ». C’est tout le contraire de notre façon habituel de concevoir la réalité : le monde comme une sorte de Totalité de laquelle les choses – y compris notre corps et notre petite vie – font partie. Eh non. Ce Grand Tout est une illusion. Il faut en faire abstraction si vous voulez mieux voir les choses.

L’illusion du Grand Tout vient, selon Pessoa, de notre « maladie » qui s’appelle la pensée. A cause de cette maladie les hommes « tracent des lignes de chose à chose [et] dessinent des parallèles de latitude et de longitude sur la terre même, la terre innocente et plus verte et fleurie que tout ça ! ». Les choses n’ont pas d’ordre ni sens explique Pessoa. La vérité est plus simple et compliquée à la fois : « les choses sont l‘unique sens occulte des choses ». Mais comment exprimer ceci plus clairement ?

Pour cela il faut un nouveau langage qui permette de « toucher » la chose par les sens plutôt que par l’idée. Ainsi le papillon que décrit Pessoa n’est pas un corps-qui-bouge mais – tout simplement – un mouvement : « dans le mouvement du papillon c’est le mouvement qui se meut ». Il faut prendre aussi la couleur du papillon telle qu’elle est, à savoir une « couleur qui a de la couleur sur les ailes du papillon ». Oui je sais, ce n’est pas notre façon habituelle de voir les choses puisqu’une couleur ne peut pas avoir de couleur. Mais il n’y a pas d’erreur ici, plutôt une percée poétique et rafraîchissante vers le réel, le vrai.

Méditez cette description du papillon coloré un peu plus et elle deviendra poésie, couleur. C’est très agréable. Vous penserez à une aile de papillon colorée « non pas comme qui pense, mais comme qui ne pense pas ». Vous verrez le papillon plutôt que vos pensées. Vous penserez « avec vos yeux, oreilles mains, pieds et avec le nez et la bouche ». Cet exercice pourrait vous sembler artificiel, mais est-ce que toute langue que l’on apprend n’a pas l’air d’un artifice lorsqu’on l’apprend ?

Acceptez cette magnifique invitation de sortir de votre tête et d’aller auprès des choses. Pensez le vent comme il est et sentez-le :

Léger, léger, très léger,
Un vent très léger vient passer,
Puis s’en va, toujours très léger.
Et moi, je ne sais pas ce que je pense
Et ne cherche pas à le savoir

[Blog basé sur : Fernando Pessoa, Poèmes Païens, Editions Points (Paris, 1989)]

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Animal versus homme

Ce qui distingue l'homme de
l'animal c'est son
son désir
d'être informé des
de ses


Ook al is alles bewegingloos om je heen
en doodstil
toch vaar je
en splijt je een oceaan open
roer je in de ketel van het bestaan
maak je soep van je leven
produceer je alsmaar verhalen
en kielzog

Of je nu een kind bent in de zandbak
een scheepsromp
of een rol draad
er staat iets te gebeuren
Dat onvermijdelijke blijven komen
van nieuwe gezichten en geluiden
ongeacht jouw vrees
is wat onze reis door de tijd
zo de moeite waard maakt

De vloedstroom naar morgen
ik kan er geen genoeg van krijgen
en toch: nog even
en de zon houdt op te branden
zegt de wetenschap

Ons einde is dus ver maar
in zicht

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs: UNESCO on the right track

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

The Dutch want their contribution to the UN to be as results-oriented, effective and transparent as possible. Therefore the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assesses the performance of UN organizations in so-called “score cards”. The Dutch scorecard for UNESCO is particularly relevant because the Netherlands is an influential member of UNESCO: 5th biggest voluntary contributor to UNESCO’s activities, member of the Executive Board that governs UNESCO, Chair of the group of western countries and host-country of UNESCO’s water university Unesco-IHE. This blog summarizes how the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs assesses UNESCO in its most recent scorecard from 19 June 2015 (see this link).

UNESCO's Headquarters in Paris

UNESCO is relevant: Charlie Hebdo, Palmyra....
The scorecard starts by observing that the relevance of UNESCO's mission (“building the defences of peace in the minds of men”) is increasing because intercultural and interreligious tensions are escalating. This is tragically illustrated by the recent attacks on journalists in Paris and by the destruction of unique and irreplaceable cultural heritage in Mali, Syria and Iraq. UNESCO offers a place and convening power to the international community to do something about these threats.

To do what? Some examples: UNESCO coordinates all UN-activities that help protect journalists. The Dutch expert Albana Shala chairs a special UNESCO programme that contributes to this (see this link). UNESCO also leads a global discussion on how to ensure an open and free internet. Furthermore UNESCO is a useful tool to put the words of the UN Security Council in practice. For example when it wants to do something about the destruction of cultural heritage and the selling of cultural goods to generate funds for terrorist attacks. UNESCO concretely raises awareness of these threats (education) and brings partners around the table to take action together (Interpol, World Customs Organization, Governments, heritage institutions and many others).

Generate impact by focusing
UNESCO could generate more impact by focusing on other areas in which it has a clear added value. One example is “Open Access”: the idea that science works better if scientific publications and data are not locked behind insurmountable paywalls. Why should scientists (and you and me) have to pay for scientific journals if the research in it has already been paid with tax payers’ money? Removing these financial barriers to information would help development countries to participate more in scientific research and contribute to development.

Nice activities but: "so what?"
The scorecard appreciates UNESCO’s efforts to manage its activities on the basis of results. On a Dutch initiative UNESCO is now changing its way of reporting on results: it will report not only on what UNESCO does (activities) but also specifically on the changes these activities cause (outcomes). This information is crucial to decide what activities should continue and which activities should be changed or closed. Very positive is also UNESCO’s recently launched transparency portal (see this link). Here you can see where the money goes, for example to this cultural heritage project in the Palestinian territories financed by the Netherlands:

Leverage the power of networks
One added value of UNESCO is that it's not just an office in Paris but a “global network of networks”. UNESCO knows how to leverage the power of these networks: it has a well-defined strategy that indicates per partner how to “use” them to implement UNESCO’s priorities. Positive is also its increasing engagement with private partners like Philips, who became sponsor of the UN International Year of Light (2015). However the management of UNESCO’s field offices (58 all over the world) needs improvement.

Keep looking in the mirror
UNESCO has an excellent audit and evaluation unit that guarantees a constant critical look at UNESCO’s work. It noted the risk that UNESCO’s cultural conventions are becoming the victims of their own success, like UNESCO’s 1970-convention. This convention is a commitment between Member States to combat the smuggling of cultural goods (see this link). UNESCO’s job is to help Member States put this commitment in practice by involving relevant stakeholders in workshops and education programmes, by setting up international databases, etc. However UNESCO currently has so few staff members to do this work that an evaluation report qualified the situation for this particular convention as “absolutely untenable”.

Keep changing
Innovation requires change: staff needs to rotate to keep a "fresh look" at things. While the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff changes position approximately every 4 years, UNESCO’s professional staff sometimes stays 10 years or more. Improvement is also needed with regard to staff and skills management (see link).

"Continue to count on the Netherlands"
When Minister Liliane Ploumen sent the scorecard to Parliament she introduced it with a letter stating that UNESCO's performance has "improved" since 2013 (see this link). Being an important element in the global development process, she wrote, "UNESCO can continue to count on intensive cooperation with the Netherlands.”