23 October 2020
At the UN, the Arts Emerge as a Force for Sustainable Development
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
story highlights

On UN Day, a pre-recorded concert reminds us that the arts can “help bring us together to reimagine a world ‘rebalanced,’ to be designed and built together for present and future generations".

For example, data alone doesn't change people's minds; we need stories, poetry, emotional connection.

Governments and societies should tap their creative forces to promote not just economic growth, but also inclusion, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

By Patrick Kabanda

The United Nations is marking its 75th anniversary this year, and while it may not be marked in the way we would have imagined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an annual concert for UN Day has been pre-recorded for streaming in the UN General Assembly Hall in New York on 24 October. Sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Italy to the UN, the 2020 concert’s theme, ‘Reimagine, Rebalance, Restart: recovering together for our shared humanity,’ couldn’t be more apropos.

From Bach’s Italian Concerto to Toni Morrison’s lyrical letters and far beyond, the arts, as the UN puts it, can “help bring us together to reimagine a world ‘rebalanced,’ to be designed and built together for present and future generations.”

I first visited UN headquarters in New York a year ago, on UN Day 2019, as a panelist for the UNGA Second Committee’s event on Emerging models of economic activities, which raised inclusion and social justice as leitmotifs. When we talk about inclusion and social justice, it is impossible to exclude the creative economy. That’s how I began my thoughts on how governments and societies should tap their creative forces to promote not just economic growth, but also inclusion, social justice, and environmental sustainability. My remarks touched on the following four points.

Green Cultural Economy

It’s not difficult to see that cultural jobs – making music, painting, designing and the like – are greener than jobs in manufacturing. As many artists will tell you, moreover, creative jobs are generally enjoyable. And as they say, if you do a job you love, you never work a day in your life. 

In addition, if we want to include young people — and many others excluded from the current economic models — to deal with employment and underemployment, we need to leverage the creative sector. This is also the case when it comes to economic diversification and tackling inequality, as I wrote in a paper for the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) 2019 Human Development Report.

Art for New Ideas

I happened to be seated near the distinguished delegate from Iraq, a country whose history illustrates this point. The concepts of hardware and software first opened up centuries ago, during the Islamic Golden Age. This was when the Banū Mūsā Brothers, three toy designers associated with the House of Wisdom, an 800 AD-style think tank at a time when Baghdad was the mecca of global wisdom, invented ‘The Instrument Which Plays by Itself.’ This instrument was a water-powered organ similar in design to those the Greeks and Romans had built earlier. But theirs had a unique feature: it was programmable.  So, as we enjoy programming in the digital age, it is vital to appreciate the arts’ role in conceiving such innovations.

As we seek new technologies that support greener economies and the research and innovation that Helge Elisabeth Zeitler, EU Environment and Climate Counsellor, talked about during our panel, we should not cut the arts in schools. In many schools the arts can be an afterthought. If we place more emphasis on the arts in our schools, we are going to see miracles. Indeed, Slovenia’s Permanent Representative Darja Bavdaž Kuret took the floor to appreciate the creative economy and cultural diplomacy.

Unsustainable Consumption

What has created some of the problems of climate change we’re facing today, it can be argued, is overconsumption. Many of us buy things we don’t need. But in art, we can have a similar satisfaction without buying anything. So, if we are really looking to grow economies based more on experiences and emotional and spiritual satisfaction, the arts are important.

This does not mean that all experiences, including cultural tourism, are entirely sustainable, or positive as I’ve argued elsewhere, and there are many superstar artists who promote materialism. But playing an instrument, for example, can be fulfilling in ways that a shopping spree might not.

Arts and Communication

Data is important, and I have written about creating a Cultural Trade Index and a Culture Exchange Index. But data alone doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds. On climate change, for instance, we have the science, but still there are many people who do not accept it, even when we throw numbers at them. So what do we need? We need stories. We need poetry. We need an emotional connection. And since 2019 was the International Year of Indigenous Languages, we are reminded that it is important to reach people across the world in their own tongues.

I had begun my visit wondering what the UN is about these days. International bodies like the UN are being challenged to justify their existence, and it remains to be seen what the UN’s next 75 years will be like. But as I toured UN headquarters, I saw a quote answering my question: the United Nations “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”

So said the UN’s second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld. As we consider harvesting emerging models of economic activities to foster sustainable and inclusive development, the arts can surely be part of the plan to save us from that hell.

This guest article is written by Patrick Kabanda, author of The Creative Wealth of Nations (Cambridge 2018).

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