Why is it that cultural aid projects have such a bad reputation?

You’ll remember that last month there was outrage in the UK press about £5.2m of British taxpayers’ money being used by the Department for International Development to fund “the Ethiopian Spice Girls”.

The Daily Mail called multi-platform brand Yegna “the most wasteful, ludicrous and patronising” aid project in Africa. And later that month DfID withdrew its funding.
A lot of vitriol is focused on foreign aid itself, but there is particular scorn reserved for cultural projects like Yegna.

For people like me who work in the media sector, it’s frustrating to see cultural projects undermined.

Surely addressing issues in Ethiopia like early forced marriage, violence and barriers to education is vital to the country’s success. Just as at home the media and cultural sectors have a hell of job to do in changing attitudes towards issues like gender inequality and immigration.

We in the media, cultural and creative sectors are best equipped to lead this change, and of course this all needs investment and resources.

So if the best ways to affect change like this is through pop music, talk shows and radio dramas – as with Yegna – then it seems to me that they are legitimate projects worth funding.

So why the criticism? Well perhaps the fact that cultural change is so hard to pin down makes it a target. The work we do operates through the unseen and intangible aspects of society – things like changing people’s attitudes and behaviours.

In many ways infrastructure projects are simpler to deliver and easier to understand than cultural ones. Building schools or installing pipelines is tangible and has a clear and quantifiable effect. Cultural projects are subjective and difficult to evaluate.

As an industry we need to start winning the argument on the worth of cultural projects – and especially cultural aid as a means of improving societies. Perhaps the place to start with Yegna was clarifying what the £5.2m funding was being invested in and what it could achieve.

We have all the skills and tools at our disposal and it’s now a case of telling the right stories and changing attitudes – of doing what we do best.

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