Wednesday, 30 September 2015


The United Nations’ member states this month adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the world tries to build on the successes – and surmount the failures – of the previous eight Millennium Development Goals, which should have been achieved by 2015.

Culture is just a shadow in SDGs.
The new global objectives still focus on eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, and providing good healthcare and universal education. But they now include access to affordable, clean energy, and place much greater emphasis on protecting the environment.

A glaring oversight, however, is culture – mentioned just a few times in the 169 subordinate aims or targets. This is a lapse that many in the cultural sector see as unfortunate, especially when one considers the destruction of cultural heritage taking place in some parts of the world. It seems that the voices appealing for recognition of culture’s role got lost in the UN babel.

At a high-profile meeting last year for instance, Irina Bokova, the director-general of the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO, joined policy makers from different countries in calling for culture to be integrated into the Post-2015 development agenda.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO's DG.
During this special thematic debate on culture and sustainable development held May 5, 2014, in New York, speakers used data and national examples to emphasize that culture “drives and enables the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainable development”.

Participants also recognized that culture is “the thread that binds together the social fabric of our societies”, as Acting President of the UN General Assembly Khaled Khiari put it at the time. Bokova warned, too, of the dangers of repeating the “mistakes” of 2000, when culture was omitted from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Last October as well, UNESCO hosted its third Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries, in Florence, Italy, where representatives from a range of countries discussed the contributions that culture can make to a “sustainable future” through stimulating employment, economic growth and innovation. (For the full article on this conference, please see:

All this seems to have borne little fruit, however, as culture is mentioned in the SDGs only as a subtext to education, tourism and making cities sustainable.

Is tourism the main reason for promoting culture?
In Goal 4 – to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning – the objective is that by 2030, all learners will have acquired the “knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including … appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

Apart from this, there’s Goal 8 – to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all – in which the member states aim to “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

A similar idea is repeated in Goal 12 – to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Here, states undertake to “develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.
Seventeen goals and little space for culture.

Such wording, of course, raises the question: do governments see the promotion of culture only as a way to boost tourism?  Is tourism necessary for promoting culture? The sad answer to both appears to be “yes”, and the SDGs aren’t helping to change this mindset.

The only really clear aim for culture comes in Goal 11: to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Among the 10 targets here is to "strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage". One wonders if the protection of culture could not have been a goal itself.

In an interview, a UNESCO official said that while some people may be disappointed that the language is not detailed enough, the new development agenda does reflect the role of culture throughout.

"This is a substantial step forward from the MDGs, when there was no mention of culture," she said, while acknowledging that greater action could still have been taken. - A.M.