Published on Let's Talk Development

Introducing a cultural trade index

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A few years ago, when Craigslist was just “The List,” a friend circulated an ad posted on Craigslist Vancouver.  It went like this:
We are a small & casual restaurant in downtown Vancouver. We are looking for solo musicians to play in our restaurant to promote their work and sell their CD. This is not a daily job, but only for special events, which will eventually turn into a nightly event if we get positive response. More jazz, rock, & smooth-type music around the world and mixed cultural music. Are you interested in promoting your work? Please reply back ASAP.
And one of the responses received was:
I am a musician with a big house looking for a restauranteur to promote their restaurant and come to my house to make dinner for my friends and me. This is not a daily job, but only for special events, which will eventually turn into a nightly event if we get positive response. More fine dining & exotic meals and mixed ethnic fusion cuisine. Are you interested in promoting your restaurant? Please reply back ASAP.
It’s perhaps unfair to conclude that the restauranteur didn’t mean well.  But what does this exchange suggest?  How are the arts normally valued, consciously or unconsciously, in our social order?

What is true at the micro level — as captured in the exchange between the musician and restauranteurs — is also true at the macro level. National accounts routinely undervalue arts and culture as economic drivers. Trade in cultural goods and services, moreover, is opaque in spheres of economic statistics.
What’s the contribution of cultural tourism to Colombia’s economy? How much do arts and crafts contribute to Ghana’s gross domestic product (GDP)? How many jobs has piano manufacturing created in Vietnam?
Answers to such questions can be hard to find.
Cultural commerce feeds into the GDP, even though questions about sampling and the treatment of intangibles abound. Yet its contribution to economic development is less understood. What’s more, although GDP is a key economic indicator, it doesn’t measure services well. In addition, as Diane Coyle writes, “GDP has never captured the most striking and important characteristic of modern capitalism, namely that it is an ‘innovation machine’ ” And of course GDP falls short on capturing essential aspects of well-being.
Such limitations have in part encouraged other indices. These include the Human Development Index, Gross National Happiness Index, Global Innovation Index, Social Progress Index, and so on.

These indices no doubt attempt to enrich the development debate. And along those lines, frustrated in seeking cultural data, I stumbled upon an idea: why not create a Cultural Trade Index (CTI), which would gather data to show how countries perform in aspects of international trade in cultural goods and services? As I note in a recent working paper introducing the idea, the CTI would aim primarily to inform policies that promote cultural trade for development.
And since culture transcends monetary gain, a Cultural Exchange Index, which shows cultural exchanges between and among countries, could compliment the CTI. Like other indices, the CTI would not account for the true cultural contribution to development — especially the non-instrumental aspects that enrich human welfare in countless ways. It could, however, be useful in evaluating global cultural trade, and thereby stimulate debate, enrich public knowledge, and inform decision-making on the diverse role the arts can contribute to sustainable development
Whether we’re measuring sustainable development or something else, “the ability to collect data and devise handy yardsticks can be a useful tool,” Joseph Stiglitz notes. “But sometimes our fetish with measurement is not useful at all.” One reason our fixation with measurement can be of no use and to mutate a phrase by Henry Fielding: it’s possible to know something without having the numbers, as it is to have the numbers and know nothing. So the CTI will not answer all we need to know about cultural trade. But it might help explain what we understand and what we don’t.
This, among other benefits, is likely to encourage debate and inform policies that advance cultural activities in economic diversification and meaningful development. And, as our Craigslist exchange shows, the CTI may help shift our mindsets on cultural commerce.
Once that happens, organizations and countries might see the need to allocate scarce resources to develop national cultural statistics. To that end, sufficient resources must not only be made available to collect data — they must be made available to analyze, disseminate, and use those data effectively.


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