A close up image of a pair of hands, which are now a deep dark blue from working with natural dyes as part of the weaving process.
Crafting Futures in the Silalang sub-district near Pua, Thailand. This area is surrounded by forested mountains which provide communities and women artisans with the source materials for their natural dyes.  ©

Simon Mills

As the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations, we believe it is important to examine how the British Council can contribute to major global initiatives, turning to national and international policy frameworks for guidance. 

In the UN Agenda 2030 the primary objective is to end poverty everywhere under the principle of ‘leaving no one behind’. 

To achieve this by 2030, all 193 UN member states (including the UK) committed to implementing 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) at a domestic and international level. The goals are universal and mutually reinforcing, focusing on the five Ps: 

  • people
  • planet
  • prosperity
  • peace
  • partnerships.

To measure progress towards the 17 ambitious goals – including quality education, gender equality, climate action, and peace – each goal has a set of targets and indicators. Nations report to the UN High Level Political Forum through voluntary national reviews, which the UK completed last year.

With ten years left to achieve the goals, what role can the British Council play in contributing to the SDGs at home and overseas?

Since the adoption of the UN Agenda 2030 back in 2015, we have been creating useful new knowledge about the link between cultural relations and the sustainable development goals. 

In 2016, we commissioned a baseline study to look into our portfolio of programmes and the evidence of impact. The same year, we held an exhibition at our London office entitled 'The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Facing up to the big global challenges’, which also travelled to the European Development Days in Brussels. 

Since then, we have conducted specific analysis of SDG 16 on how ‘Cultural relations contributes to peace, justice and stronger institutions’. We also partnered with International Alert to launch a peace perceptions poll, and have produced a briefing on ‘How SDG 16 can help salvage the 2030 Agenda in the wake of COVID-19'.

In September, we shared our report ‘The Missing Pillar: Culture’s contribution to the SDGs’, which aims to highlight the value of arts and culture – as a sector and in its widest sense – for sustainable development. It provides case studies of 11 of our programmes around the world, tackling a variety of issues and cutting across sectors, such as sustainable fashion, creative and inclusive economies, and the protection of cultural heritage in communities and fragile contexts. 

The Cultural Protection Fund, in partnership with the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has awarded over £35 million to 81 projects across 17 different countries in Western Asia and North and East Africa, which foster, safeguard and promote the value of tangible and intangible cultural heritage at risk for social, economic and environmental wellbeing. 

Most recently, we have published a rigorous review of evidence on the role of tertiary education in development. It highlights that post-compulsory education can make a positive contribution to economic and non-economic development in a variety of ways. The study also highlights what more can be done to unlock the power of tertiary education through better understanding of context and stronger local and international collaboration.

What does our research and practice tell us? 

There is recognition that the SDGs are thematically relevant to our cultural relations work, be it in the field of culture, education, youth and skills. 

Partnership is at the heart of what we do, and we share the values of the SDGs of caring for people, planet, prosperity and peace. 

There is therefore clear alignment and further potential for the British Council to contribute to the SDGs as part of the UK’s response and to see them as a framework for cultural relations.

Having said that, although the SDGs advocate for collaboration with the private sector and civil society, the way they are framed can make it challenging for these stakeholders to engage with the aspirational policy goals on a practical and local level.

The language of the SDG targets and indicators are mainly aimed at governments and based on gathering national level statistics and data. Not only is this information difficult to access and capture, it also limits how the wider impact of interventions can be measured, beyond the targets and indicators of a given goal. 

This disconnect between policy and practice affects how nations can gather evidence and report on their achievement of the SDGs in voluntary national reviews and policy plans, largely relying on national statistics and government initiatives. 

How do we bridge the gap, and ensure that the value of our cultural relations work with societies, economies and the environment is better understood?

Our research indicates several ways to link activity at a local level with global policies, including through:

  • ensuring better access to the SDGs: by becoming more familiar with the SDGs, organisations like the British Council can align our work with the goals and find common language to demonstrate the relevance and shared values of our global cultural engagement. This approach requires an understanding of the different contexts in which we work, and engagement with local stakeholders to develop solutions that are inclusive and sustainable
  • gathering better evidence: whilst thematic alignment to the SDGs may seem obvious, more can be done to measure the value of cultural relations for social, economic and environmental wellbeing, especially in light of the COVID-19 recovery. Providing examples of how working in partnership through arts, education, youth and skills can contribute to quality education (SDG4), gender equality (SDG5), sustainable cities (SDG11), climate action (SDG13) and peacebuilding (SDG16), will help to facilitate a connection between practice and policy at home and overseas
  • raising more awareness of cultural relations for sustainable development: as advocated in the UN Agenda 2030, it takes a collective effort and systemic approach for humanity to reach these global goals. All parties have a role to play, and platforms and opportunities are needed to hear stories and amplify voices of those who are making an impact at a local level, contributing to achieving the SDGs at a global level.

The Missing Pillar report is avaialble to download below and will be presented at the All Parliamentary Party Group (APPG) on the SDGs on Wednesday 9 December 2020. Register your attendance here.

Mark Stephens, Director Cultural Engagement, British Council 

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