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GA Thematic Debate: Culture Deserves Recognition in the Post-2015 Agenda (5 May)

arton4441On 5 May 2014, theUN General Assembly(GA) held aThematic Debate on Culture and Sustainable Development in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. In addition to the opening and closing session, this eventfeaturedvarious keynote addresses, a High-level Segment in which ministers from over 20 countries presented their positions, and a thematic interactive panel discussion on “The power of culture for poverty eradication and sustainable development.”

Mohamed Khaled Khiari, Acting President of the GA, welcomed participants on behalf of GA President John Ashe and thanked the United Nations Scientific, Cultural and Educational Organization (UNESCO) for taking the lead in the organization of this event. In hisopening remarks, Mr. Khiari referred to the GA resolution (A/RES/68/223) on culture and sustainable development, adopted in December 2013. This resolution recognizes that culture is enabler and a driver of sustainable development: ineconomic terms, because culture is a fast-growing economic sector and an important source of income generation and job creation; insocial terms, because culture binds the social fabric of societies, defining a sense of identity and belonging; and inenvironmental terms, because many cultural practices are intrinsically linked with biodiversity and in harmony with nature.

The Acting GA President emphasized that cultural dialogue is a powerful vehicle to promote inclusion, strengthen social cohesion and enhance conflict-prevention and reconciliation. “Cultural dialogue allows us to welcome and appreciate those who are different and to build on those differences to create more inclusive, open and peaceful societies,” he said. In addition, culture filters through all areas of people’s lives, affecting the way they do business, engage in leisure or relate with each other. It is therefore of utmost importance, Mr. Khiari explained, to understand and consider a society’s cultural aspects when adopting development approaches to local contexts and ensuring successful outcomes. “In our efforts to shape a universal agenda, culture can help us ensure it is truly relevant for all,” he concluded.

“The United Nations has long seen culture as a means to promote development,”indicatedDeputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, noting that the first thematic debate on culture and development was held in June 2013. Mr. Eliasson acknowledged that culture is dynamic, essential, inspirational to progress and international understanding; yet cautioned that it should not be used as an excuse to undermine development and human rights or to divide people.

Keynote addresses

As sustainable development is about people and ownership, a one-size-fits-all approach to development will never be successful. “This is where culture can help,” said Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO in herkeynote address. “Culture can foster participation and craft a more balanced and meaningful development modelforthe people andbythe people,” she explained. She provided concrete examples where culture contributes to (local) development and brings unity, cohesion, pride and confidence. Ms. Bokova spoke about Africa, where traditional leaders and doctors are vital in gaining confidence to strengthen the health care sector, to combat HIV and to enhance education; about Haiti, where the Carnival represents thousands of local jobs in craft and creative industries; and about Borobudur in Indonesia, where cultural heritage is revitalizing the local economy. The UNESCO Director-General stressed that culture widens development strategies, fights poverty, combats inequalities, promotes human dignity and rights.

Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), drew particular attention to the relation between culture, tourism and development. Mr. Rifai told the audience that travel and tourism have been experiencing a period of extraordinary growth and has become one of the leading economic sectors. With over one billion international tourists in one single year, tourism represents 9% of world gross domestic product (GDP); 30% of total exports and services; and one out of eleven jobs across the globe. In addition, cultural tourism ‒ the movement of travellers motivated by the mosaic of art forms, heritage sites, festivals, traditions and pilgrimage ‒ is on the rise.

He suggested that the more people travel, the more they are exposed to the melting pot of ethnicities, religions and lifestyles and the more they become part of the global dialogue that turns them into global citizens; citizens that understand and respect each other. He also referred to the three dimensions of sustainable development, noting that tourism and culture can work together for the economic growth of every and each society; for social development, peace and stability; and for the protection and preservation of cultural heritage. However, necessary pre-conditions necessitate that: 1) tourism is carefully and efficiently managed; 2) tourists and host communities receive proper education; 3) conservation and tourism professionals coordinate and cooperate on both sides; and 4) innovative approaches and technology are used.

“The new post-2015 development goals “should not include culture as a deficit, because every nation has its own unique culture, but it should definitely look into the deficit of cultural utilization,” Mr. Rifai concluded.

In hiskeynote speech, Hao Ping, President of the General Conference of UNESCO and Vice-Minister of Education of the People’s Republic of China, welcomed the international community’s increasing recognition that culture is “a system of values and a resource of energy and creativity to build sustainable development.” In particular, Mr. Ping drew attention to the International Congress on Culture, held in May 2013, during which theHangzhou Declarationwas adopted. This Declaration, Mr. Ping explained, urges governments:
• to integrate culture in all development policies and programmes;
• to mobilize culture and mutual understanding to foster peace and reconciliation;
• to endure cultural rights for all to promote inclusive social development;
• to leverage culture for poverty reduction and inclusive economic development;
• to build on culture for promoting environmental sustainability;
• to strengthen resilience to disasters and to combat climate change through culture;
• to value, safeguard and transmit culture to future generations; and
• to capitalize on culture to foster innovative and sustainable models of cooperation.

In line with these speakers, Mohammed S. Amr (Egypt), Chairman of UNESCO’s Executive Board, also delivered a plea for culture to find its rightful place in the post-2015 development agenda: “Finalizing the post-2015 agenda without giving culture a prominent place in it will be a failure that none of us will be willing or capable to assume. So, let us do the needful in order to avoid it,” he stressed.

The final keynote speaker, Michaëlle Jean, Special Envoy of UNESCO to Haiti,highlightedthe importance of culture within historic and present Haiti and drew attention to people’s creativity to revitalize and rebuild their country. “Culture is a solid scaffolding of building and rebuilding,” she said, while emphasizing that “If we do not include culture on the international agenda of development, we would be denying the contribution of peoples’ creativity and capacities, their heritage, their ancestral and modern knowledge, their traits of civilization and their rich diversity.” She suggested that Haiti would like to move beyond chronic dependence on aid by "betting" on culture: “It is without a doubt an engine, a catalyst, a viable sector that generates income, creates decent jobs, revitalizes productive sectors in many communities through sustainable and integrated tourism development. Progress has been made and this is very encouraging,” she concluded.

High-level Segment

Following the opening session and keynote addresses, the Thematic Debate featured a High-level Segment in which ministers from over 20 countries gave their perspectives on the role of culture in sustainable development, sharing examples from their own countries.

In general, there was agreement that culture has an important role to play in the post-2015 development agenda. The Republic of Korea, for example,stands byall the efforts to incorporate culture as a cross-cutting issue within the post-2015 development agenda. Other countries, such as Mali and Albania, would like to have culture officially recognized as the fourth pillar of sustainable development. The EUwelcomesthe increased attention to culture within the UN system as a whole, under UNESCO’s leadership, such as through the increased inclusion of culture in UN Development Assistance Frameworks (UNDAFs), and the setting up of the Task Team on Culture and Development under the UN Development Group (UNDG).

Various statements highlighted that in the past, the role of culture in development has too often been insufficiently recognized or ignored. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Korea, for instance, suggested that culture has remained on the fringe for reasons of what he would call “a tepidity against culture.” The Minister of Culture of Paraguayblamedthe dominant economic and materialistic focus in development thinking, which sometimes views culture as an obstacle for development, and consequently promotes the eradication of ancestral "cosmovisions," the disintegration of cultural institutions, and the breakdown of socio-cultural relations. The Minister of Culture of Albaniaregrettedthat in times of economic crisis, it was often the cultural sector that had to bear the brunt, despite its importance for development. The Minister of Culture of Maliwarnedthat cultural ignorance had led to expressions of disgraceful forms of civilization in her country and the government has finally recognized that culture can play a vital role in development and needs to be supported by promoting and investing in cultural industries, infrastructure and culture education, she concluded.

The Minister Delegate to the Prime Minister of Haiti in charge of Human Rights and the Fight against extreme povertyinsistedthat development is a collective process. In her view, efforts to develop a society that is divided by social tensions is a waste of time and energy when cultural and linguistic characteristics are not taken into account. She argued that “every development project should primarily be a cultural and social project,” adding that culture is not only a catalyser and engine of sustainable development, but is foremost a "must." Aside from being an economic driver, she also indicated that culture can stimulate people to unite and has a therapeutic role to heal people by helping them overcome traumatic experiences.

The Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism of Vietnamlinkedthe increased awareness on the role of culture in development to the shift in development thinking ‒ from a material production-intensive model, based on economic growth at all costs, to a human-centred model, based on a sustainable approach. Vietnam had adopted a long-term strategy which aims to raise awareness of all citizens and authorities on the role of culture in development and to promote comprehensive human development by building a healthy cultural and social foundation. It also seeks to improve cultural institutions and systems by scaling up public investments and other resources.

The Secretary of Cultural Policies of Brazilremindedhis colleagues that “In calling for greater emphasis on culture in the Sustainable Development Agenda, we are not inventing new proposals, but reiterating international treaties and universal understandings.” He added that, at the outset, it is important to bear in mind that any approach to this topic “must ensure the participation of civil society in the formulation and promotion of cultural policies, in particular through decentralization.” Open participation models can help meet the principles of culture sharing and cooperation; change the current development model; and foster a new system, based on a more just social order, in which the externalities of nature are respected and the sharing of culture, science and innovation is facilitated, he argued. The Secretary also made an urgent plea to all Member States, in particular those who have a vigorous and homogenic cultural industry, to respect theUNESCO Convention for the Protection and Promotion of Diversity of Cultural Expressionsin order to prevent traditional systems of knowledge from becoming endangered.

For more statements, clickhere, or watch the webcasts of this one-day event (available at the bottom of this article).

Thematic Interactive Panel Discussion

Following a video message in which Joan Clos, Executive Director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) touched upon the relation between urbanization and culture, moderator Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, Permanent Representative of Peru to the UN and chair of the Group of Friends for Culture and Development [1], introduced the theme of the panel discussion (the power of culture for poverty eradication and sustainable development) and introduced the various speakers. Panellists included Farida Shaheed,UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; Marianne Fay,Chief Economist of the Sustainable Development Networkand Focal Point on the Post-2015 Development Agenda of the World Bank; Trudie Styler, Actress and Film Producer; Filippe Savadogo, Permanent Representative of theInternational Organisation of Francophone States(OIF) to the UN; and Charles Vallerand: General Secretary of theInternational Federation of Coalitions of Cultural Diversity(IFCCD).

Farida Shaheedexplainedhow culture and cultural rights contribute to sustainable development and presented cultural rights as containing two essential and interdependent dimensions ‒ “one grounded in the notion of free creativity, and the second based on the right of people to access cultural heritage, their own as well as that of others.” She emphasized that culture ‒ including cultural beliefs, understandings, normative rules, values, and practices ‒ is a living and dynamic process that continually evolves. In her opinion, cultural rights and heritage are therefore not about the past, but about the present and the future. “We must continue, deepen and expand the discussion about our common humanity and our equally common future which can only be fruitful if dialogue and exchange are rooted in cultural diversity and bring together various world visions. No one area of the world or community holds the truth or all the answers and we must guard against the unworkable “one-size-fits-all” models of development,” she spoke. She also cautioned for models of development that disrupt the cultural life of entire communities, destroy their cultural heritage and landscape, and deprive them of necessary resources. Besides from asking how culture can help address poverty and support development, the Special Rapporteur suggested that it was time to ask how the post-2015 agenda can contribute to developing culture as the symbolic diversified manifestations of our common but complex humanity.

Marianne Fay reflected on how culture can contribute to the World Bank’s objectives to end extreme poverty by 2030 and to promote shared prosperity. The Bank sees culture as a tangible manifestation (historic cities and cultural heritage) and as strategic assets for local economic development. “With targeted investments and effective partnerships between the public and the private sector these assets have the potential to contribute to job creation and economic growth,” she said. Regenerating the downtowns of cities and conserving or re-using their cultural heritage can favourably impact the living conditions and employment opportunities of the poor. The World Bank has found that in some of the poorest countries in the world, 25% of tourism revenue goes to people who live on less than US$1.25 a day. In general, one million US dollars in tourism sales generates almost twice as many jobs as the same amount of US dollars in financial services, communications or automotive manufacturing. Ms. Fay further indicated that tourism is well-balanced from a gender perspective as women make up a proportionally higher share of the work force in tourism, and they are almost twice as likely to be business owners or employers in tourism industries. Correspondingly, tourism employs young people at almost twice the rate as other industries, Ms. Fay concluded.

Trudie Styler, who works together with Sting for theRainforest Fund, spoke about the relation between indigenous peoples and extractive industries, in which extractive industries often exploit indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands with far-reaching impacts on their health, drinking water and land access. She welcomed the fact that there are many strong indigenous leaders that are able to make their voices heard and that are learning to defend their land rights, preserve their culture, and pursue development in harmony with their environment. She concluded by calling upon governments, international agencies and the extractive industries to adhere to internationally agreed conventions. In addition, national policy should not be overridden by the influence of giant corporations, she stressed, emphasizing that “It is vital to put people and planet above power and profit.”

Charles Vallerand drew attention to the challenge of resources and the fact that culture was not mentioned underfocus area15 of the SDGs on means of implementation. He questioned how culture could facilitate development if there are no resources allocated to this sector. “We can build hospitals and schools, but we need to realize that we are also playing with the minds of people and this is the enabling nature of culture,” he urged. Concluding, he made reference to a civil society declaration which calls for the inclusion of culture in the post-2015 SDGs (available onculture2105goal.net).

Closing session

In her closing remarks Ms. Bokova said, “While culture may not be retained as a goal among the SDGs, it should definitely be integrated in an explicit manner as a target or as an enabler in all sustainable development goals that are related to poverty eradication.” She also reflected on the key messages from the Thematic Debate, reiterating that culture is instrumental for poverty eradication and an enabler to achieve quality education and learning outcomes. Culture fosters environmental sustainability building on traditional knowledge systems and practices, as well as social inclusion, in particular in the urban context as an engine of creativity and innovation. Finally, culture builds inclusive societies by providing a strong sense of identity, she said.

In his concluding remarks, the Acting President of the General Assembly indicated that a summary of the key messages from the day’s debate will be shared in the form of a Chair’s Summary with Member States and all relevant fora, including the Open Working Group on SDGs. “Culture is the fertile ground that connect us to our roots, sustains our sense of belonging, and nurtures our creativity. In our efforts to shape a transformative development agenda beyond 2015, you have shown today that we can draw of the many resources of culture to create our future, one that truly reflects our diversity and richness of our world,” he concluded.

6 June Cultural Event

At the Thematic Debate, it was announced that GA President John Ashe will host acultural event/concerton 6 June during which respected performing artists and celebrities from across the globe will raise awareness on the post-2015 agenda and global commitment to eradicate poverty.

More information

Background paper
Webcast part 1
Webcast part 2

Photo credits

© UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz;

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