II: National policies and ethnographies of international aid for culture
Whose tool for what purpose? The struggle for cultural industry infrastructure in Liberia
Benjamin A. Morgan
In this chapter, I will reflect on my experience in Monrovia 2010-2013 as an expatriate concert promoter participating in the local music industries,1 and the subsequent research in 2014 as a consultant to the World Bank at a time when the sector was considered for inclusion in the country’s Private Sector Development Strategy (PSDS). Using the autoethnographic method (Chang 2008; Ellis et al. 2010), I will interrogate my participant observation as a cultural outsider, privileged foreign expert and local stakeholder, and revisit the research output I produced for the World Bank. Literature from cultural policy, media, and development studies will frame the analysis of the roles of culture2 in aid and development which I witnessed on the ground in Liberia, noting both flaws and positives. Acknowledging the discourse and institutional frameworks constraining the current path towards supporting musicians as that of the creative and cultural industries (CCIs), I reflect on why more integration of informal activity would be useful in future efforts at strategic music industry sector expansion in Liberia, rather than a punitive approach towards the informal sector.
The dream of the creative economy vs. the reality of cultural subordination
While CCIs seemed to enjoy significant global attention as drivers of economic growth and human development in the pages of institutional reports and national policies,3 this optimistic Creative Economy discourse had not reached the Republic of Liberia during the years 2010-2013. Economic plans and humanitarian aid agendas both appeared silent in Liberia when it came to supporting CCIs. Arts and cultural sectors were not addressed in Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, which was the main document that framed development projects during my time there (IMF 2008). The 2012-2013 Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism section of the national budget allocated ‘core grants’ to only two organisations: Miss Liberia Beauty Pageant and Liberia Movies Union (Republic of Liberia 2012, p. 130).4 The Liberian Daily Observer reported (Uncredited 2016) that President Johnson-Sirleaf did not acknowledge the creative sector in any of her annual addresses. Efforts were underway to update the country’s intellectual property system as a requirement to ultimately accede to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) (Mengistie, Ababa & Ouma 2009), but otherwise I saw no strategic policy or activities supporting the CCI sector. The CCIs, it seems, were not just a low priority. They were not yet invited to the discussion.
Music has an existence, meaning, and value separate from an economic role,5 and concentration on the economic output is only one approach to developing the arts. Advocating for investment in Liberian musicians from a non-economic, socio-cultural perspective highlighting the intrinsic value of the arts was also challenging and limiting, in particular within the human development industry. While the value and importance of arts and culture as part of a healthy community was always given lip service in conversation with other development workers, the lack of a specific cultural goal under the blueprint of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) made it difficult for aid industry stakeholders to advocate for a cultural project without either attaching it to another instrumental social change objective, or going back to framing it as economic activity and facing its low-priority economic sector status. Due to this lack of support for the CCI sector as an economic priority, advocates for arts and culture found themselves tying the creative work of artists into humanitarian agendas aligned with the MDGs, framing activity in terms of measurable social impact outcomes for evaluation. Artists were often hired by humanitarian Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to help spread messages through murals, commissioned songs, and other cultural vehicles to promote change agendas, but direct investment in building the capacity of artists to create the work they themselves desired was rare.6
Upon reflection, it can be easy to see how the need for a framework such as Creative Economy policy or a cultural goal in the MDGs was necessary to argue for government investment or NGO capacity building in a specific CCI such as music, film, literature, theatre, etc. In the field at the time, it simply appeared that the cultural industries only had value as tools to facilitate external agendas. Without knowledge of how to engage with policy, I came to understand that attracting donor interest in the Liberian music industry sector meant embracing either the small-medium-enterprise economic development discourse and face the lack of enthusiasm for the CCIs, or embrace the instrumental, music-as-a-tool-for-social change agenda (a problematic and limiting imposition of constraints on creativity, e.g. Stup-ples 2014).
Public/private expatriate worker
As a work of autoethnography, it is important to examine how and why I was an expatriate US citizen advocating for musicians in Liberia. I lived in Monrovia from October 2010 until June 2013, and though I was a concert
Cultural industry infrastructure in Liberia 93 promoter producing live concerts for most of this time, I also held several jobs in the NGO sector. I was hired and brought to Liberia by American friends to manage a bar/nightclub they had started with a Liberian partner. Following many years of work in the US music industries, this was an opportunity for a job abroad where I felt my expertise would be valuable, and I could experience a new musical culture. I arrived full of enthusiasm to work with the musicians of Liberia, but completely lacked any formal training or experience working in low-income countries. I expected to encounter new ways of conducting business there that I would need to learn about, but also that my expertise was a form of knowledge that Liberians artists and stakeholders lacked and desired: the roots of a normative approach.
Whether Liberian or expatriate, most people I interacted with held jobs in the non-profit humanitarian aid and development sector. Those who were in the private sector also framed their work in similar ways: business workers also spoke of helping, developing, and building capacity, while development workers held personal career goals and would talk about their need to establish relationships to secure future employment. The discourse and practices of the development sector permeated into the private sector, and as I came to hold jobs in both sectors, I also spoke of my work -whether for-profit or for a non-profit NGO - using a similar language. I understood my private sector work producing concerts with musicians as an effort to improve local systems and infrastructure through the discourse of capacity building.
I believed that I was contributing to local standards, professional practice, and sharing valuable expertise as I created economic opportunities. Once I learned that many development institutions were for-profit companies (e.g. Chemonics, Development Alternatives Inc.), and that large companies engaged in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs which resembled development interventions, the line was blurred further. While an international petroleum company (e.g. Total S.A.) has different aims than a humanitarian institution (e.g. Oxfam), I overheard constant overlap in how employees reflected verbally on the impact of their activities. While large business CSR activities were a more obvious area of discursive similarity to humanitarian projects, the managers and business owners of commercial companies spoke of training their employees as building capacity, and how their business was helping to develop infrastructure. Combined with my background in the US popular music industries, I came to view the idea of economic interventions to stimulate cultural markets in Liberia simultaneously as human development, capacity building, and economic investment. I was quite unaware of the critical policy issues with making arts and culture subordinate to economics, and had no problems seeing the desire to support the music industries to be simultaneously an economic and cultural concern.
As noted brilliantly by Stirrat (2008), I oscillated between development worker identity stereotypes as a missionary (I was there to help Liberian musicians transform their lives), mercenary (I was there to improve my careerprospects and enjoy the privileged expat lifestyle), and misfit (I could not figure out my life goals at home so I went in search of meaning elsewhere -somewhere where I was automatically important). While I did contribute to Liberia’s culture and economy, I see how some activities I engaged in were problematic and flawed. I hope that future endeavours to stimulate cultural industries might benefit from my observations.
I hope to be critical through (auto)ethnography and remind policymakers of social issues outside their decision-making process (e.g. Mosse 2004), but not directly comment on rhe tense relationship between the academic criticism and policy impact (Schlesinger 2013). I see how the collaboration between development experts and citizens ‘creates learning spaces where co-production of knowledge which can contribute to broader processes of change is possible’ (Wilson 2006, p. 519). I am a practitioner-turned-academic offering reflective perspective on a very specific moment in policy making: approaching the development of a cultural industry in a low-income country.
Foreign institutional experts who believe in the transformative power of music
I was hired in late 2013 by an American economist working for the World Bank to draft a chapter on the Liberian music industry sector for inclusion in the Liberian PSDS. I had just left Liberia a few months prior, after three years living in Monrovia. My mandate was to ‘focus on both the challenges and potential of the industry and provide a series of comprehensive interventions for sector development,’ as stated in the terms of reference (World Bank 2014a). This meant describing sector deficits, advocating for the importance of the music industries, then recommending interventions to stimulate their growth. Successful inclusion of the music industry sector in the PSDS would initiate the process for allocating government funding, as well as off-budget NGO planning, to projects designed to develop the Liberian music industries by creating a policy framework for proposals within the economic development realm - where CCIs were not considered a priority. The economist who hired and supervised me was another foreign worker who enjoyed Liberian music and noted the lack of institutional support for musicians. Our work was a small scoping project to evaluate the sector, advocate for support, and see what the Government of Liberia thought.
While the Liberian PSDS was an economic plan concerned with commercial output of the private sector, we decided that arguments for social impact had to be inserted in order to warrant inclusion of the relatively small music industries as a priority. Both my supervisor and I were guided by personal belief in the social value and power of musical expression to positively impact society. The rhetorical ‘transformative power of the arts’ (Belfiore 2011) led our search for both social and economic impact to justify the relevance of the sector’s inclusion as an economic priority. The terms of reference for my consultancy referenced youth empowerment, inclusion,
Cultural industry infrastructure in Liberia 95 and post-conflict peace building as potential socio-cultural contributions of the sector, in addition to nation-branding and employment (World Bank 2014a). We attached our policy concern to other issues which occupied more central positions in the political discourse, a perfect example of the practice of policy attachment (Belfiore 2006; Gray 2002). We fully believed, as we argued, that we would be helping the Republic of Liberia achieve economic growth and economic spill-over effects in addition to the beneficial social impact of more local music. A well-intentioned, possibly naive attitude worthy of critique due to its grounding in the ideology of the transformative power of music, perhaps, but I stand behind the belief system which motivated our work as benevolent. It is when I reflect on how we described the challenges and potential of the sector, that I now see where the project was flawed.
For readers who question whether this effort to support the Liberian music sector might have been based on more formal research into the sector and its potential vs. others, the unfortunate fact is that there was no information available on the CCI sectors in Liberia, neither formal nor informal. Our research was based primarily on my three years of participant observation and experience there as a concert promoter, and a tele-conference focus group discussion with key Liberian industry stakeholders that I had identified, held in January 2014. It is to the credit of the World Bank economist who hired me that our process was participatory and based on brainstorming sessions with stakeholders that I had worked with or identified as important, as well as my observations from my own personal interactions with artists and industry workers over the years.
In retrospect, however, the research was based primarily on the input of artists, managers, and some patrons and aspiring record label owners. A notable absence from our focus groups and my experience was the voice and perspective of the retailers. The street vendors selling music, and the warehouse distributors who supplied them with goods were notably absent, though at the time the fact that they were dealing unauthorised copies seemed to make their inclusion less important. Though I had spent years working in the sector and knew a great deal about what musicians did for money, we were ultimately cultural outsiders doing our best to advocate for the local insiders.