Culture: Key to a successful transition towards the sustainable development goals

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In Argentina, young people are leaving their mark using one single tool: Education. One school just outside of Buenos Aires, is teaching students the most important lesson there is: that the more education they get, the better prepared they will be.
© UNESCO/International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD)

On 10 July 2015, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, co-chaired, with the Permanent Representative of Peru to the UN and Chair of the Group of Friends on Culture and Development, H.E. Mr Gustavo Meza Cuadra, a high-level ECOSOC breakfast meeting on “Culture: Key to a successful transition towards the sustainable development goals” at UN Headquarters.

On the margins of the 2015 ECOSOC Annual Ministerial Review on “Managing the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the sustainable development goals: What it will take”, Irina Bokova and H.E. Mr Gustavo Meza Cuadra convened a high-level breakfast meeting to discuss the role of culture for sustainable development in light of the final negotiation phase of the post-2015 Development Agenda.

The meeting gathered representatives from UNFPA and UNDP, Permanent Representatives to the UN including members of the Group of Friends on Culture and Development, international organizations, including INTERPOL, FAO, and ITU, as well as civil society organizations. The following Member States were represented: Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Commonwealth, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, European Union, France, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Honduras, Hungary, Italy, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Palau, oPt, Peru, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Romania, Serbia, Thailand, United States of America.

The Director-General highlighted that “the full recognition of culture within the new agenda is precisely a key solution for a successful transition to the SDGs. Culture is a force that can bring sustainability to all development efforts”. The Director-General added that “sustainability is about ownership, and this is where culture can help, to foster participation, to shape meaningful development for the people by the people”, which was subsequently echoed by several participants, including Thailand and Serbia. “Culture not only drives development for inclusive and sustainable development but also gives individuals and communities a sense of identity – this unique combination is a development multiplier”.

Recalling the past years of negotiations, the Chair of the Group of Friends highlighted that “culture is now on the top of the agenda” and that “as the negotiation process is still on-going, and we must continue pushing for the role of culture in all its forms”. In particular, Ambassador Meza Cuadra drew the attention of the participants to the role of traditional knowledge as a core element of intangible heritage, for food security and environmental sustainability. Several Member States, including Palau and Costa Rica, concurred that it would be key to ensure that culture is fully taken into account in view of the COP 21 Conference on climate change to be held in Paris, in November 2015. FAO added that food security is often embedded in cultural practices and that it is thus key to safeguard culture as a tangible and intangible asset in this aim.

The representative of UNFPA agreed that “traditional and indigenous knowledge can be vital to environmental protection” and also put forward that “culture is not a static but a dynamic process which should be seen as a key enabler of sustainable development, notably to foster gender equality and women’s empowerment, and enhance the localization of development interventions”.

While referring to the past four years of global consultations on the “what” and the “how” in view of the elaboration process of the post-2015 development agenda, the representative of UNDP stressed that “culture is essential, both as an asset and a medium of sustainable development”.

Palau added that “culture is a very rich social insurance for individuals and communities” as it allows people to build on culture as a resource for sustainable development, ‘it is precisely for this reason that it will be critical to safeguard culture in order to prevent its loss, notably as a consequence of climate change”.

A number of Member States referred to the role of culture for poverty reduction, notably through sustainable tourism and the need to safeguard and promote cultural heritage, as highlighted by Croatia, oPt, Cyprus. Germany recalled that the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee allowed to showcase the importance of cultural heritage, not only regarding the economic dimension of sustainable development, but also as an integral feature of peoples’ identity. The Republic of Korea, together with Italy, highlighted the importance of the cultural and creative industries for inclusive economic development, and that creativity along with ICTs are key for people-centred development. While recalling the Florence Declaration adopted at the UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries held in Florence, Italy, in October 2014, Italy stressed the need for innovative models of investment, notably through enhanced partnerships with the private sector.

During the meeting, a strong link was made between culture, peace and security, as a number of participants, including in particular Thailand, Germany and Italy, referred to importance of culture for peace building. This is particularly relevant in light of the current threats to culture that is increasingly targeted in the course of conflicts. As cited from the post-2015 Dialogues Report by one participant, “culture has the potential to build bridges and to shape more effective and inclusive reconciliation processes with full ownership of the communities”. In this regard, INTERPOL noted that it is sad to connect culture and the fight against crime but that fighting crime against history and humanity is an essential pre-condition to sustainable development.

Overall, the meeting built on the post-2015 Dialogues on Culture and Development, while highlighting some key findings of the global and national consultations held throughout 2014 and early 2015 in close collaboration between national governments and the co-leadership of UNESCO, UNDP and UNFPA. Serbia, among the five countries which led a national consultation on culture and development (together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Mali, Morocco) notably highlighted that it would be critical to ensure that culture is taken into account for poverty eradication and social inclusion.

The meeting allowed the Chair of the Group of Friends to call the members of the Group to further enhance the references to culture as an enabler and a driver of sustainable development in the preamble of the Zero Draft of the post-2015 Development Agenda, which had just been published to support the forthcoming Post-2015 negotiations.

The Director-General concluded the meeting by renewing her thanks to the Group of Friends for its dedicated efforts to promote the inclusion of culture in the post-2015 Development Agenda, which fully responds to the clear request expressed by the Governing Bodies of UNESCO.