One film project. One location. And a cast of 7 million people. Indigenous groups represent roughly half of Guatemala’s 14 million people population. And the Instituto de Relaciones Internacionles e Investigaciones para la Paz with UNESCO IFCD support is changing the lives of countless indigenous youth in Guatemala.

Christiaan de Beukelaer  UNESCO and UNDP published a “special edition” of the Creative Economy Report. Unsurprisingly, this year’s Report on the creative economy clearly bears a UNESCO stamp.

First of all, the UNESCO/UNDP special edition of the Report followed two acclaimed editions published by UNCTAD under supervision of Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg. These previous Reports were data-driven attempts to provide a clear insight in creative economy trends around the world. The aim has been to provide clear and convincing arguments for the inclusion of culture and creativity, by means of the creative economy, into public policy around the world. As many countries effectively started working with the concept in their cultural policies and development plans, this can be called a success.

Yet, there have been critical voices – including my own, to be clear – who have called into question the strong focus on international trade (keep an eye on Cultural Trends for my forthcoming paper). While this may be a valid critique as the creative economy is much more than can be captured in international trade, it is perhaps also an unfair one. UNCTAD has always focused on the (im)balances in global trade, and hailed these currents of international exchange as a driver of development in many ways. It is thus hardly surprising that their Reports paid much attention to trade – even though the massive effort to clarify the data in writing addressed many aspects of the complexities of the creative economy.

The Special UNESCO/UNDP edition has a different focus. It aims to explore the creative economy as a means of ‘widening developing pathways’ with explicit focus on the local – i.e. urban – level. Yudhishthir Raj Isar served as principal investigator, writer, and editor of this Report, managed to point at the opportunities that exist while critically addressing the risks that are currently known or feared.

The Report brings together several notions of culture in a pragmatic way: the Creative Economy, building on UNCTAD Reports; Cultural Diversity, building on the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions; Culture and Development, building on the work of the World Commission on Culture and Development who published Our Creative Diversity under the presidency of Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. Yet, also the work on Human Development by the UNDP has greatly influenced the language and values of the current report, primarily building on their longstanding engagement with well-being beyond the strictly economic realm, yet also bearing in mind their culture-themed edition of the Human Development Report (2004).

As a result, the Report echoes the optimism of the Decade of Culture and Development between 1988-97, retains the engagement to cultural diversity above unfettered free trade (UNESCO 2005), yet keeps the pragmatic tone found in the UNCTAD Reports, while not compromising on the Human Development Priorities of the UNDP.

Yet, surely, no single Report is perfect. The UN remain bound by rules that sometimes limit their ability to be bold. Here, I expand on four issues that remain insufficiently addressed.

First, there are no bad examples in the Report. Thereby, I mean a focus on failed or outright problematic projects. No need to call me a pessimistic cynic. There is increasing debate on the necessity to recognize, acknowledge, and understand failure and its underlying reasons. This does not mean that such a Report should be turned into a naming-and-shaming show of (un)known failed projects. Rather, it would invite all stakeholders involved to be more open about what does not work, and why certain elements, processes, or relations posed problems in their practice. Surely, we can learn from best practices, but we can also learn from (our own) mistakes by confronting them more explicitly and perhaps also publicly.

Second, the 2013 UNESCO/UNDP report is explicit about the need to take seriously the elements of the creative economy that cannot directly (or even at all) be linked to a commercial logic. This is not unique to special edition as this is quite clear in the previous versions. Yet the focus may be somewhat more explicit – and definitely bears a distinctive UNESCO-stamp. This comes, however, with obvious advantages and disadvantages. The upside is that there is an established in-house expertise on this matter alongside a track record of previous engagement, as mentioned above. The downside is that after decades of UNESCO engagement, culture was initially entirely left out of the Millennium Development Goals, and only picked up at a later stage. Similarly, it is as of yet unclear to what extent UNESCO/UNDP efforts to get culture as an active ad decisive factor in the post-2015 (sustainable) development agenda will bear any fruit. While there is reason for optimism, both caution and continued lobbying is needed.

Third, the 2013 Report does not only maintain the divide between developed and developing countries, but focuses on this explicitly. The engagement with examples, practices, and ideas from ‘developing countries’ is a much-needed addition to the debate on the role of cultural and creative industries in societies; not at least because so far, most attention in academia has been on so-called developing countries, largely ignoring the particularities in both the practices and strategies that exist around the world. Yet one could ask if the current reality where “developed” countries are in “crisis” and many “developing” countries are “emerging” while “Africa” is “rising” is far more complex than the old-fashioned divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” would make us believe.

Fourth, and last, there is still a significant issue concerning artist mobility. Following Article 14 of the UNESCO 2005 convention, parties engaged to “providing support for creative work and facilitating the mobility, to the extent possible, of artists from the developing world.” Yet, in spite of important initiatives such as On The Move, many artists are still refused entry to parties to the convention. This means that in spite of paying ample lip service to the importance of cultural and creative industries, many countries remain rather closed to artists looking to engage with their audiences.

Yet, there is no reason to exaggerate my critique: Overall, the Report is a balanced, yet pronounced, call for public policy, civil society, and business to take seriously the perks, but also the perils of building on culture for human, and perhaps even humane, development.

Christiaan De Beukelaer This piece was written following my participation in a capacity-building workshop with group of young experts on culture from the MENA region in Casablanca on 24-27 November. With a focus on the UNESCO 2005 Convention and an explicit engagement to debate, explore, and exchange ways to build on cultural resources for Human Development, it seems useful to expand a but on my brief presentation on the UNESCO/UNDP 2013 Creative Economy Report. The event was co-organized by the German Commission for UNESCO and Racines and attended by participants from Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Mauretania, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauretania.