Caribbean leaders urged to diversify creative economy post-COVID

14 July 2020

Written by Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD Director of International Trade and Commodities

A woman wears a Motley masquerade costume in the Dominican Republic

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the resilience of many economic sectors and for creative industries, this is no different. For many in the creative economy, several critical revenues streams dried up as the world made its best efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Many developed countries have been swift to develop strategies to support, adapt and mobilize resources.

But for many developing countries, especially small island developing states (SIDS) in the Caribbean, how will creative industries recover and how can they be transformed to be more resilient in the future? 

Home to a melting pot of cultures, the Caribbean has a comparative advantage in creative industries. This unique cultural identity has given the world some of the greatest literary and musical gifts from V.S. Naipaul, Bob Marley, and Rihanna. In this regard, the region punches well above its weight and is a force to be reckoned with in the generation of influential creative works.

In the Caribbean, the creative economy is an important source of income. It is largely concentrated within a few key sectors. Most notably, festival tourism, music and fashion make considerable contributions to the GDP. The creative industries have been identified as an area of opportunity for the Caribbean.

Cancelled festivals

The health crisis has triggered a dramatic economic contraction. The World Trade Organization (WTO) estimates that global trade could contract by up to 32% in 2020.

COVID-19 has severely hampered several creative industries in just a few short months. Art galleries and restaurants have shuttered their doors, cinemas and museums have closed, and concerts postponed indefinitely.

In light of COVID-19, some of the region’s largest festivals such as Crop Over in Barbados, St Lucia Carnival, and Jazz ‘n Creole in Dominica, to name a few, have been cancelled. It has closed outlets that act as major promotion platforms and sources of revenue for many artists. This is especially concerning for the Caribbean creative economy which predominantly consists of micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises and puts these businesses at risk of bankruptcy. Taken altogether, many creative entrepreneurs in the Caribbean are left in a vulnerable position.

New heights for digital entertainment

Since much of the world has gone into lockdown, there have been a few bright spots for the creative industries. These have been largely driven by digital technology. Use of digital platforms and streaming services have reached new heights.

For example, Netflix added 16 million new subscriptions during the first quarter of 2020 – double their projected estimates for the period.  With a stacked catalogue and technological backing, many streaming services were prepared to serve the millions of new eyeballs now turned to their devices. This high level of interdependence between digital technology and creative industries will only likely grow in the foreseeable future.

Consequently, the quarantine period has highlighted the global digital divide. For example, around 40% of the Caribbean population lacks access to the internet. Where economies are unable to successfully adopt digital technology, many industries feel the negative impact of the coronavirus more acutely, as we have seen in the creative industries. The effects of COVID-19 are likely to persist in the short term and companies must revisit business models to adjust to this new normal to remain profitable.

By and large, the Caribbean region has been slow to adopt and integrate digital technologies at a large scale to keep up with global trends.

Untapped potential in the region

Coming out on the other side of COVID-19 calls not just for a recovery of the Caribbean creative economy, but also a restructuring. Despite this natural competitive advantage, the true potential of the Caribbean creative economy is still largely untapped with a lot of room to grow. Ultimately, without speedy intervention, it leaves many creative entrepreneurs vulnerable to external shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that there is an urgency to accelerate efforts to boost the resilience and diversity of creative industries.

Over the decades, creative economy experts and leaders in the Caribbean have called for the diversification, value-addition and upskilling within the creative industries. Key areas that have been flagged tend to lean toward greater utilization of digital technology including gaming, animation and back-end film production to name a few.

The benefits of these approaches are manifold - new revenue streams, increased foreign exchange earnings and enhanced market penetration of Caribbean creative practitioners in foreign markets. But most importantly, it increases the resilience of the creative industries. Digital inclusivity and skills development are the big names in the game.

The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has recognized the need for strategic management to foster the development of creative industries. The organization has worked with several regional players to conduct studies and lay out a roadmap for strategic development of the creative industries. However, progress has been slow within the region. We must prepare the next wave to creative entrepreneurs for whatever the world faces next.

Indeed, the world post-COVID-19 will look different from the way it is now. At this juncture, a proactive and strategic approach to transform the sector cannot wait. And this is where the Caribbean can take creative licence.

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