Image of UN office New York
Single Form: Hepworth at the UN. Photo by Stefan Schulze ©

Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under licence and adapted from the original.

June 2019

Kate Arthurs, British Council Director Arts, was invited by the UN General Assembly and UNESCO to speak at the United Nations on behalf of the UK about how culture can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals by supporting poverty reduction, innovation, and social change. The following is an edited version of her speech.

From Hierarchy to Network

…The British Council is a cultural relations organisation with a long history of fostering exchange with over 100 countries worldwide. It believes in the transformative power of creativity, culture, and heritage to contribute to the sustainable development of our economies, societies, and environments.  It works with artists, cultural and heritage bodies, civil society organisations, and governments – always in partnership. 

I like to describe the way the British Council networks as the opposite of Facebook: it connects people with other people they would not otherwise know, and builds trust between them

JP Singh’s recent report on culture and sustainable development – launched globally in the US last month – talks about the idea of moving from hierarchy to network. I like to describe the way the British Council networks as the opposite of Facebook: it connects people with other people they would not otherwise know, and builds trust between them. It tries to use its networks and long-term understanding of the contexts of all those countries it works with to create much more sustainable outcomes. British resources and know-how play a critical, but never dominant role. 

For example, heritage in development is very important to the UK’s international policy agenda and to the British Council. It unites the ministries of culture and development in a shared agenda. A prime example is the £30 million Cultural Protection Fund, which the British Council manages, giving grants to 51 partnership projects that harness innovation and bring about social change, whilst protecting heritage at risk from conflict. Projects like supporting Turquoise Mountain Trust’s activities in the historic centre of Kabul, where it has completed a design centre and a new curriculum, with hundreds of people learning jewellery making, gem cutting, and calligraphy, thanks to which local artisans have generated over $2 million.  

Another example is Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth: a programme the British Council is testing in three countries to share and preserve local cultural heritage, whilst contributing to social and economic development. In Vietnam, for example, this is about protecting and reviving music and film heritage at risk, by bringing together masters, communities, and artists. The UK is well placed to share its expertise in heritage and culture for mutual benefit around the world.

A Cultural Relations Approach

The cultural relations approach that the British Council takes through programmes like these is people-centred, locally led, and relies on relationships on equal terms with our partners. As one of the most rapidly expanding economic sectors worldwide, the creative industries can make a direct contribution to economic growth. Equally, strengthening social capital and cohesion is vital for communities to thrive. That’s why the British Council prefers to talk about ‘inclusive growth’, rather than poverty reduction.

Cultural relations can also work well to address social change. For example, Women of the World, which the British Council partners, is changing the attitudes of men and women towards gender roles through festivals, performance, storytelling and ‘speed mentoring’ (a new concept to me, but a very effective one).  

Again, when politics are difficult between countries, culture connects peoples better than anything. This year, for example, the British Council is delighted to help maintain and strengthen the cultural ties between the UK and Russia through our involvement in the Russia UK Year of Music – the latest of several recent cultural seasons that have kept open a positive dialogue between the two countries.

There is nothing like culture to bring people together. You can see that here, too: I am delighted to discover that there is a lot of art in the UN, gifted by member states. This includes Barbara Hepworth’s biggest-ever sculpture

There is nothing like culture to bring people together. You can see that here, too: I am delighted to discover that there is a lot of art in the UN, gifted by member states. This includes Barbara Hepworth’s biggest-ever sculpture - she was a friend of the then-Secretary General. Hepworth’s work features in our own British Council art collection, too, which the organisation takes overseas to share with audiences around the world.

Everything the British Council does benefits our partner countries – with tangible and evidenced sustainable development - and also benefits the UK, by connecting the people of the UK with the people of other nations. Ultimately it is about building trust. 

Kate Arthurs, Director Arts, British Council

See also

External links