Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) and other city officials this week defended his administration’s efforts to win a “city of gastronomy” appellation from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after complaints from two Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) city councilors, who said it was a waste of money. The councilors are right, but not only for the reasons they cited.
The city government announced in April 2011 that it would seek to join UNESCO’s City of Gastronomy network, one of seven such groupings in a Creative Cities Network launched in October 2004 (other groups cover literature, film, music, design, media arts and crafts and folk arts). UNESCO said the aim was to help cities showcase their “cultural pedigree, exchange know-how and develop local creative industries on a global platform.”
To claim the gastronomy title cities must prove they have a “rich culture of traditional foods” and a “history of sustainable agriculture.” Just four cities hold the title, but it appears there has not been a rush to join the networks — literature has six cities, music has five, crafts and folk arts have five, design has 12, film just two and media arts one. After all, there is a lot of paperwork needed just to gain the right to use UNESCO’s name and logo on promotional materials and the payoff is not much. Has Lyon, France, really benefited from being a “media arts city” or Ostersund, Sweden, from being “a city of gastronomy?”
The DPP councilors said the city government had wasted NT$15 million (US$510,000) on the application: NT$5.61 million on writing the proposal and information gathering, NT$8.86 million for a public relations firm to promote Taipei’s gourmet appeal in France and South Korea, and NT$530,000 on a conference for local food experts.
They noted that Taipei was not even qualified to apply, since the Republic of China (ROC) is not a member of the UN. Plus, UNESCO’s rules require a request for listing to be sent for approval to the UNESCO national committee of the country where the city is located. Since the ROC does not have such a committee, but the People’s Republic of China does, the DPP councilors raised the specter of China using Taipei’s gastronomic bid to advance its claims to sovereignty over Taiwan.
Hau has rejected that line of thinking, and said the city would not continue its quest if that meant it is to be considered part of China.
The city’s Department of Economic Development said it has not heard back from UNESCO — one official said they last tried contacting it in March — but would discuss the issue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
All this bother could have been avoided with a little bit of research. It looks like no one on the city council or in city hall bothered to check the UNESCO Creative Cities Network Web site lately. There is a notice on the English and French pages (granted, it is missing from the Chinese and Spanish) that the application and evaluation process for the network has been “temporarily” suspended since the 36th session of UNESCO’s General Conference — back in October 2011 — to allow for a review of the program’s financial and programming sustainability, and information on its restart would be published when available.
So it would appear that UNESCO has not replied to Taipei’s inquiries because the program was suspended 18 months ago.
It is time to stop while we are ahead. Forget whether Taipei ever had a hope of qualifying (Rich food culture? Yes. Sustainable agriculture? Not recently. Politically? No). The NT$15 million is gone. It could have been spent on better projects, but no one should waste more time or money debating the merits or ramifications of a bid for a program that is no longer open. The lesson to be learned is that the next time someone comes up with an idea to broaden Taipei’s — or Taiwan’s — international image, they had better do their research.