The Cultural Politics of Development:What is the Future of Arts Institutions in Post-Revolution Tunisia?

An overview of the article

“If culture is the matrix in which the identity of a society is created and recreated, development is the right name for that process of making and remaking. Which is to say, that the culture of a society will only cease to constitute a set of manageable tools for development when development is no longer defined in terms foreign to that society’s identity and is seen, instead, as a process of endogenous change and interaction between societies, through which they may evolve in accordance with their own identities, and on their own terms.”

UNESCO “A Cultural Approach to Development”, 1997 38

The role of cultural institutions in the social development and creative economy of countries continues to be a crucial research topic in the social sciences.39 For Douglas North, a prominent scholar who has analysed the role of institutions in the process of economic development and social welfare, cultural institutions represent “the rules of the game in a certain society or, more explicitly, they embody the constraints put in place which determine human interaction.”40 As a result, cultural institutions shape human exchange in the social, economic, political realms as well as the artistic field. North’s analyses have inspired and continue to inspire numerous empirical works, including those that demonstrate the extent to which “the inefficiency of institutions in developing countries is essentially the cause behind their economic backwardness.”41 Based on a symbiotic relationship between culture, society, economic life and their development, cultural institutions are an essential condition vis-à-vis economic development, social dynamics and cultural action. “The term ‘cultural action’ carries heavy meaning because it points to both cultural policy of a public authority (whether state, city or region) and public policy.”42 In sum, cultural development is supported by both well-structured cultural policies and reliable resources for economic growth.

A key element in these questions was to explore the degree to which policy-makers are increasingly acknowledging the role that culture occupies in developing economies. For some, “political decisions, economic and financial initiatives and social reforms are all more likely to achieve their purposes if their cultural impact is taken into account and if the concerns and aspirations of the individual in society are addressed from a cultural perspective.”43 According to the UNESCO Convention (2005) on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions, in order to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expression an integrated approach in policy-making is required. The convention stresses the importance of involving governments in the development of policies and to distinguish both the decisive factors of good governance of culture and the flawed factors of cultural policy. In summary, there are two elements that emerge from this : “ systems of governance are to a large extent determined by political will and the level of priority given to the cultural sector by the public authorities and society in general. In technical terms, secondly, the quality of the system of governance for culture will depend on the financial and human resources available in the sector. These are key elements, as we will see, in any discussion of cultural policy and the role of culture in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Effective governance can, moreover, be greatly determined by the vision and action of government officials in charge of the culture sector as well as their commitment to contribute to a system that is transparent (providing full access to information and decision-making processes); participatory (involving multiple stakeholders and the informal institutions of civil society); and informed (regularly collecting information and data and information to support evidence-based policy-making). The functioning of a system of governance for culture can, in turn, be affected by a number of interrelated factors: the low political priority given to culture by policy-makers; weak institutional or technical capacity in the area of cultural production; a lack of dialogue among the various stakeholders; and a lack of information and data available to make informed decisions based on the challenges and needs facing the stakeholders.” 44

How then can we interpret this relationship between cultural institutions, cultural policies/approaches and the process of development in the Tunisian context?

It is with this question in mind that this study focuses on the post-revolutionary context of Tunisia to investigate how political institutions invest, if at all, in cultural projects in a rapidly changing society and in what contexts? This approach not only provides insights into the ways in which cultural institutions function and the challenges they face, but also reveals the state’s political, social and economic influence on cultural bodies and, accordingly, raises questions about the sustainability and suitability of the cultural policies that are implemented in its name. The majority of the research for this essay was conducted with cultural practitioners who are directly affected by such policies and their long-term implications. In cooperation with five directors from private and public cultural institutions, the research was largely conducted via a questionnaire survey in the form of interviews and written comments in Tunisia.45

In this context, my ambition here is to assess whether or not the policies and approaches we are currently seeing in Tunisia considers, firstly, the link between economic and cultural development and, simultaneously, the extent to which stakeholders within the cultural sector are being consulted and engaged with, especially given that the development, economic,social and political, of the country are dependent on a sustainable form of cultural dialogue and governance structures?

Gabsi, W. (2016).

“The Cultural Politics of Development: What is the Future of Arts Institutions in Post-Revolution Tunisia?” In. Ibraaz book’s publication for 2017.

38 See UNESCO. (1997). A Cultural Approach to Development. Planning Manual: Concepts and Tools. Paris, p.46. Online

39 « The economy of culture which is linked to knowledge, creativity, artistic activity and local culture represents today one of the most important resources for the development of a certain area. This topic stimulates debates about the city and generates important remarks, suggestions and new approaches about the ways urban spaces could be transformed into sites of creation and innovation centres.” D’Ovidio, M. « Le rôle des institutions dans l’Economie créative ». In. Tremblay, D& Tremblay, R. (2010) La classe créative selon Richard Florida. Un paradigme urbain plausible? Rennes. Editions PUR. p. 165.

40 North, D. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance. (Quoted by). Mijiyawa, A-G. (2010). « Institutions et développement : analyse des effets macroéconomiques des institutions et de réformes institutionnelles dans les pays en développement. ». Sciences de l’Homme et Société. Université d’Auvergne – Clermont-Ferrand En ligne : p1

41 Ibidem.

42 Boumankhar, I & Gabsi, W. (2010). « Construction des réseaux de coopération dans le monde de l’art. Etude de cas : La Tunisie ». En ligne :

43 The European Task Force on Culture and Development. (1997). In from the margins. Germany. Council of Europe Publishing. p.15. Online:

44 UNESCO. (2013). Strengthening the Governance of Culture to Unlock Development Opportunities. Paris. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. p. 7. Online :

45 These institutions include the Keireddine museum, the Centre National des Arts Vivants, the Institut Français de Cooperation, the Maison de l’image, and the B’chira Art Centre.


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