Cultural Diplomacy Practices in a Small Island State: A Case Study on Malta

Karsten Xuereb
Executive Director, Valletta 2018 Foundation

DOI: 10.18278/aia.1.1.9

Introduction to Challenges Faced by Malta

Cultural diplomacy is now ubiquitous but it is not easy. The experience of the island state of Malta in managing itself independently on the international sphere is not a long one. Malta’s current experience in the practice of cultural relations is to be assessed in relation to its international relations since independence in 1964 and since securing membership of the EU in 2004.

Malta has been challenged to mobilize all necessary resources in a short and intense timeframe to meet the demanding expectations for its diplomatic role in international events through 2018. From hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2015 to holding the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) in 2017, these leadership roles require planning well in advance, managing expectations, and putting into motion enough resources of the skills required.[1]

The occurrence of these international events in quick succession may be of great benefit to Malta’s ongoing exercise at capacity building, since these efforts are concentrated over a span of only a few months. Malta’s main partners in this exercise include (1) the public sector, such as the Arts Council Malta, (2) the private sector, such as the Malta International Airport and the Valletta Cruise Port, jointly responsible for the lion’s share of tourism arrivals, and (3) cultural operators and institutions such as the national theater Teatru Manoel, the national center for creativity Spazju Kreattiv and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. But the efforts needed to marshal all stakeholders demand serious attention as the logistics and coordination required present great difficulty for any small state.

As with other small states, poor in natural resources, human resources (HR) are the main assets to the Maltese state. The size of the public sector is also significant. Therefore, public officers acting in varying capacities over a stretch of time allow the people of Malta to develop new skills and generate experience in a range of areas: these can be applied to different challenges in areas which may at times differ significantly. Nevertheless, people may resist change, as well as carry with them limitations in their approaches across disciplines and areas of responsibility, thus perpetuating staff-related problems. This matter lies at the heart of success, as well as failure, inherent to the civil service. What can be a huge blessing can also hamper the possibility of responding to unpredictable situations in good time. This ambivalence applies to the practice of cultural diplomacy that a small state like Malta is addressing with growing attention in order to raise its international profile.

Seeking collaboration through the development of a sense of mutual understanding across distinct areas of responsibility and expertise is not always successful. People and their teams form their particular approaches toward their duties and responsibilities over time and in relation to the work environments they experience. The resulting approaches toward contrasting tasks do not often tally, and differences may arise, leading to lack of coordination and contradictory signals given to international partners. Therefore, while the civil service and related partners can draw on a pool of diverse expertise and problem-solving approaches, unfortunately, the sense of how to approach potential issues and set priorities may differ to such a degree as to necessitate significant coordination lag time in order to overcome feelings of discord and discontinuity.

Over the last decade Malta has increasingly addressed the development of cultural relations in terms of cultural diplomacy. This type of diplomacy has been traditionally used by states with other states, by promoting the use of cultural expression as a means of building partnerships, addressing political tensions, and exploiting market opportunities. It has been applied by ministries other than those responsible for foreign affairs or culture, including most recently the ministry responsible for European affairs and preparations for the EU Presidency.

Ministerial Coordination and the Public Sector

One of the greatest challenges in preparing for the current timeframe is to ensure that various ministries within the government understand as to what is required of them, develop a sense of ownership and commitment, and work together with a clear and common goal. The Government of Malta is the major stakeholder in various elements of the public sphere, both nationally and internationally. Its size, relative to other EU member states, is big, and its impact is quite significant. Therefore, its various ministries play an important role in ensuring successful planning and implementation of policy. Since 2014, how the structure of the state relates to the EU institutions has evolved according to the changing priorities and shifting policies and actions at the EU level. The actual small size of the government, when compared with other states, has allowed certain shifts to happen in a timely and efficient way. The key change consisted of shifting the management of EU-related responsibilities from within the Office of the Prime Minister to coordinating matters from within a ministry set up specifically to deal with the EU and the Presidency, separate from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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The Cultural Sector

Within the arts and cultural sector, various cultural institutions are being mobilized for their expertise, but against short timeframes and across a breadth of events and programs that are challenging to manage. These institutions include (1) Arts Council Malta, (2) Heritage Malta, the national agency responsible for the safeguarding of historical sites, and (3) the Valletta 2018 Foundation, responsible for hosting the ECOC title. The state cultural sector is severely understaffed, and hence reason to celebrate the success of recent years in managing festivals of an international caliber while promoting the exchange and networking of creatives through mobility schemes and the professionalization of the arts. It is worth noting that many of the cultural programs related to CHOGM, the Presidency of the Council of the EU, the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies (IFACCA), and the European Capitals of Culture (ECOC) are the responsibility of the same small group of individuals who work together in teams of variable configurations to develop whatever synergies and economies of scale they can.

One of the major challenges faced by the HR element of preparations currently in place is the risk of overburdening a small group of people. Within this small group constraint and the timeframe, it is difficult to communicate effectively, iron out problems, be patient with an aim to develop mutual understanding and overcome internal or external matters, especially when the local and international media get involved.

Local Stakeholders

Another important stakeholder in the strategic makeup of Malta is the local community at the level of municipalities, of which there are 68, parishes, that fall under the collective responsibility of the Church, and schools. While some observers note a strong distinction between the national level and the realities at the local level, the small size of Malta encourages me to seek correspondence between the two. Whenever a sense of resonance can be sought and developed between people, in groups or individually, who may have different spheres of competence and responsibility but who may develop a common goal, all effort should be made at achieving a sense of solidarity and team work. The years ahead may mean a great deal for Malta on a national and international level, and herein lies a major challenge: working with people “on the ground” who operate at a local level within a smaller, mundane reality, in order to connect everyday priorities and difficulties by addressing them with a larger picture in mind.

A great deal of time needs to be invested in communicating in simple and effective ways with people at all levels in order to understand their concerns, reach some degree of common consensus and develop a road map with a sense of moving forward together toward a goal which is shared and understood as benefitting all of those involved. The leaders of this process need to keep their ear to the ground and make ample time for stakeholders at all levels in order to ensure channels of communication are kept open and feedback, especially critical remarks, are made openly, confidently and in a timely manner.

The Private Sector

The role the public sector plays, in relation to ministries, the civil service and particularly with regard to the cultural sector has been referred to above. Another important sector worth referring to is the private sector. Its role in successfully delivering the goals set is a major one. As reported widely in national as well as international commercial media portals, business in Malta withstood the reverberations of the economic and financial crisis in 2008. Membership of the Eurozone since 2006 and national policies aimed toward the efficient handling of the economic and financial sectors have helped Malta see the crisis off while stepping up its investment in areas as varied as financial services and gaming, on the one hand, and education and the cultural industries on the other. However, there is still a great deal to be done in order to build bridges between the public and private sectors in the coordination of projects, which need the participation and commitment of both. Public-private partnerships are still somewhat in their infancy, and mostly restricted to capital projects. The relative success of these collaborations should inspire both sides to seek further opportunities to work together. In the cultural and infrastructural sphere, for example, the regeneration of the closed market in Valletta augurs well for various cultural projects as well as for the regeneration of other cultural hubs in the city that will be the European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Such collaboration should be sought in areas of programming, where the private sector could be encouraged to overcome its current role of being patrons or sponsors. A deeper sense of involvement, inspired by defined presentations of projects of national importance, could allow for the mobilization and greater use of resources which, when put together, may lead to important results. Areas for development which are not strictly cultural, such as maritime business or hospitality in relation to tourism, the largest employer and contributor to GDP, may be identified to further develop a sound structural base for successful private enterprise enabled by efficient government involvement. Other areas that appear promising and could entice similar partnerships are those of transport, particularly those means related to the sea, energy, and lifelong education.

Conclusion: The Road Ahead

That the next general election coincides with the European Capital of Culture in 2018 gives the Maltese people an opportunity to act as stakeholders in setting targets and developing goals in the pursuit of furthering Malta’s international diplomatic position. For small nation states like Malta, an approach at joint-up thinking and collaborative effort among diverse stakeholders is necessary to achieve the ambitious targets in cultural diplomacy.

About the Author

Dr. Karsten Xuereb (1978, Malta) is Executive Director for the Valletta 2018 Foundation which is responsible for Valletta’s preparations as European Capital of Culture in 2018. He was previously responsible for culture at the Permanent Representation of Malta to the EU in Brussels. He holds a Doctorate in cultural relations in the Mediterranean from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona and a Masters degree in European Cultural Policy & Management from the University of Warwick where he studied as a Chevening Scholar. He is a fellow of the U40 Network “Cultural Diversity 2030” established by the German Commission for UNESCO, and a member of the Diplomatic Cultures Research Network.


[1] Other immediate appointments for Malta include managing the Anna Lindh Foundation Forum, and the World Summit of the International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies (IFACCA), both in 2016 and organizing the European Capital of Culture (ECOC) in its capital city Valletta throughout 2018.