UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary
Sarah Brouillette



Pirates and Pipe Dreams

UNESCO’S INTERNATIONAL FUND FOR CULTURAL DIVERSITY (IFCD) has on rare occasions supported book-related projects, in contexts in which local book industry development can be presented as a measurable facet of the cultural and creative industries. A recent instance of such funding neatly encapsulates the unique nature of contemporary formations of cultural policy.

In 2013, the IFCD awarded a grant of $93,000 to the Reproduction Rights Organization of Zimbabwe (ZIMCOPY), a nonprofit organization “committed to the promotion of the respect for copyright in Zimbabwe.” The grant was to enable ZIMCOPY to develop, with UNESCO’s help, “a national strategy to strengthen the enforcement of copyright law in Zimbabwe” and to create as well “a platform to regularly review this strategy.” A UNESCO profile of the project, written to coincide with and promote World Book and Copyright Day in 2017, calls it “exactly the sort of project that the IFCD supports,” because it “aimed to shore up a facet of Zimbabwe’s cultural industry.”1

We saw in the last chapter that the IFCD aims to build creative industries in developing countries. It does so by channeling funding to private-sector cultural producers or to projects that combine public, quasi-public and private partners, so long as their goals include the generation of activity in the private sector. The ZIMCOPY application was supported by the idea that book pirates are impeding the development and economic health of the book sector in Zimbabwe.2 In project coverage, these pirates are said to have “taken” more than half of the market share away from “legitimate publishing business,” with the dramatic result of leading “authors to simply not feel like writing books anymore.”3 The ZIMCOPY organization is thus positioned as stepping in to defend the interests of local writers who can otherwise no longer find motivation to work. UNESCO’s profile of the project states that Zimbabwe otherwise has a vibrant literary scene, including prestigious festivals like the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. It also mentions the fact that Zimbabwean authors are often entered into the competition for the Caine Prize for African Writing, while recent “success stories include NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names or Bryony Rheam’s This September Sun,” which have “stimulated an interest in local literature.”4 Mentioning these examples of relatively famous authors here positions ZIMCOPY as their champion. Without its protection and advocacy, piracy will continue to run rampant, and those who aspire to high-stature careers may not be able to do much more than eke out a meager living, if they even care to bother.

Yet the occurrence of piracy might also be understood differently, as a reflection of the fact that those Zimbabweans who want to read are poorly served by local publishers, who are themselves working under considerable constraints. The readers cannot afford the books sold by legitimate publishers. They cannot or do not wish to shop in the nicer bookshops in upscale malls, but look instead to street market stalls, where pirated copies appear. They share books among their family and friends. They are not particularly worried about the source of the book, so long as they can partake of this portable pastime.

The experiences of such readers suggest that the underdevelopment of the local book industries is far more complicated than the ZIMCOPY mandate would suggest, in ways that make their claims to be protecting local writers like Bulawayo and Rheams somewhat questionable. These are authors who likely could not make a significant income from book sales in Zimbabwe alone. Piracy, far from being the most significant cause of this situation, is most likely better understood as being itself a manifestation of the same forces that make writers seeking literary success look abroad for their audience. These writers may get a start in local scenes and manage to be networked with a relatively successful and high-prestige coterie of African literary professionals. Still, the path for writers who aspire to make a living by writing usually tends to include finding a readership in Europe and North America, where a conventional literary sensibility is more appreciably cultivated and available, and some people are still able to pay high prices for literary books. In this way, writers like Bulawayo are not, in fact, dependent on viable literary readerships in Africa or viably capitalized production facilities there.

The details of the situation for English-language publishers across Africa are relevant here. The post-independence quest to develop literary readerships and publishing and printing trades met with massive hurdles. It was nearly entirely stopped by imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and trade liberalization in the 1990s, and in some countries has now been all but abandoned. The development of local industry has been stymied by the ongoing global unevenness in the development of media production, and by the fact that there are not the numbers of leisured, highly literate readers with disposable incomes to support the capitalization of a large professional “legitimate” book trade, especially for literary books.

The field of contemporary Anglophone African literature relies on private donors, mainly but not exclusively British or American, supporting a transnational coterie of editors, writers, prize judges, event organizers, and workshop instructors. The literary works that arise from this milieu are normally targeted, understandably, at British and American markets. The Caine Prize itself, which the ZIMCOPY story mentions as a sign of Zimbabwean literary prestige, is adjudicated and headquartered in London, trademarked in the United Kingdom, and funded by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, which was founded on money that Ernest Oppenheimer made from gold and diamond mining in Africa. The colonizing nations built their own governments, their “free” public education systems, their “free” public libraries, their social policy and welfare provisions, through taxation of the kind of private wealth that comes with extensive colonial operations and industrial and urban development. We rarely think about the fact that the development of a highly literate reading class interested in getting most of what it needs via legitimate sources—legally operating bookstores, libraries, the school system—is an affordance of advanced capitalist wealth.

Looking at the history of publishing in Africa, Walter Bgoya and Mary Jay, who have made their careers in the African book industries, write that in the early years of independence, only 9 percent of the African population was literate. However:

With the growth of literacy after independence, publishing developed; predominantly educational publishing by foreign-owned companies keen to develop an untapped market. Books were not originated within Africa, but from publishing decisions made in the north: ideas, writers, and decisions were not African. Even where they were originated by local branches of foreign companies publishing in European languages, it was the parent companies overseas and not the local branches that had the final decisions on their publication.5

In her work on the copyright debates facilitated by UNESCO in the 1960s, Eva Hemmungs Wirtén writes that in Africa, when those discussions started, there were “six titles per million inhabitants, only 20 of the 34 countries in the region producing books at all, and a per capita of one-thirtieth of one book per person per year.”6 Nevertheless, while African book production did not appear to be particularly considerable, it remained an important territory for overseas firms that saw potential for growth. They had already made arrangements that favored their continued involvement in local book production. Europe’s colonial holdings were automatically included in the internationally applicable Berne copyright convention, and then there was also the Traditional Market Agreement, which was put in place formally in 1947 but merely reflected existing practice. Signatories to this agreement, through which British publishers secured control over markets for English books in what they called their “traditional markets” (some seventy countries), did not give up any publication or distribution rights to American publishers. The agreement had the effect of dividing up global English-language book markets between Britain and the United States—a dominance that continues even now, long after the Traditional Market Agreement was abandoned in the 1970s.


1. UNESCO, “Copyright: A Lifeline.”

2. UNESCO, “Developing a National Strategy.”

3. UNESCO, “Copyright: A Lifeline.”

4. Ibid.

5. Bgoya and Jay, “Publishing in Africa,” 4.

6. Wirtén, Cosmopolitan Copyright, 62.