Let's expose our government's unfounded scorn for the arts

Sunday March 26 2017

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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I have previously pointed out how government perceptions on arts and culture undermine the growth of the industry. These perceptions translate to policy that is articulated overtly or that seeps in covertly.

Assessing this from a policy perspective is important, and it is laudable that stakeholders are organising to challenge policy positions within government through collectives such as the Creative Economy Working Group.

It is encouraging to see that creatives from diverse backgrounds and sub-sectors have realised the critical role policy plays in creating the enabling environment for industries to thrive, and furthermore, that ignoring or avoiding policy engagement is costly.

This is because the actors who pre-determine the rules of engagement may have different ideas, many of which are designed to undermine growth and prosperity on this front, from education to industry-specific environments.

Policy,simply defined, refers to the basic principles by which a government is guided, or the declared objectives that a government or party seeks to achieve and preserve in the interest of national community.

I was drawn to policy work (I work in and on ICT policy specifically) owing to the frustrating realisation that we are caught up in a duplicity. The policies we want and need remain words on paper while the ones we have in operation are not designed to benefit us all.

The inertia around the policy process, in translating from articulation in brilliant wording to implementation that outlives political cycles, is stalling us from unlocking the excellence that is otherwise waiting to be unleashed across these great lands.

In turn, we find ourselves in a vicious circle of discussing what should be done, maybe what can be done, but hardly do we get to conversations about what has been done, where government actors account for how they have gone about breathing life to the policies they either formulate or adopt when their governments  come into office.

PERCEIVED HOLY GRAIL

We then end up seeking ways to work around inflexible, outdated, and retrogressive policies. Or in this era, of entrepreneur-speak, we easily fall into the trap of seeking moonshot innovations to get us out of the rut of poor policy formulation and implementation.

That is why the place of Arts, Culture and the Humanities in education systems and our economy remains more lip service, with little to no support. In fact, I would argue, many policymakers' deeds (sometimes even words) point to disdain for the collective, yet immensely diverse, sectors and industries represented therein.

Let's assess a recent development that should be cause for concern to all: In January 2017, the Education Cabinet Secretary announced that from July, students pursuing STEM courses (the perceived Holy Grail) would receive more funding in the form of students loans, than those pursuing courses in Arts and Humanities.

Yet eighty per cent of university students in Kenya pursue courses in the latter category, whether by choice or circumstance. The CS is reported to have declared that "the country will not develop (achieve vision 2030) with the current focus on the arts."

We need to unpack this idea- now turning into policy- that STEM trumps the Arts, Culture and Humanities for economic prosperity. This isn’t solely a Kenyan conundrum; many an African leader will be found to have carried this message, and with very deep conviction.

LAST FRONTIERS OF AUTOMATION

To me, this has deep socio-political roots; some will postulate that this thinking is still squarely rooted in the colonial policies that elected to churn out workers and builders of the empire, rather than thinkers who would challenge the system.

Let us also not overlook the irony that those who carry this message are often themselves graduates from Arts and Humanities courses.

Furthermore, are we to dismiss the fact that history shows us that the best scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians have also been artists of some form or another, having nurtured their artistic inclinations that strengthened their scientific thinking?

Also, what becomes of this majority that pursues these courses? Will they now be forced to pursue STEM courses? What becomes of individual agency? Who will be disadvantaged as a result?

Digging deeper into our technological futures, particularly with the rise of automation, early evidence shows that one of the last frontiers of automation - in turn rendering obsolete many of the job paths for STEM graduates - will actually be creativity.

As a McKinsey report on this subject notes, "Capabilities such as creativity and sensing emotions are core to the human experience and also difficult to automate."  

Is it any wonder, then, that we have a hard time valuing artistic and cultural artefacts, starting from government down to would-be local consumers?

UNQUANTIFIABLE BENEFITS

The story of Ian Mwaura Mbugua comes to mind.  Ian was expelled from school over 'demonic' art, even though that school has since been ordered to readmit him.

What does the fact that art (a form of self-expression) can be considered demonic and that there were teachers who deemed themselves arbiters in this case, tell us about the perceived space of art in our society?

How many other Ians are out there, having their creativity stifled and policed owing to a flawed value system that discredits and demonises art?

The spaces in which to explore and appreciate the significance and often unquantifiable benefits of the arts are being taken away under our very eyes. Those who create artistic and cultural artefacts, who then seek to make a living in the creative economy, meet an unappreciative or even hostile market.

If we haven't already, let's draw the links. We have a system enforced by problematic beliefs that remain unchallenged and eventually transform into (in)formal policies; all of which have, are and continue to disincentivise people from appreciating and valuing arts and culture and their critical, indispensable role in shaping our country.

This piece was a contribution to theHEVA Forum Financial Symposium that took place on 8-9 March, 2017. Twitter: @NiNanjira