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The Learning curve

Cultural diplomacy no mere buzzwords now

I had never heard of a Cultural Diplomacy office in government until, in the course of the yearly planning for the Frankfurt Book Fair, Education Undersecretary and National Book Development Board (NBDB) vice chair Annalyn M. Sevilla and Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Director Adrian Cruz would inevitably point me in the direction of DFA Undersecretary Ernesto Abella. The Cultural Diplomacy Division is with the Office of Strategic Communication and Research headed by Abella.

And there it was, cultural diplomacy (CD) in action with Abella’s presence in Frankfurt in mid-October, and this week’s DFA-sponsored Cultural Partners Consultation Conference, a two-day event mounted for the very first time.

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The conference gathered over a hundred individuals engaged in arts and culture. While admittedly Metro Manila-centric, it made for an auspicious and encouraging representation, nonetheless. The roster promises to grow to make the program more inclusive.

It was a challenge to carve out two days from one’s schedule, but one could not but lend support because of the degree of professionalism exhibited by the organizers, something not always manifested in similar government events. Sessions began and ended on time, speaking time was monitored and the schedule strictly adhered to, thanks to skillful and no-nonsense facilitator Teofila Remotigue.

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It was meant to be a national conversation, as emphasized by Abella in his opening remarks. But more important was his challenge for us to know and retell our own story before anything else.

Day 1 gave a background on the Cultural Priorities in the Philippine Development Plan, with officials from the Department of Budget and Management, Presidential Communications Operations Office and the National Economic and Development Authority present. The Cultural Framework was highlighted in a panel discussion with Felipe de Leon Jr., Steven PC Fernandez and Fr. Eliseo Mercado. The Department of Tourism was especially missed in the forum on culture in trade and tourism development, where the sole speaker was lawyer Roberto Mabalot of the Department of Trade and Industry.

The Philippine Cultural Mandate with cultural agencies was discussed by invited representatives and private institutions devoted to CD like publishing, animation, culinary heritage, theater and fashion.

On Day 2, we listened to the best practices of three foreign cultural offices in the country, courtesy of Tomoko Nakamura of Japan Foundation, Jean-Pierre Dumont of Alliance Française and Matt Keener of the US Embassy. DFA Assistant Secretary Eduardo Meñez completed the background context with his presentation on the state of cultural diplomacy.

The major task for the cultural workers in attendance was to craft ideas for collaboration, and to push the CD policy in a more comprehensive, cohesive and collaborative manner. That was a tall order, as each agency and institution had its own program to push every year. Yet the fact of how bad coordination or even basic communication was, was apparent in our general ignorance of what other agencies and institutions were doing. The ideal scenario is to have common and shared programs and resources that can be useful to our 88 diplomatic posts overseas.

It was most meaningful for me as NBDB representative to be part of this exercise, because it put in concrete terms the oft-repeated suggestion of an interagency task force, as NBDB flexes to organize such a team toward a bigger and more representative Frankfurt stand each year. I am only too aware that NBDB cannot do it alone, since daunting is the task of convening an interagency group.

Abella’s impassioned plea rang in everyone’s ears: “We need to search our own worth and be ourselves convinced of this. We need to be the one to tell our story, we need to be a nation worthy of us, and build a people worthy of a nation.” This was in the light of a study of nations with soft power or the power to seduce, with France at the top, the United States in fifth place, and Japan in eighth—all three countries represented in the discussion. “We are seductive, we are attractive,” reminded Abella.

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Still and all, as another DFA official put it, “The most meaningful expression of CD is the budget.” And so the conversation must continue.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the NBDB and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Cultural diplomacy, Department of Budget and Management, National Economic and Development Authority, Philippine Development Plan, Presidential Communications Operations Office
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