Culture as a Catalyst for Economic Development

Prof. Chris Ugolo


I must say I am very delighted to be called upon to present this paper on the topic, “Culture as a Catalyst for Economic Development”, as part of a programme on Cultural Orientation and Sensitisation for Secondary Schools Students in Oredo Federal Constituency in Edo State.

The objectives of the programme, I am told, include:

  1. To foster a sense of national cultural identity, pride and awareness in children;
  2. To promote cultural unity in a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria;
  3. To create a platform to discover and expose young talents in cultural and creative arts; 
  4. To encourage the appreciation of Nigerian languages, dresses cuisines, cultural dances etc. at all levels of social interaction; and
  5. To underscore the importance of culture to economic.

I must say this is a laudable programme that needs to be encouraged and given the needed support. I therefore commend the organisers, the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) and Engr. Omoregie Ogbeide-Ihama, the Member Representing Oredo Federal Constituency in the National Assembly.

To begin, it is important to clarify some of the key concepts in the topic, which are “culture” and “economic development”. In simple terms, this topic is meant to address the issue of how culture can be used to aid economic development, particularly in a developing nation like Nigeria.

Culture, simply put, is the totality of a people’s way of life. Onigu Otite, quoting Edward Tylor, defines culture as, “that complex whole which  includes the knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law, custom and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society” (115). Also, Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, drawing from the Cultural Policy for Nigeria, says:

culture comprises the material, institutional, philosophical and creative aspects. The material aspect has to do with artefacts in its broadest form (namely: tools, clothing, food, medicine, utensils, housing).Institutional deals with political, social, legal and economic structures erected to help achieve material and spiritual objectives; while philosophical is concerned with ideas, beliefs and values, the creative concerns of a people’s literature (oral and written) as well as their visual and performing arts which are normally moulded by, as well as help to mould other aspect of culture (135).

From this definition, it is obvious that culture embraces all aspects of a people’s way of life which includes the social, political, economic, scientific and artistic that aid development and make life easier and better in any given society.

As Angela Ugo Uyah notes, “culture was no longer viewed as a dimension, but as the very fabric of society in its global relationship with development” (166). So, to a large extent, there is a relationship between culture and economic development, as the culture of a people helps them to define for themselves their process of development.

Economic development, on the other hand, has to do with a “deliberate government involvement in planning, socio-economic engineering and effective demand management” (Omuta & Nwoye 14). Development, according to them, quoting Seers, is “a social phenomenon that involves more than increasing per capital output”. To Seers, according to Omuta and Nwoye, development meant “eliminating poverty, underdevelopment and inequality as well” (14).

Also, the defines economic development as, “the process whereby simple low-income national economies are transformed into modern industrial economies”. Although the terms is sometimes used as synonym for economic growth, generally, it is employed to describe a change in a country’s  economy involving quantitative as well as qualitative improvement. It has to do with how “primitive and poor economies can evolve into sophisticated and relatively prosperous ones”. The term became a major concern immediately after World War II.

As a developing country, Nigeria must a as matter of policy take very seriously the issues of economic development in order to lift her people from poverty and low standard living, so that she can join the developed nations of the world as captured in her vision 20-2020.

Nigeria’s Journey in Cultural Development

The Nigerian nation state came into existence with the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates by the British Colonial Powers in 1914. Hitherto the territory regarded today as Nigeria was made up of different Kingdoms and Empires that consisted of the Benin Empire, Oyo Empire, Fulani Empire, Borno Empire, the Igbo kingdom, Nupe Empire and other smaller kingdoms. Modern day Nigeria therefore is a heterogeneous society.

Onigu Otite notes that, “Nigeria’s contemporary ethno-cultural pluralism is relatively recent” (16). Nigeria is said to be made up of about 374 ethnic groups that speak about 250 languages and over 500 dialects. Therefore, Nigeria is a culturally plural society whose strength lies in its cultural diversity. She is one of the world’s most culturally diversified society, others being China and India. Chief Obafemi Awolowo has referred to Nigeria, as a “mere geographical and expression” (47).

Nigeria’s many woes and challenges started at independence when our nationalists and politicians ignored the cultural dimension of nationalism and focused on the political. All they did to culture was tokenistic in the sense that they wanted to prove to the colonialist that Nigeria had a rich cultural heritage that we all could be proud of. They did not realise that culture was a political ideology that could be used to aid development. Thus, they failed to mobilise the diversified cultures of Nigeria to firstly, create a Nigerian cultural identity and secondly define who the Nigerian people are. This, therefore, is one of reasons why there is so much tension in our political life today and consequently the different ethnic agitations that have led to our slow pace of development. Ghana got it right through Kwame Nkrumah who alongside the struggle for independence initiated a cultural revolution in every aspect of the Ghanaian life. Today, Ghana is more politically stable than Nigeria, thanks to Nkrumah who right from the onset defined for Ghana the role that culture could play in its economic development.

At independence in Nigeria there was a cultural renaissance of a sort; a clamour to go back to our past and culture, without any attempt at forging a national culture and identity. The National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) was set up which gave birth to the National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFEST) that set for itself the goals of promoting the arts and culture of Nigeria. This it has done till date.

The belief of many of our leaders and policy makers is that culture was a luxury and that  any concerns shown for its promotion according to Frank Aig-Imoukhuede was misplaced in the priorities of national development. They refused to see the necessity to take into account the cultural dimensions of development. By 1977 the Gen Olusegun Obasanjo administration hosted the 2nd World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC). The process of having a cultural policy for Nigeria started in 1976, and went through 1982. By 1984 a review of the document was fine-tuned and it was by 1988 that the cultural policy document was finally launched. Till date, many provisions of that document are yet to be implemented particularly the endowment fund for the arts.

Another impetus that gave rise to the speedy development of Nigeria’s culture was the Unite Nation’s declaration of the “World Decade for Cultural Development” (WDCD), which was launched in 1988, the year Nigeria launched her Cultural Policy. The United Nations declared 1988-1997 the World Decade for Cultural Development (WDCD) in which it was expected that member countries will draw attention to the role of culture in development.

According to Mr. Javier Perez de Cueller, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, as quoted by Angela-Ugo Uyah,

One of the reasons why the international community failed to attain some of the aims it has set for itself was because of the importance of the human factor – that complex web of relationship and beliefs, values and motivations, which lies at the very heart of a culture had been underestimated in many development projects (164).

In 1992, the Nigeria Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) was set up as part of the implementation of the World Decade for Cultural Development (WDCD). It was not until 1999, during Nigeria’s Third Republic that the country deemed it fit to set up the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism to help galvanise developments in the cultural sector of Nigeria.

Some of the developments above brought about the explosions in the music and film industry to the extent that the Nigerian film industry (Nollywood) has become the 2nd largest film industry in the world, in terms of production quantity, after Bollywood (the Indian film industry).

Culture as Catalyst for Economic Development:                             

Before the World Decade for Cultural Development was launched in 1988, the 1982 Mexico City Conference had drawn attention to the role of culture in the developmental plans of governments around the world. The conference had defined development as, a “complex comprehensive and multi-dimensional process which extends beyond mere economic growth to incorporate all dimensions of life and all energies of a community, all of whose members are called upon to make a contribution and can expect a share in the benefit” (Uyah 165).

According to Uyah, the conference established the fact that, “development should be based on the will of such society and should express its fundamental identity” (166). It went further to opine that, “balanced development can therefore only be ensured by making cultural  factors an integral part  of the strategies designed to achieve it, consequently these strategies should always be devised in the light of the historical, social and cultural context of each society” (Uyah 166). Uyah further notes that, the above definition adopted by the Mexico City Conference reflected the international community’s recognition, in principle, of the need to go beyond the purely economic view of development and cultural factors among the diverse components of the multidimensional development process (167). Thus, after the conference, there was:


  • An acknowledgement of the cultural dimension of development;
  • An affirmation of and enrichment of cultural identities; and
  • A broader participation in cultural life.

Therefore, it became clear to the international community, including Nigeria that, there was a relationship between culture and science, culture and technology, and culture and national development.

The challenge to Nigeria, I believe, was to determine how to apply culture to economic development, and also, to see how culture can generally drive the process of development particularly in a developing nation such as ours.

As stated earlier, even as at today, Nigeria has not seen the need to begin the process of inventing a national culture and consequently a national identity. Attempts at national unity even after the 1967 civil war have been tokenistic. The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) established in the seventies, and attempts at Federal Character Principle in appointments at the Federal level have yielded no positive results as ethnic bickering have continued to threaten national unity with the formation of ethnic based pressure groups like Arewa, Odua Congress, MASSOB, IPOB, Egbesu and the various Niger Delta Militant groups and others that have called for a fair distribution of economic resources. This has led to several constitutional conferences and calls for a Sovereign National Conference, particularly in the last decade.

These issues, to my mind, have not been adequately addressed by any government. The fundamental issues to my mind revolve around the question of a national culture and issue of national identity. Politicians have further heightened the problem through ethnic cleavages and loyalty to their ethnic groups rather than to the nation. Nationalism at independence did not direct attention to the nation in order to build patriotic citizens who are loyal to the Nigerian nation state.

Rather, what became obvious was that citizens would rather owe allegiance to their ethnic groups than the nation state of Nigeria. Everybody wants a share of the national cake. This seems to be the bane of Nigeria’s present development challenge that has given birth to corruption at the highest level of governance. So, rather than see how the national cake can be baked for the overall interest of the nation the agitation is for the sharing and outright stealing/looting of the national treasury.

Therefore, it becomes obvious the commonalities of the shared cultural norms and values of our peoples in Nigeria, which should have been identified and exploited to aid development, have been thrown overboard. Onigu Otite notes these common norms and values to be:

  1. The Culture of respect;
  2. The Culture of hard work;
  3. The Culture of a sound moral life;
  4. The Culture of communication harmony;
  5. The Culture of mental creativity and symbolic life;
  6. The Culture of reflection; and
  7. The Culture of communalism       

These seem to be the common cultural values of our people that can be harnessed to develop a “culture of cultures” (National Culture) for the Nigerian nation state.

I am of the opinion that from the broad-based definitions of culture that we have outlined earlier which suggest in summary that culture is the totality of a people’s way of life, including their scientific innovations, architectural designs, legal systems, customs and traditions, religion, cuisines, costumes, language, creative arts  including the visual and performing arts, crafts and technology, etc. If these are properly harnessed along the line of their world-view, there will certainly be development in concrete terms, of the social, political and economic life of the people.

In this way, culture will become the driving force in every aspect of their development. It will determine their aesthetic choices and taste. In the case of Nigeria for instance, our taste for foreign goods and attempt to borrow technology from the West which has rather slowed our economic development can be checked, so that our development will be internally driven rather than being externally induced from the developed nations of Europe and American. Thus, neo-colonialism that has visited poverty on our people will be checked.

China did it during the reign of Mao when he closed China’s doors to the rest of the world in order to redefine for itself an ideology that is internally driven based on the cultural norms and values of their society. Today, China has become a model of development and has joined the league of the developed nations of the world.

Presently the Nigerian economy is gradually being taken over by China. I dare say that Nigeria’s multi-cultural society is an advantage that is begging to be exploited to our advantage for economic development. Also, our population of 170 million people is an advantage in terms of market for our goods and services.

Therefore, instead of our multicultural status being a challenge to our development, it should rather be an advantage to moving  the Nigerian economy to the level of our being a developed economy and taking us from the reign of poverty to prosperity in concrete  economic terms.

With Nigeria having the 6th largest gas reserve in the world and also being the 8th largest crude oil producer, backed by about 37 solid mineral types and a vast expanse of land for agriculture, including a population of 170millon people, we have no business being a poor nation. I believe very strongly that if our cultural diversity is properly harnessed and made to dictate our economic development through the diversification of our economic base and consumption patterns, Nigeria’s economy will be an Eldorado that we can all be proud of.

Issues of ethnic clashes and majority and minority cultures will be a thing of the past, while ethnic agitations and militancy that have slowed economic development will be reduced to the barest minimum.


So far, we have been able to establish the fact that culture is crucial and can be a catalyst to economic development. This fact has been underscored by the United Nations in declaring the World Decade for Cultural Development (WDCD).

The Nigerian government needs to study more critically the Mexico City Conference report on culture and economic development, particularly the area on the multidisciplinary and inter-sectoral approach to development, using culture as pivot. A Regional Centre for Craft Development needs to be set up to be an incubation centre for local technological innovation.

There must be a deliberate attempt to orchestrate the different sectors of the economy like education, health, science and technology in order to relate environment to development, using the cultural approach and tapping on the rich cultural diversity of Nigeria to evolve policies that will enrich and aid economic development. It is hoped that this will bring about a culture-driven approach to economic development and engender growth in our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Per Capita Income (PCI). It will certainly bring about the elimination of poverty, unemployment and inequality, which are hall marks of a developed economy.

The misconception that corruption is embedded in our culture is a falsehood that needs to be eliminated. It is a known fact that the culture of hard work and high ethical and moral standards are well engrained in our different cultures. Corruption in Nigeria can be linked to greed and the dislocation of our psyche, in view of the effects of colonialism on the citizenry. It is certainly not culturally based. Therefore, it should not be used as an excuse to create an albatross to our economic development.

It is the view of this writer that if we refocus our developmental plans to take into cognizance the vital role of culture in economic development, we will be better off for it. Thank you for giving me your attention.         

Works Cited

Aig-Imoukhuede, Frank, “The Nigerian Cultural Policy: Analysis, Implementation and Projections”. In Perspectives in Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy. Abuja: National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), 2006. Print.

Omuta, G. O., & Nwoye, Ifeoma. “Development and Planning in Nigeria: The Legacy of Andrew G.O Onokeroraye”. In Okafor, Francis C. (Ed.), Critical Issues on Nigeria’s Development. Abuja: Spectrum Books Ltd, 2011. Print.

Otite, Onigu. “An Overview of Nigerian Cultures”. In Perspectives in Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy. Abuja: National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), 2006. Print.

Ugolo, Chris. “The Economics of Culture, Tourism and Entertainment as Veritable Tools for Economic Development and Job Creation”. Being an Unpublished Paper Presented at Nollywood Project 101 Conference, August 2016.

Uyah, Angela Ugo. “World Decade for Cultural Development in Nigeria: Implications for Development”. In Perspectives in Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy. Abuja: National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), 2006. Print.

*****Prof. Chris Ugolo is of the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria. This Paper was Delivered at the 2nd Edition of a “Cultural Orientation and Sensitization Programme for Secondary Schools in Oredo Federal Constituency, Edo State”, Organised by National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) in Collaboration with the House Committee on Culture and Tourism, on 22nd November, 2017 at Emporium Events Centre, GRA, Benin City.