To have sustainable development, we need to consider culture

Why don’t the new draft Sustainable Development Goals mention culture? Ron SdotC/Flickr

At the end of July draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were released by the United Nations-appointed Open Working Group. Those of us hoping to see culture identified as part of those goals were initially disappointed, as not one of them directly references culture.

But on closer scrutiny of the detailed targets, culture is mentioned four times. It’s part of the goal relating to education. There’s a reference to safeguarding cultural heritage in cities and human settlements. Culture features twice with reference to tourism as part of sustainable economic development, production and consumption.

Slotting culture under those headings positions it in quite particular ways: as something relatively static, something to learn about and profit from. It recognises culture as an industrial endeavour that can generate financial benefit. The education grouping emphasises the role of education in promoting wider respect for cultural diversity.

What the draft SDGs don’t do is recognise culture as an expressive and dynamic force. There’s no acknowledgement of culture as a creative vehicle through which individuals and social groups can explore, affirm, celebrate, reflect upon, critique, and develop their culture, their shared cultural assets, the world as they experience it, and the world as they wish it to be.

Cultural expression, including artistic expression, is an essential part of being human. It is also an important enabler of human development and wellbeing. Its absence from the current draft SDGs looks like a missed opportunity to those of us with experience of the ways that participatory arts and cultural practices can transform individuals and communities alike.

The SDGs will set the global development agenda and priorities post-2015. As culture is not included as a goal or a target, the potential of cultural, creative and artistic expression to enable human development will not be fully realised. Culture-focused programming is less likely to be included as a strategic program strand, and less likely to be included in evaluations and reports.

Cultural expression as a tool for development

Creative cultural expression generates ideas, innovations, and capacities – and, through the very real and potentially transformative social benefits of increased agency, it fuels purpose and connectedness. Culture invokes the possible. It draws people into liminal spaces in which to explore and interrogate and live temporarily within alternative realities.

In Timor-Leste, weaving cooperatives support rural women to continue the ancient traditions of textile crafts maintained in their communities over centuries, while building markets for the products and developing innovative responses to new commercial opportunities. Through the production experience, women expand their social and economic networks, develop as community leaders, and gain authority in their communities as income-generators.

In Afghanistan, orphans and street working children have the opportunity to study traditional Afghan music and Western classical music at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. They receive an excellent education, but in addition, their worlds expand, through interactions with international visitors, and performances in numerous local and international venues.

Their work also serves a grander purpose, contributing to the re-generation of Afghanistan’s rich musical culture, crushed under Taliban rule, and in presenting an alternative, more positive image of Afghanistan to the world.

Projects such as the Butterfly Peace Garden in Sri Lanka bring vulnerable children - marginalised due to disability, ethnicity, or poverty – into safe, beautiful spaces where the destruction and restrictions of war-ravaged daily life can be set aside.

By engaging in all kinds of child-centred creative processes, children can explore and trial new imaginary worlds where they are no longer passive victims, but inventors, producers, and active agents in creating their own reality. Such a reversal can be transformative in terms of personal growth and development.

The organisation of bands and concerts in a refugee camp in Sudan became a catalyst for improved interactions between opposing ethnic groups. As a mutually-enjoyed pastime, the concerts emphasised shared interests and cultural links, rather than the differences between the groups, and thus provided a springboard for greater dialogue and cooperation across the whole community.

As seen in these examples, support for cultural expression and arts can assume diverse forms within development contexts. The following are just three:

  • it can embrace and celebrate the cultural assets of a community, rather than focusing on deficits. This builds autonomy and agency, and maintains cultural continuity between the past, the present and the future.

  • it contributes to education and capacity-building through training and learning opportunities both formally and informally. These opportunities build individual skills in arts, creative problem-solving and communication, and generate pathways and networks, widening people’s social worlds and exposing them to new ideas.

  • supported platforms for cultural expression are a powerful way of giving voice to marginalised groups, including young people, women, ethnic minorities, and those with disabilities. Such groups are often overlooked in community decision-making, but their civic engagement – particularly that of young people – can make a critical difference to social stability.

The expressive platforms – including performance, writing and media, and visual expression – are the magnet, but the outcomes can have far-reaching benefits for broader society.

A changing development paradigm

The debates surrounding the post-2015 development agenda take place within a paradigmatic shift for the aid and development enterprise, characterised by the realisation that the challenges the world faces are complex and interconnected.

Challenges cannot be solved in isolation. Voices that have been marginalised in the past are slowly being heard.

This growing awareness has profound implications. Reports from the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 and the UN Task Team on the Post-2015 Development Agenda have argued the need for a more holistic and integrated approach to sustainable development.

That means people-focused and place-specific responses that empower individuals to take charge of their own development. It means greater coordination and integration between agencies and their efforts, with a long-term view of sustainable outcomes, empowerment and independence.

To achieve this, programming and responses that build local agency, social inclusion and connectedness, and a sense of meaning and purpose – of being a contributor to something that is bigger than oneself – need to play a central role. The SDGs can support this by recognising culture as a creative driver of society, not merely a reflection of heritage or identity.

The task of imagining a possible future is an inherently creative one. Culture is therefore central to the process as well as part of the solutions and their sustained adoption and acceptance.

If people are to take charge of their own development, they need to be supported to fully develop their capacities to imagine and innovate, so that they may create the best possible world that they – that we – all aspire to.