Culture and Development, By Sylvester Odion Akhaine


In Nigeria discourses on development occur often within the development set and are preoccupied with macro-indicators, namely, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), purchasing Power Parity (PPP), Per Capital Income (PCI), and so on. In fact under the prevailing administration, development discourses centre on the path of securing credit facilities and forecast of crude futures, a vanishing product that is not the future. Talks of diversification rarely focus on the arena of soft power that can itself engender growth and development in ways that advance the wellbeing of the population.

Soft power, a word coined by Joseph Nye in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead that challenged the then conventional view of the decline of American power rarely crosses the policy mind of actors in the public sphere except as rhetoric. For Nye, power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes you want. But soft power is more about getting others to want the outcomes you want not through coercion but by cooptation. As he puts it in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.” Although soft power is not wholly a cultural phenomenon, however, it rests on three resources, namely, culture and immanent essentiality to attract others; faithful and exemplary political values and foreign policies that exude legitimacy and moral authority (See his 2011 book, The Future of Power). In this short essay, we nuance Nye’s soft power to cultural essentiality. 

However, there was a reassuring focus on culture as a vehicle for development recently. The 60th birthday lecture in honour of Olori Francis Meshioye at the Muson Centre in Lagos provided the platform of engagement with the object of soft power in the development debate. The keynote lecture delivered by a Professor of Public History, Siyan Oyeweso, was aptly titled “The Role of Culture and Traditions in Attaining Economic Development in Nigeria.”

The economic value of marketising culture cannot be overemphasised. The United States, the very context of Nye’s intellectual exertion, exemplifies the centrality of mainstreaming culture for development. Their cultural industries to which a large portion of humanity is co-opted easily come to mind. Arts and cultural economic activity accounted for 4.5 percent of GDP or $877.8 billion, in 2017. The value of arts and cultural production in America in 2019 was $919.7 billion, amounting to 4.3% of GDP. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) projection, the U.S. media and entertainment (M&E) industry that includes motion pictures, television programmes and commercials, streaming content, music and audio recordings, broadcast, radio, book publishing, video games, and related services and products, is the largest in the world will tilt towards netting a trillion-dollar by 2023.  

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However, while culture is complex and ramifying, for Professor Oyeweso, “Either in the primitive age or in modern times, culture encompasses that complex whole which includes shared ideas, knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society among other differences”. It is in generic terms the totality of the way of life of a people in any given society. This viewpoint is complemented by UNESCO that sees culture as “all the specific features, spiritual, material and intellectual or affective, that characterize a society or human group.” Culture as a shared and lived experience comprises “art and literature, basic human rights, a system of value, tradition and religions.” Tradition could be temporal and continual and it is embedded within the cultural complex.

Oyeweso did not miss the point about culture being an instrument of development. According to him “Throughout the past decade, statistics, indicators and data on the cultural sector, as well as operational activities, have underscored that culture can be a powerful driver for development with community-wide social, economic and environmental impacts…Of particular relevance is the cultural sector’s contribution to the economy and poverty alleviation.” According to the eminent professor, “Cultural tourism which relies on tangible and intangible cultural assets accounts for 40 percent of world tourism revenues.” He buttressed his point with some examples. In Ecuador, both formal and private cultural activities contributed 4.76 percent to the 2010 GDP and in the same year, 2.64 percent of the total employed population worked in cultural occupations with women accounting for 60 percent. No doubt investment in culture and creativity will enhance the economic revitalisation of many countries as the examples given above have already shown. Africa including Nigeria stands to benefit from this gold mine as culture is the “foundation of well-being, inclusiveness and resilience.” The diamond lecture came away with one merit: providing a way forward to the key challenge of culture in Africa and Nigeria, namely, creating understanding among state actors and the private sector on the contribution that culture can make “to sustainable development and well-being.” 

Cultural intangibles palpable in traits that stimulate individual motivation, and enhance social capital such as transparency, hard work, and certain social regimentation are useful to development. This is what the Confucius tenets in East Asia, especially China and the Asian Tigers have done to their economic growth and development in the region. Indeed, the outcomes confound neoliberal prescriptions to the contrary. As Oyeweso rightly noted in his keynote, despite their colonial subjugation, the four Asian Tiger countries – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, achieved a turnaround by leveraging on their cultural endowment through “critical cultural renaissance.” 

In a recent commentary, Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, noted in the preface to the piece titled, How Ghana’s former president pioneered heritage tourism in his own country – and why it matters” notes that: “In the 1980s, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings launched heritage tourism as a means to economic development in Ghana…Under his initiative, Ghana’s forts and castles – where enslaved Africans were forcibly put on slave ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean into slavery in the Americas – were turned into heritage sites for tourism. It united Africans and African descendant people living in the diaspora.”

In the case of Ghana, the leadership of that country with a progressive orientation bought good ideas on moving the country forward employing heritage tourism. Rawlings did note that “At that time (in the 1980s), Ghana was not politically stable. Cocoa, gold, and timber were our major commodities. The tourism idea was unplanned. But I worked with many progressive-minded people. For instance, Valerie Sackey (Ministry of Communications) and Dr Ben Abdallah (Minister of Culture and Tourism) who approached me with the idea. They targeted cultural heritage, such as the forts and castles, natural heritage, performance and arts – for example Panafest.”

The point is that the realisation of this great idea turned tourism into a tonic for the Ghanaian national economy. In Rawlings’ words: “We had little money to invest in what was important to provide stability – a stable climate, water, roads. But we did well, as tourism became our third largest foreign exchange earner – though we didn’t invest in tourism per se. Ghana was seen as a place where the black man had reason to feel proud and was not exploited by neocolonialism, so that was something in and of itself. The 1979 revolution also restored justice and respect… In our case, this pilgrimage … was a connection to blackness, to ‘Africanness’”

Beyond the Asian examples, the Ghanaian example shows quite convincingly the pride place of cultural heritage in the development continuum. As late President Rawlings noted about heritage tourism, “As for Ghana, we receive people well. Over the years, the ‘return’ has become increasingly known. Ghana has enjoyed a unique position because of our history, independence, Nkrumah, the assertion of black people in Africa’s liberation struggle and black people generally.” It is time to take seriously the prescription on culture and development from Olori Meshioye 60th birthday lecture to refocus and revitalise the cultural industries for creation, production, and commercialization of the cultural soft power to enhance economic wellbeing and development of our country. 

Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science. This piece reflects on the lecture held at the Muson Centre, Lagos, to mark the 60th birthday of Olori Francis Meshioye on August 5, 2021.

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