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Culture – including built and intangible heritage and its connections with nature – represents a resource for addressing individual SDGs and is a factor underpinning wellbeing and sustainability more broadly.

Key ways in which culture features in Voluntary National Review reports include as stand-alone areas of work, as vectors of sustainability, and as cross-cutting considerations.

The #Culture2030Goal campaign is working with governments, UN agencies and all other stakeholders to ensure that we recognise the role of culture and heritage as development accelerators.

It is already clear that work on the SDGs in 2020 is going to be characterised by a new sense of urgency.

With only ten years left to deliver on the Global Goals – and clear evidence that we are not on track – there is a pressing need to mobilise all resources, seize every opportunity, and identify every accelerator that can help us get there.

One such potential accelerator is culture. Recognised as a cross-cutting driver and enabler of development, it nonetheless features relatively sparsely in specific SDG goals and targets, and reporting on these.

As set out in the report titled, ‘Culture in the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda’, this is arguably a missed chance. Culture – including built and intangible heritage and its connections with nature – represents not only a resource for addressing individual SDGs, but also a factor underpinning wellbeing and sustainability more broadly and a means of making the 2030 Agenda more meaningful to all.

Drawing on the report, this blog explores in more depth what has already been said about how culture can drive development and how far it appears in statements and reports in the context the 2030 Agenda process. It also suggests ways of making sure its potential will be better realised during the Decade of Action.

Culture and Development

That culture contributes to the wellbeing of individuals, communities and countries is well established. As the lead United Nations agency for cultural issues, UNESCO, has underlined this role repeatedly in conventions and other documents agreed with Member States, making it clear that culture and heritage have more than just an intrinsic value.

Yet recognition of culture is not reserved to UNESCO. At the global level, UN General Assembly resolutions have underlined what culture can do for development, while at the local level, the New Urban Agenda stresses how culture strengthens the economic, social and civic fabric of cities and communities. 

Culture is also explicitly a human rights issue, as made clear both in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 27a) and in the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966. These raise the opportunity to participate in the cultural life of the community to the level of a fundamental right for all, with the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights providing annual reports and recommendations to the UN General Assembly on the theme.

In short, there is a strong legal and political basis for including culture in any universal, comprehensive, and rights-based development framework.

Where Are We Now?

In the years leading up to the agreement of the 2030 Agenda, actors committed to promoting and realising the potential of culture cooperated closely as part of the Culture2015Goal campaign.

Bringing together organisations representing all culture and heritage sectors, funding agencies, and local governments, it highlighted what culture and heritage were already doing. Critically, it underlined how full recognition of culture as a driver and enabler of development could open up new possibilities to accelerate progress across the board as part of what would become the 2030 Agenda.

The results, admittedly, were mixed. The importance of culture as an underpinning factor – an accelerator of development – is well recognised in the introductory paragraphs of Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. In particular, it highlights the value of cultural diversity (paragraph 8) and the need for intercultural dialogue (paragraph 36).

Similarly, culture features explicitly in SDG target 11.4 on safeguarding cultural heritage, and more implicitly in targets on sustainability education (4.7), promoting creativity (8.3), sustainable tourism (8.9 and 12.b) and illicit trafficking of cultural property (16.4). However, this is not the same as a stand-alone goal – the original objective of the #Culture2015Goal coalition.

This inevitably means that the inclusion of culture in core national implementation plans has depended on the far-sightedness of each individual government, to a far greater extent than for other factors of development.

Fortunately, many have done so, as an analysis of Voluntary National Review reports has shown. This demonstrates that many countries are not only designing and launching culture-based development strategies, but are also mainstreaming culture into a wider effort. Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Palau and New Zealand paid particularly high attention to culture and cultural questions in their reports.

Key ways in which culture features in VNR reports include as stand-alone areas of work, as vectors of sustainability (for example, in supporting education, innovation and well-being), and as cross-cutting considerations (especially in order to reflect diversity). Some countries are looking to go beyond the very limited cultural indicators included in the 2030 Agenda.

Interestingly, many countries drew on cultural and heritage-related imagery in their reports, acknowledging, even if only implicitly, the importance of culture in their plans.

Local governments do deserve an honourable mention here. Mirroring the strong attention to culture in the New Urban Agenda, the growing number of Voluntary Local Reviews in particular have allowed the sharing of good practices.

Next Steps

Clearly, a jump is necessary from good practice to general practice. There is plenty to be inspired by in the examples already shared, and a basis for progress elsewhere. Yet more work is clearly needed to convince those in charge of national development plans of the value of including culture as an essential element in them.

We of course remain committed to awareness-raising and making the case for protecting the culture of the past and promoting that of the future as intrinsic goods, as so many international documents have already done.

But we also need to ensure that decision-makers understand that an increased focus on culture does not need to come at the expense of efforts in other areas, given that it contributes to their success. Indeed, addressing cultural questions can unlock and accelerate progress in many other areas.

With a renewed focus on SDG delivery in the Decade of Action, we hope that the time has come to recognise the role of culture and heritage as development accelerators.

This is what the renewed #Culture2030Goal campaign is looking to achieve. We look forward to working with governments, UN agencies and all other stakeholders in ensuring that we do not miss this opportunity.  

This article was authored by Jordi Pascual, Coordinator of the Culture Committee, United Cities and Local Government, Stephen Wyber, Manager, Policy and Advocacy, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and Ege Yildirim, SDGs Focal Point, International Council on Monuments and Sites.

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