SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

SKF Cultural Policy Paper: Craft for Impact

Tuesday , 02 February 2021

Given the climate of relative social freedom that Lebanon enjoys in the region, the Lebanese cultural life has always been rich and diverse. It has drawn inspiration from east and west. Cultural life in Lebanon encompasses international festivals bringing world renowned performing artists, local events featuring pop singers, but also a dynamic arts gallery scene, street art, and events highlighting local traditions, including culinary ones.


This cultural life has remained, nonetheless, very dependent on public support, through government or municipal sponsorship. Also, the major festivals are often linked, through the leadership of their organizing bodies, to the political forces influential in each region. Conversely, small-scale, independent cultural initiatives, focusing on non-mainstream art forms, remain too limited in scope and funding, and struggle to achieve sustainability beyond sponsorship from European cultural centers.


Due to the succession of security and political crises that Lebanon has gone through in the last fifty years, and despite the recurrence and resilience of artistic events, culture has always been regarded as a luxury or a plus, sugarcoating wounds or providing a sort of escape out of everyday concerns.


At a time when the country is struggling with its worst economic and financial crisis ever, the Lebanese society faces the risk of seeing its once dynamic cultural scene vanishing due to funding constraints. While authorities might reduce the culture budget to unprecedented lows as part of their attempt to curb public spending, it is more than vital for the survival of Lebanon’s cultural life to see how it can be turned into a comparative advantage that contributes to alleviating the weight of the economic crisis and improving the lives of citizens in communities across the country.

The Samir Kassir Foundation believes it is possible to turn culture into a sustainable economic and social comparative advantage in Lebanon. To this end, and with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, it will be publishing a series of policy papers focusing on a number of cultural sectors that can lead the way to change the approach to arts and culture in the country, and use the most scientific policy tools to save these vital sectors. The first paper, by Nicole Hamouche, is about the crafts sector.

 

Lebanon has a longstanding tradition of craft: weaving; embroidery and tapestry; glass wind blowing; wood and marquetry; coppersmithing; and more. In contemporary times, the sector has lost some of its erstwhile glory, as industrialization has shifted attention towards mass-produced items, which are also generally less expensive than their artisanal counterparts. Rapidly growing global markets meant that Lebanon was flooded with more aordable, modern products produced in places with cheap labor supply and production costs, such as India and China. The slow disappearance of craft is a threat, as this sector, which also conveys stories about communities, is a major component of heritage. In parallel to preserving heritage and transmission, craft in Lebanon has the potential to play a substantial role in the development of the economy. This is all the more true at a time when the country is experiencing an unprecedented financial and economic crisis, whereby imported products are no longer aordable for much of the local population, and the de facto capital controls make importing very complicated. Also, at a global level, recent years have seen a general trend towards returning to fair trade, ethical consumption, handicraft, and a demand for products that carry a story.


Crafts require low capital investment, and can be an important channel for job and revenue creation, poverty alleviation, and economic growth, if given the adequate attention and managed and developed properly. Many initiatives have been undertaken to support the sector in the past; mostly funded by foreign organizations on a short-term basis; but these remained scattered and uncoordinated. A number of studies have also been published about the sector, leading to no further action. In the absence of a central public authority recognizing the importance of the sector and its economic and social value, and creating the momentum and a clear coherent environment for the industry, the chances of it reaching its potential are minimal. Categorized for years as part of the responsibilities of the Ministry of Social Aairs, its potential as a productive sector and factor of social cohesion was under-estimated and under-exploited. The preamble of the Lebanese Constitution recognizes that the balanced development of Lebanon’s regions on all levels; cultural, social, and economic; is an essential pillar of the unity of the State and its stability.

Lebanon has the framework, as well as the international affiliations, to enable it to capitalize on the craft sector’s potential. This framework, however, needs to be leveraged and better exploited. This paper examines the current status of Lebanese crafts, and the challenges the sector faces, and outlines suggestions for appropriate strategies and actions to develop it. We hope it may serve as a road map for reform-oriented decision-makers, should they prioritize policies that both improve social conditions and revive local heritage.

Author: Nicole Hamouche
Legal advisor: Layal Sakr
Support: Sarah Jacquin
Supervision: Randa Asmar

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