South Gets Reading Bug with more Festivals

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


There is no better indicator of significant economic progress than the rise and rise of book festivals across the South. These symbols of intellectually curious and globally aware middle classes are also boosting economies and contributing to a bigger, more sophisticated creative economy – something that will drive future growth across many sectors.

The trend is most advanced in Asia, where according to the OECD, “large numbers of Asians are expected to become middle class in the next 10 years” (OECD Working Paper No. 285). But the rising middle class can also be found across the South – and so can the new book festivals.

According to Sanjoy Roy, managing director of New Delhi-based festival producer Teamwork Productions ( ,” India’s rising economic growth has ensured that the great middle class is happy to travel and to spend.”

“More and more Indians are taking to tourism both local and international. India’s large middle-aged upper middle class and wealthy sector feeds occasions like the literature festival, ensuring attendance, making it a word of mouth must-be-seen, must-attend occasion on the social season calendar.”

Recognition of the importance of this trend can be seen in the recent growth in book festivals associated with the Hay Festival ( based in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. There are now Hay festivals in Beirut, Lebanon; Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia; Zacatecas, Mexico; Nairobi, Kenya; the Maldives; and the Indian state of Kerala.

The festivals are part of the powerful global creative economy, which is seen as the “interface between creativity, culture, economics and technology in a contemporary world dominated by images, sounds, texts and symbols” (UNCTAD). The cultural sector has been shown to be an effective way for emerging economies to leapfrog into high-growth areas in the 21st century world economy.

Roy also confirms the economic impact of book festivals. He produces India’s Jaipur Literature Festival ( , which attracted over 32,000 visitors this year. The hard numbers show the economic impact of the event: “Approximately 3,000 room nights were booked by visitors during this period at an average of US $100 per night,” Roy said. “Our own spend in Jaipur during this period was approximately US $500,000. Shopping, meals and transport spend I would peg at between US $200,000 and US $300,000.”

The OECD defines the global middle class as those living in households with daily per capita incomes of between US$10 and US$100. It calculates that Asia accounts for less than one-quarter of today’s middle class, but says that share could double by 2020. Within a decade, “more than half of the world’s middle class could be in Asia and Asian consumers could account for over 40 per cent of global middle class consumption.”

The World Bank takes an even more optimistic view, seeing this burgeoning middle class’ spending power as being triggered once people get out of the desperation of a subsistence existence. This means the “developing world’s middle class is defined as those who are not poor when judged by the median poverty line of developing countries, but are still poor by US standards. The “Western middle class” is defined as those who are not poor by US standards.” Although barely 80 million people in the developing world entered the Western middle class over 1990-2002, it found an extra 1.2 billion people joined the developing world’s middle class. Four-fifths came from Asia, and half from China (World Bank).

With the rise of the creative sector, significant innovation will come from the global South, according to the director of the Hay Festival, Peter Florence.

“The digital revolution will be absolutely essential to developing countries,” he told the Associated Press. “They are going to skip two levels of publishing industry tradition. The mobile phone is more important for writers in those societies than pen and paper is. That is a very interesting continuation of oral culture. At the same time the West has decided to start moving from audio editions to digital downloads, oral culture is just moving straight into digital culture in many places around the world.”

The impact of a growing middle class can be seen in fast-growing India, which is forecast to become the largest market for English language books within a decade.

A survey by Tehelka ( found Indians favour stories about local conditions and set in the places where they live.

India’s most popular current writer is Chetan Bhagat, a former investment banker. He has sold more than 3 million books in the last five years. His latest, Two States, sold a million copies in four months.

Bhagat writes about the country’s aspiring middle class. His publisher, Rupa ( , believes he appeals to a “pan-Indian, pan-age group.”

For Roy, it is still too early to tell how the new Hay Kerala festival in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram, will affect the economy of the area (the first one is from November 12 to 14, 2010).

“In the long term we hope this too becomes like Jaipur, attracting an international and national audience from outside the state,” he said. “Kerala has a robust economy. What it may do is increase the total tourist influx into the city and divert some of the annual Goa traffic to its own benefit.”

Roy says the Hay Festival Kerala will follow the programming pattern of other Hay festivals, combining international authors with a strong local flavour.

“India is celebrating its golden age in the creative arts and literature not just in English but across all official and subsidiary Indian languages,” he said. “The depth, scope, extent and range of writing in both fiction and non-fiction is incredible.”

Drawing on his success with the festival in Jaipur, Roy has advice for others in the South looking for creative economy success.

“It’s all about location, location, location,” he said. “A festival city like that of Cannes, Venice, Edinburgh, Avignon, Hay are special. Choose the right location, be inclusive and bring the local community on board and have the power to sustain – and in due course with a strong programming base, the festival will grow.

“Every festival will have its own learning (curve) and those who take these on board will find it easier to be successful.”

Published: June 2010


Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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