ECF highlights cultural policy research and activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Through a series of interviews, ECF introduces cultural policy researchers and activists from across the region who are working on developing and influencing cultural policy development in their countries (from Algeria and Egypt to Palestine and Lebanon). Some of their analysis and research contributes to the World CP – International Cultural Policy Database – which, since its launch in 2015 by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), is growing as an important monitoring tool of country-specific cultural policy reviews from around the world.
We talk to Habiba Laloui, Member of the National Task Force for Cultural Policy, Algeria – a key cultural player in the MENA region and contributor to the World CP – about her work, ambitions, challenges and vision for the future of cultural policy in her country.
Born in 1979, Habiba Laloui works as a professor and researcher at the University of Algeria. She has been working with the National Task Force for Cultural Policy in Algeria since it was launched in 2011. In January 2013, she was appointed as a member of Culture Resource’s (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy) general assembly, and became a member of the organisation’s art council in August 2016.
She published her own book of poetry, Bitter Coffee, Sips After Mid-Sorrow, with the Lebanese publishing house Al-Farabi in 2011 and received her PhD in Arabic Literature in 2014.
Habiba, what is the key mission of the National Task Force for Cultural Policy?
Since its inception, the National Task Force for Cultural Policy in Algeria has been working on writing a new cultural policy for Algeria. The new policy was based on the real cultural needs of civil society. It aimed to democratise culture and liberate Algerian cultural action from the restrictions of the political regime.
The task force is also working to promote the importance of adopting a policy that is built on transparency – a policy that can free the Algerian cultural landscape from the stronghold of the powers that control it. The hope is that this will allow real creative artists to benefit from public grants, so they can produce cultural commodities that will appeal to audiences.
What have been the challenges you face while working in the field of cultural policy in your country?
The most important challenge is the authorities’ stubbornness, and their slow acknowledgement of the need to create and adopt a new, transparent, clear, evaluable and correctable cultural policy – a policy that is written by those who are directly concerned with it, namely cultural actors but also the general public.
We also faced some problems convincing cultural actors to support a unified cultural project in Algeria, instead of engaging in meaningless ideological conflicts that lead to nothing but more social unrest and less effective dialogue.
In addition, Algeria does not have independent cultural spaces that can facilitate a free and open dialogue about the culture among cultural actors.
How does your National Task Force work with cultural practitioners in your country and the MENA region? How do their needs differ from other cultural players around the world?
From the start, the National Task Force for Cultural Policy in Algeria adopted a strategy built of partnerships and collaborations with different cultural actors in Algeria. In fact, the task force started its work by supporting independent cultural associations and entities that share our beliefs, such as the SOS Bab El-Oued Association, One Thousand and One News in the capital, and the Little Reader Association in Wahran.
These partnerships allowed us to hold the first meetings of the task force. They also helped us to benefit from Maghreb and North African expertise in a participatory policy that was keen on leveraging active cultural talents and experiences in the region. This was reflected in organising more than one cultural workshop for young cultural actors in Algeria, run by experts from Africa and the Maghreb region. For example, a workshop on cultural management was organised in Wahran, moderated by the financial expert Adama Trawri in October 2014. Previously, another workshop was held in the capital in April 2014, moderated by Moroccan expert Adel El-Saadani. Also more recently, cultural actors from the south of Algeria benefited for the first time from a workshop on managing major cultural events, moderated by Moroccan expert Ibrahim El-Muzannad in May 2016.
This strategy was inspired by the similarity in circumstances experienced by the Algerian cultural sector and its Maghreb and African counterparts, without neglecting the unique features of the cultural reality in Algeria. The points of agreement make the leading cultural expertise in the region a beacon for cultural actors in Algeria, who are really seeking to overcome challenges that were resolved in neighbouring countries, thanks to adaptable and transformable mechanisms.
The task force also has an active partnership with Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy), which supports the task force with its vast experience in this field, and its rich network of cultural actors and activists in Arab cultural policies, as well as experts of cultural policies on a global level.
The needs of cultural actors in the MENA region are different from the needs of their international counterparts, considering the political and economic circumstances in the region, including wars, social unrest and extremism in the Arab region. These factors have imposed many restrictions on freedoms and limited the opportunities for cultural work on the ground, which is now either an arena of war or closed spaces where cultural work is banned. In light of this, the most pressing need for cultural actors is having an acceptable level of freedom to move and act. For this, we need to mobilise support from what I call ‘the international civil society’ (i.e. different independent civil entities, working on promoting democracy and human rights around the world). International civil society should offer much-needed support to threatened cultural actors worldwide, in ways that preserve the independence of each country. This is important. We must not neglect or forget it when we enter a new collaboration or partnership with international entities.
Another difficulty we face is the economic reality of independent cultural organisations in the region. Funding is becoming more and more scarce, due to restrictions imposed on foreign funding in some countries, and prohibiting it completely in others. There are no national alternatives since the cultural sector is low down in the governments’ priorities.
This highlights the cultural actors’ need to enact cultural policies that serve the independent cultural sectors. Such policies must be negotiated and promoted.
What are the most important connections you have built and collaborations you have worked on with European countries? What is their impact in the region?
The National Task Force operates on two principles. The first principle is complete independence, in terms of decision-making and adopting strategies, from all local and foreign groups that might affect its independence. The second principle is the openness to all opportunities of collaboration and collective work, with local and international organisations or groups, provided that such collaboration would not affect the first principle. In other words, we seek out opportunities to work with entities and organisations that share our cultural objectives and have expertise and talents that we can benefit from, without compromising the independence of the group’s decision-making process.
Focusing on these principles, the task force participated in discussion sessions with European cultural actors. For example, we participated in the meeting organised by the Med Culture programme, sponsored by the European Union in the capital, on 9 November 2015. Representatives of the task force were invited to discuss possible collaborations between Algeria and Europe, the needs of the Algerian cultural sector, and ways to develop cultural policy in Algeria within the context of a European-Algerian partnership from the perspective of civil society (representatives of the Ministry of Culture were invited, but they did not attend the first session).
I believe such partnerships would be very useful for the Arab region. They would enhance skills across the region, and arrive at solutions that could be adopted in the Arab world. Despite the fact that the region is facing political and economic difficulties – and the fact that there is a huge difference in cultural infrastructure in Europe and the Arab region – sharing knowledge and expertise between the two regions would definitely inspire improvements in the long run, if not immediately.
What are your National Task Force’s most important programmes and areas of expertise? How do you create impact in your country and in the region? Which programmes are closest to your heart, and which are you personally most proud of?
The most important achievement of the National Task Force on Cultural Policy in Algeria was writing a new cultural policy for the country, based on the outcomes of a series of discussion panels with cultural actors and the wider public. From the beginning, the mission of the task force was to develop this policy, despite being ignored by the authorities. The task force was able to realise this mission by organising open discussions, starting in December 2011, to mobilise the support of independent cultural actors, and to encourage them to actively participate in developing a policy that responds to the needs of cultural actors on the ground.
In the fourth meeting, held on 3 February 2013, the task force presented the proposed cultural policy document to the audience. This was a crucial meeting, attended by representatives from the Algerian Ministry of Culture, who did not hesitate to accuse the task force members of being traitors and foreign agents, in order to intimidate them. This meeting was historic, because it marked the birth of the project, thanks to the group members’ insistence despite all difficulties they faced.
I should also point out the cultural management workshops held by the task force. Starting from April 2014, we held a series of workshops across Algeria. The workshops led to expansion of the group’s presence and mobilisation of many cultural actors who came to believe in the need to empower the independent cultural sector in Algeria.
The National Task Force has made a big difference in Algeria, due to its ability to openly oppose, and even clash directly with, the ways in which the Algerian cultural sector is managed. This was in times of economic boom, when the government invested billions in a sterile cultural sector that was used as a propaganda tool, without any effort to build a strong, productive and sustainable cultural sector that appealed to a national audience. This strong stand earned the group its credibility with civil society. The subsequent period proved that the task force was right in what it said and called for, after the public cultural budget was severely reduced in the light of the economic crisis. The Ministry of Culture, then, had to adopt a lot of what the cultural policy document had proposed a few years before the economic crisis, although the ministry did it gradually and without reference to the document.
The group’s steadfastness and adherence to its principles made it an inspiration to other national task forces and groups working for the same objectives across the Arab region.
Culture Resource works on the Arab contributions to the World CP – International Cultural Policy Database, set up by IFACCA with partners. What do you hope to achieve with your work in the long run?
Partnerships and collaborations to develop world cultural policies have become a pressing need for all parties involved. Ultimately, all countries need to activate, empower and amend their policies in the light of changes. This cannot be done on a national, isolated level, because national culture cannot thrive without being open to global cultural diversity, while preserving the richness and authenticity of local culture.
Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy) is a pioneer in developing and writing cultural policies for the Arab region, in association with the World CP – International Cultural Policy Database. This provides cultural actors and activists, working on cultural policies in the region, with an opportunity to promote their projects and mobilise support for their activities that may be under various pressures, depending on the country in which they operate.
On the other hand, the database should serve as a platform for all activists in this field who need to express their ideas, suggestions and experiences. They also need to be exposed to different international expertise that may inspire new mechanisms to develop national cultural policies. The database, therefore, should become a pillar of support to all cultural actors working toward the same goal around the world. At the same time, the database should acknowledge, and consider, the difference in circumstances, pressures and catalysts from one country to another. Thus, we recommend that the database should be open to these differences, and serve as a practical supporter of each cultural actor, according to their local circumstances.
What is the ultimate goal of your work in future?
The ultimate goal for our future work is to build a strong independent cultural sector in Algeria that is committed to preserving cultural diversity and richness of the nation, and being open to world cultures, in a manner that supports social dialogue and civil peace.
Read the most recent news on Arab cultural policies from the national task forces in Arabic and English at www.arabcp.org
Further reading from the ECF Library & our partners’ sources:
- Cultural Policies in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia – An Introduction, Boekmanstudies, Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy) and ECF, Amsterdam, 2010