By Ian Thomas, Head of Arts Research & Insight

10 November 2023 - 15:30

Two people with long black hair and long sleeved red tops look out to sea.

Photo by Lin Chunyung

Ian Thomas, Head of Arts Research and Insight at the British Council, looks at how to realise the potential of culture and heritage for sustainable development.

In 2020, we published: ‘The Missing Pillar Culture’s Contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals’including an overview of the political and cultural landscape, case studies of our programmes, and recommendations to take forward. As the name suggests, the report presented culture as an overlooked and under-valued element of sustainable development at home and abroad, that should be considered as an equal pillar alongside economic, social, and environmental aspects. 

The response to the report and its resonance for a range of organisations prompted us to commission a follow-up piece of research: ‘The Missing Foundation: Culture’s Place Within and Beyond the UN Sustainable Development Goals’

As a report, we hope it will be as significant, as forward-thinking, and as well-timed as the original. It encourages arts and cultural organisations to consider not just their contribution to sustainable development, but the opportunity for culture to be more of an engine for long-lasting change. It is an imaginative and forward-thinking piece that challenges understanding of ‘development’ as a concept. It suggests a re-appraisal of the way programmes are designed and evaluated, and a re-think of the narrative and the framing of cultural programmes. 

The new report highlights the foundational role of culture in driving sustainable development, within and beyond the parameters set by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It provides insights tailored for policymakers and practitioners operating at the intersection of cultural and developmental spheres. The UN SDGs are a useful framework for culture in terms of accessing funding, visibility, and attracting cross-sectoral collaborators.

Culture and heritage can be positioned to create the conditions for local understanding and applications of sustainable development to happen. Including through arts-based approaches and cultural heritage, which can help to renegotiate relationships with self, others, and the planet, ultimately increasing the capacity for positive change in our communities. 

Culture and heritage can also create conditions for human-centred development. The human development approach looks for people to be the driving force for their development within their communities, it seeks to expand their capabilities and freedoms, focusing on what they can be and what they can do. From this perspective, as an enabler of development, culture and heritage is more than a means to an end; it enhances people’s capabilities in a much deeper and broader sense. Highlighting the importance of culture and heritage encourages people and institutions to look beyond the immediate future and place themselves within the longer narratives of what has been received from past generations and what will be left to future generations. Taking culture and heritage as a starting point for change is a means of promoting culturally diverse visions of development, enabling people to imagine where they might go from here, on the basis of where they have come from.

An example, as seen in the Missing Foundation report, is the British Council’s Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth programme, which was designed to leverage the ways in which cultural heritage can contribute to inclusive growth and in which support for local culture can sustainably improve the lives of individuals. Cultural heritage was interpreted in its widest sense to be as inclusive and responsive to communities as possible. The programme has reached over 42,000 people and supported over 110 organisations. The people-centred approach of the programme enabled trust-building and bespoke programming that addressed the needs of target populations within each unique country.

In Kenya the programme aimed to promote both social engagement and a wider understanding of how Kenya’s cultural heritage could contribute to economic growth, tourism development, job creation and investment opportunities. To achieve this aim, the Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth Kenya team has worked with local partners to deliver a range of activities, including conducting research, promoting contemporary practice, fostering youth participation and funding local projects.

In collaboration with the British Council, HEVA established the Cultural Heritage Seed Fund, a short-term fund dedicated to culture heritage entrepreneurs and small businesses in Kenya through a facility looking to support the seeding of dynamic creative industry projects, which pioneer new ways of creating inclusive and sustainable growth through the sharing and preservation of Kenya’s cultural heritage. The Cultural Heritage Seed Fund was a hybrid finance model (both grants and loan-based) tailor-made to the needs of each grantee to facilitate a more sustainable business framework for the entrepreneur or cultural practitioner. The fund was intended to foster inclusive development of cultural communities working in music, film, fashion, crafts, gaming and performing arts, as well as tourism projects that promote and protect heritage. 

The British Council’s work around cultural heritage and sustainable development is rooted in its practical collaborations with partners around the world. This practice is generating learning and evidence which the British Council shares more widely. As part of this aim, the Cultural Protection Fund is delivering a What Works Cultural Heritage Protection programme designed to support better outcomes for heritage protection and local communities, by bringing the best available evidence to practitioners and other decision-makers across the international heritage protection sector. The programme is sharing and translating research, decision-making approaches, best practices, and lessons learned and is promoting further collaboration, all contributing to a more coordinated impact across the heritage and development sectors.

The British Council’s contribution to development can be distinguished by two features of its work. The first of these is cultural relations. Taking a cultural relations approach to development supports values of openness, tolerance, and mutual respect, and lends itself to a people-centred approach, to listening, learning, and reflecting together. This approach recognizes local contexts and needs, and values arts, culture, and heritage for sustainable development.

The second is the organisation’s capacity – through its global network of offices and its connections to civil society organisations – to work directly with people around the world to bring about practical change over time, connecting the global and the local. This is achieved and can be seen through programmes such as the Cultural Protection Fund, Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth and Our Shared Cultural Heritage.


Further reading

Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth Essay Collection and launch video 

The Missing Foundation: Culture's place within and beyond the SDGs  

Evaluating The Cultural Protection Fund 


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