Photograph of Active Citizens in Ukraine
Culture in an Age of Uncertainty. Active Citizens in Ukraine. Photo by Oleksandr Filonenko ©

Goethe-Institut, adapted from the original.

November 2018

A new study reveals the different types of value generated by international cultural engagement - and the benefits that it can bring to societies under pressure. Alasdair Donaldson, co-author of the report, explains the findings.

Culture on the Front Line

These are uncertain times. Many countries are experiencing significant political, social, and demographic challenges - which are in turn having knock-on effects elsewhere. Culture has often been on the front line of recent instability. But can culture also play an important role in addressing that instability? 

Culture has often been on the front line of recent instability. But can culture also play an important role in addressing that instability? 

As other forms of international relations struggle to tackle conflict, policymakers should consider engagement through culture and civil society. This raises tough questions: how effective is such engagement? Can its value be measured without simplification? If so, how? What are the best forms of engagement to support positive change in societies under pressure? 

The findings of new research, set out in Culture in an Age of Uncertainty - a joint report by the British Council and Germany’s Goethe-Institut - provide evidence that cultural engagement does indeed generate value. The report summarises a rigorous, independent study, carried out over two years by the Open University and Hertie School of Governance, called the Cultural Value Project.

The research used a bespoke new mixed methodology (involving mappings, surveys, workshops, and interviews) to investigate the value generated by cultural engagement activities in societies undergoing transition of the sort undertaken by the UK and Germany – two countries with some of the most comprehensive overseas cultural programmes. It conducted case studies in Ukraine and Egypt – strategically important countries at or near the borders of Europe, which are both recovering from revolutions and are both faced with major economic, political, and demographic challenges. Both have also seen significant cultural conflict and severe challenges to the development of their civil society. 

The report finds that international cultural engagement creates value. Yet this value is a matter of perspective. Different beneficiaries perceive quite different benefits. Amongst the main sources of value identified by beneficiaries of cultural engagement programmes were:

  • Better dialogue between peoples, countries, and cultures
  • Better access to wider audiences for local partners in the countries in question
  • The acquisition of new skills by those partners
  • Networking opportunities for the beneficiaries of cultural engagement programmes
  • Funding for those beneficiaries

The report finds that the value of cultural engagement is increased when such engagement is mutual and seen to be mutual. It also has valuable insights about the nature of that value in transition societies, the challenges that those involved in cultural engagement there face, and the lessons they can learn as they seek to maximise their impact.

The report suggests that, while it may not directly reduce conflict or instability in societies in transition, such engagement can contribute to doing so by:

  • Offering safe spaces for culture and dialogue, independent of state oversight
  • Strengthening civil society, future leaders, and independent cultural actors
  • Managing tensions between those actors and the state 
  • Having a highly symbolic value by their very presence in those countries

However, many organisations involved in cultural engagement in transition societies were found to face a series of challenges, which they must attempt to address:

  • Negative historic perceptions of Western countries and their governments
  • Limited visibility of legacy cultural engagement organisations in an increasingly competitive field
  • Complex local socio-political sensitivities and demographic pressures

Lessons for Practitioners and Policymakers

The research finds that cultural engagement can best support transition societies when it reaches out beyond a narrow band of beneficiaries, builds partnerships with and bridges between state and non-state actors, and clearly identifies, communicates, and manages shared goals and expectations. It also stresses the need for deep understanding of local contexts and sensitivities and diplomatic approaches to dealing with those sensitivities - particularly where the political environment may be difficult or unsympathetic to European cultural engagement - although it also recommends tactfully addressing controversy rather than avoiding it. The research concludes that legacy international cultural organisations are uniquely well-equipped for undertaking such valuable engagement. Yet more could be done to record and share their knowledge, both within and between organisations. 

This report presents strong evidence of the value of cultural engagement with societies experiencing instability. It suggests the increasingly important role that cultural engagement can play in a more unstable world

International cultural organisations can learn much from the report, using its findings to further improve their impact overseas.  Policymakers can also take much away from the study. They can sometimes be sceptical of the value of cultural interventions, due to the challenges of measuring their impact. The research’s nuanced but rigorous examination of the value of cultural engagement in societies in transition should give further impetus to the culture, education, security, and foreign policy communities to grasp more fully how such engagement can contribute to wider foreign policy objectives.  

This report presents strong evidence of the value of cultural engagement with societies experiencing instability. It suggests the increasingly important role that cultural engagement can play in a more unstable world.

Alasdair Donaldson, Senior Editor and Cultural Value Project Manager, British Council

See also

External links