The SDGs require a stronger role for culture in development

By Gijs de Vries, Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); former member of the Dutch Government and former board member of the European Cultural Foundation

In 2015, world leaders pledged to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. They also promised to eradicate poverty and hunger, to secure peace and prosperity, to protect the planet, and to leave no-one behind. Today, both the Paris agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals are off-track and their time is running out. Our planet is at risk and public trust in governments is fraying. Governments must aim higher, with greater ambition, courage, and imagination. Fresh thinking is needed, along with new, innovative public-private partnerships. It is time for these partnerships to be extended to the cultural and creative sectors.

Traditionally, culture has not played a significant part in thinking about development. Agenda 2030 treated culture largely as an afterthought, UNESCO’s efforts notwithstanding. In recent years, however, there has been growing recognition of the economic, social, and environmental importance of art and culture.

Since 2013, when it was estimated to account for 30 million jobs and 3% of GDP, the cultural economy has been growing fast. Today it contributes around 4.7% of GDP in Lebanon, 7% in Indonesia, the Philippines and Zimbabwe, and 10% in Brazil and the Republic of Korea. Global creative economy revenues surpass India’s GDP. In some countries, such as Mexico and Uganda, and in major cities such as Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Seoul and Tokyo, the share of cultural jobs is between 9% and 13%. Globally, the cultural and creative sector is the largest employer of youth and it employs more women than men. As these statistics neither capture the spillover effects on other parts of the economy, such as cultural tourism, education, and digital services, nor the benefits to public health, the real impact of the cultural and creative sectors is even more pronounced. 

Climate change requires fundamental change in the way we work, travel, consume, and think. Filmmakers, writers, performing artists and museum curators facilitate this unprecedented cultural transformation by raising public awareness of the need for change. Artists, academics and journalists also give voice to the world, upholding the freedom of thought and expression on which other human rights depend. Art and heritage thus drive and enable sustainable development across the SDGs, from climate policy to peace and security.

Policy-makers are increasingly recognising culture’s catalytic role. The African Union declared 2021 to be the African Year of Art, Culture and Heritage. France, Greece, Italy, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries put their cultural and creative sectors at the heart of their post-COVID recovery plans, while the G20 Ministers of Culture called for the full recognition of culture and the creative economy in development processes and policies as a driver and enabler of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In December 2021, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a new Resolution on the subject. In 2022, culture’s contribution to global development will be the focus of the Global Forum on Arts, Culture, Creativity and Technology in Colombia (June 2022), and of the Global Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development in Mexico (‘Mondiacult’, 28-30 September 2022).

As welcome as this fresh thinking is, it has yet to inspire concerted action. COVID-19 triggered the world’s worst recession since the 1930s. It also severely affected the cultural economy, particularly in the Global South. Many cultural jobs are precarious and underpaid; women, young people, and minorities remain particularly vulnerable. As COVID rages, many heritage sites suffer neglect and illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts continues unabated.

Digital inequality in culture remains high between men and women, between cities and rural areas, and between regions: in Africa only 5% of museums are able to offer online content. Algorithms in cultural production risk reinforcing existing gender and ethnic imbalances in the cultural and creative sectors. On the internet, minority languages remain underrepresented. To fully mobilise the power of culture, public policies must address these inequities. Cultural policy must also respond to the rise of digital authoritarianism in certain parts of the world.

Under SDG 4.7, governments pledged to reform education so that it promotes sustainable development, human rights, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity. A recent UNESCO survey shows that many teachers struggle to deliver on these four promises. Governments must step up their support for teacher training, arts education and the humanities so that more children can enjoy their right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts, as guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.       

First and foremost, concerted national and international action is needed to protect artists, academics and journalists from attacks on their artistic freedom and their personal security. Cultural diversity can be protected and promoted only if human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression and association, as well as the ability of individuals to choose cultural expressions, are guaranteed.

Finally, partnerships are essential to the SDGs. Such partnerships require stronger North-South co-operation and greater financial solidarity. As the world’s primary supplier of official development assistance, the European Union is well placed to propose international partnerships based on equality. The European Parliament has urged European governments to regard culture as a fourth, transversal pillar of sustainable development. In 2022, EU ministers are expected to adopt policy measures on culture and the SDGs. The time has come for the international community to mobilise the power of culture in building a world where no-one is left behind.