Culture: global public good

UNESCO Courier | 07 11, 2023

In September 2022, Mexico will once again host the UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies (MONDIACULT), forty years after the first conference in Mexico City in 1982. The discussions that have taken place over the past four decades have been particularly fruitful and have considerably changed the definition of culture, opening the way for the recognition of living heritage and the diversity of cultural expression.


Beyond the profound impact of the health crisis on the cultural sector, the sector risks being threatened by new persistent challenges, from the effects of climate change on heritage to changes in the status of artists and the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural goods. These issues – and many others – will be centre-stage at the 2022 edition of MONDIACULT, which will also be an opportunity to reaffirm the place of culture as a global public good.


This issue of the Courier explores the key role played by culture as a vector for resilience, inclusion and sustainability.


The first UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies, held in Mexico City in 1982, was a genuine turning point. It laid the groundwork, for decades to come, for the fundamental concept of the functional links between culture and the development of societies. And alongside the growing material manifestations of culture grew their interdependence with immaterial expressions. This in turn opened the way for the protection of all the manifestations of culture that punctuate our ways of life, and through which knowledge and values are transmitted from one generation to the next.


This broader concept led to the UNESCO Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore (1989) and opened up the field of human heritage to 'living culture' and to synergies with other fields of development, such as well-being and education. Languages, music, dance, rituals and crafts are now included in the field of culture, while their socio-economic importance is increasingly gaining recognition. As the embodiment of the collective memory of communities, this living and evolving heritage strengthens the sense of identity and belonging, as well as resilience and the ability to project oneself into the future.


Link between culture and development

Considered as a mirror of the evolution of societies, culture has progressively been integrated into the international agenda, while its role in sustainable development and the defence of human rights is increasingly recognized, notably through its contribution to social cohesion, employment and innovation. The promotion of cultural diversity in the 1990s stimulated a revitalization of creative resources, centred around the idea that development efforts have often failed due to the omission or neglect of the human element – the complex web of relationships and beliefs, the variety of values and aspirations, creative expression and imagination. This new impetus draws on the capacity of culture to expand “people’s choices ... individual opportunities for being healthy, educated, productive, creative and enjoying self-respect and human rights” (Our Creative Diversity, 1996).


“The role of culture in sustainable development is increasingly recognized”


The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity adopted in 2001 was a milestone in reaffirming the indivisible link between culture and development. The principles of the Declaration have inspired a series of normative texts, adopted by UNESCO Member States, which have extended the scope of culture to the protection of underwater cultural heritage (2001), the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage (2003), the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions (2005) and the conservation of historic urban landscapes (2011). Another step forward was the adoption of the Declaration concerning the Intentional Destruction of Cultural Heritage in October 2003.


Recreating social links


This evolution in the appreciation of the role of culture is not purely conceptual. In 2004, during the reconstruction of the Mostar Bridge, destroyed in 1993 during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the challenge was not only to restore a monument, but also to overcome the collective trauma by involving the various cultural, ethnic and religious communities in the reconstruction. The Dayton Peace Accords (1995), which put an end to the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, included a section on the protection of cultural heritage in their provisions on respect for human rights. For the first time, cultural heritage was recognized as a fundamental element in peacebuilding.


More recently, in 2014, UNESCO's vast project in Timbuktu (Mali) on the reconstruction of destroyed mausoleums and the conservation of ancient manuscripts illustrated once again the need to integrate culture into peace efforts. The support for the reconstruction of the city of Mosul in Iraq, in the framework of the UNESCO project “Reviving the Spirit of Mosul”, or the measures to safeguard the cultural heritage and educational system of Beirut in Lebanon, coordinated by UNESCO, are examples of initiatives aimed at enabling communities to recreate social links through the reconstruction of historical monuments and entire neighbourhoods.


The rise of globalization


Over the years, from one international conference on cultural policies to another, other themes have emerged. At the 1998 conference in Stockholm (Sweden), in a context characterized by rapid growth of globalization, topics such as access to culture, freedom of expression, participatory governance and the trade in cultural products came to the fore. The development of digital technologies was beginning to profoundly change cultural consumption and distribution. But, while these new technologies allow unprecedented access to content – leading to a boom in cultural and creative industries – they also come with challenges, such as the deregulation of markets, the need for more equitable remuneration for artists and cultural professionals, economic concentration, the digital divide, and cultural normalization. These are issues that remain highly topical.


The future of our societies is now being played out on a global scale. Mass tourism, uncontrolled urban growth and the effects of climate change threaten a number of emblematic sites inscribed on the World Heritage List, whether it is Venice and its lagoon, the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab) in Lebanon.


Rethinking our relationship with the world


During the COVID-19 crisis, culture demonstrated its capacity for adaptation and resilience, highlighting solidarity within the sector and across other fields, such as the economy, health and education, during times of lock-down. However, it also highlighted the persistent fragilities of the cultural sector, urging us to re-think its core foundations.


The concepts forged over the past forty years also provide a conceptual foundation for UNESCO's normative and programming work. In the wake of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and beyond, UNESCO must take on a key role, leading the international dialogue on emerging challenges. Issues such as cultural diplomacy, the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural property and return and restitution of these properties to their countries of origin, the status of the artist, freedom of expression, creative economy, the impact of digital transformation, sustainable cultural tourism, and the role of culture in climate action will be centre-stage in discussions at the Mexico Conference. Its objective is not only to clarify our future action, but also to reposition culture as a global public good.


Access to culture - including online - must be ensured to all, cultural diversity as part of the global commons must be safeguarded, and full cultural rights must be guaranteed in the face of new challenges. To address these imperatives, local and national commitments need to be accompanied by a global and concerted effort by the international community as a whole. To build inclusive and supportive societies, it is essential to acknowledge the transformative role of culture as a global good. It is vital to take culture fully into account when designing this new social contract. Culture is our reservoir of meaning, our creative energy; it forges our sense of belonging, frees our imagination, our power of innovation and our commitment towards a more sustainable future for the benefit of all humanity.
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