Hangzhou International Congress: Placing culture & creativity at the heart of development

How can we make the most of culture for economic growth, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion ?  How can we place culture, innovation, and creativity at the heart of public policy ? From 15 to 17 May, UNESCO’s "Hangzhou International Congress" in China will set the stage for a landmark global debate on integrating culture in the conception, measurement, and practice of sustainable development. The Congress seeks to inspire governments, civil society, businesses and communities to harness the power of culture in addressing the world’s most pressing developmental challenges.  

Guest speakers include over 100 of the world’s most cutting-edge experts on culture and development as well as government leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America keen to share their experiences.The host city of Hangzhou, which has been a significant cultural center in Chinese history, is an inspirational example of culture and development at their best. This UNESCO Creative City for Crafts & Folk Art is home to the West Lake Cultural Landscape, a World Heritage Site. With its mist-covered hills, willow-lined banks and ancient pagodas, Hangzhou's idealized, classic landscapes were conceived in an effort to manifest the perfect fusion, and harmony, between man and nature. Culture is at the vanguard of social and economic development in China, as is the case for an increasing number of countries worldwide.

© A. k. Makarigakis
Coffee ceremony : placinig the coffee on the traditional coffee pot - Kafa, Ethiopia

At a time of economic crisis, as well as cuts in public spending, the tremendous potential of cultural sectors to create jobs and boost economic growth is attracting special attention. Cultural heritage, cultural and creative industries, sustainable cultural tourism, and cultural infrastructure generate substantial revenues, especially in developing countries, thereby fighting poverty and unemployment. Cultural and creative industries represent one of the most rapidly expanding sectors in the global economy with a growth rate of 17.6% in the Middle East, 13.9% in Africa, 11.9% in South America, 9.7% in Asia, 6.9% in Oceania, and 4.3% in North and Central America, according to a 2008 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"In India, culture and the cinema industry are the country’s 2nd biggest strategic industries, after steel. A new creative economy is emerging and we must create the tools of this new economy," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

The cultural sector requires limited capital investment, yet it has a direct impact on communities, including especially vulnerable populations, women and marginalized groups. In Ecuador, for example, studies show that formal and private cultural activities contributed 4.76% to the 2010 GDP. In the same year, 2.64% of the country’s employed population worked in cultural occupations, almost 60% of them women, according to a 2012 study by UNESCO and the Government of Ecuador. Cultural projects also prove to be a positive force for social inclusion. In Brazil, for example, 360 centers for the arts were recently launched to help employment in disadvantaged neighborhoods throughout the country.

© City of Incheon
Incheon ceramic

© City of Santa Fe
Crafts and Folk Art, Santa Fe

It may be surprising to consider that, in the past, “culture was considered to be an obstacle to development, like something to surmount, like a tradition inheritated from the past, or at best, a secondary hobby in developed countries,” the Director-General explained, earlier this year. Today, however, there is growing understanding that culture is indispensable in laying the foundations for sustainable development and lasting peace, through its role in economic growth, in human development, as a storehouse of environmental knowledge, and as a symbolic force to bring stability and meaning to communities everywhere.

Efficient development integrates cultural practices into the economic model and supports the involvement of the communities concerned. It reflects the needs, aspirations, priorities and cultures of beneficiaries its participants. For example, agricultural policies lead to better harvests when they include local perceptions of land and seeds. Cultural context, local medicine and traditional forms of solidarity are accepted today as pre-conditions for the sustainability of health and vaccination campaigns. Cultural diversity is increasingly taken on board to support media pluralism and the promotion of multilingualism. Through the promotion and enhancement of cultural resources, successful development programs launched by United Nations agencies leave no doubt that culture helps secure greater social inclusion and achieve meaningful progress toward Millenium Development Goals, as illustrated by this UNESCO analysis.

Does the evidence suggest that the world should be “Rethinking GDP, achieving wellbeing and human development”, to borrow title of a panel discussion during the Congress? Over three days, panelists will explore a fascinating range of issues, in dedicated thematic sessions on culture’s impact on economic growth, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion; the synergies between culture, creativity and sustainable urbanism; and public-private partnerships that could help boost the culture sector. Underlying all these debates is the conviction that sustainable development cannot be built solely through economic and political agreements. Culture makes development more sustainable. UNESCO’s role is to help the world to make the most of it for the benefit of all - nothing less will do. Without culture, there’s no participation from the people, and without this, there’s no sustainable development. The future depends on culture, and the Hangzhou International Congress aims to pave the way forward.

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