The year in review: Culture’s vital role for sustainability in an increasingly fragile world

IFACCA - International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies,
13 December 2023, International

As we reflect on the year 2023 and the vital role of culture, our world stands as ‘an immense, complex, unequal, divided, distressed, and beleaguered place, primarily due to the climate crisis and far too many armed conflicts’ — a testament to the challenges defining our fragile present times, echoing the sentiments of Simon Brault, former Chair of IFACCA and then CEO and Director of the Canada Council for Arts and Culture.

We observe that in the context of polycrisis, culture has been increasingly recognised as a key to shaping global solutions. Here, we provide some key policy actions and global developments that occurred in 2023 and identify potential shifts likely to take place in 2024.


Reclaiming the role of culture in sustainable development

2023 marks the midpoint in implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda, prompting extensive discussions on progress and prospects. Culture’s role in driving sustainable development gained political recognition, aligning with the MONDIACULT Declaration. Signed by 150 Culture Ministers in September 2022, the Declaration called for culture's recognition as a global public good and a standalone sustainable development goal. The MONDIACULT plea echoed in the recently published UNESCO’s report on culture and sustainable development and was reflected in several high-level statements, such as the EU Cultural Ministers’ Cáceres Declaration and the Doha Declaration on the Renewal of Cultural Action, adopted by the 12th Conference of Ministers of Culture in Islamic World, and finally, the Emirates Declaration on Cultural-based Climate Action, adopted at the High-Level Ministerial Dialogue on Culture-based Climate Action organised at COP28.

Importantly, acknowledgement has also come from beyond government portfolios responsible for culture. The UN Secretary General declared ‘culture as a global public good’, highlighting the lack of recognition of culture’s role in SDG progress, and the UN Political Declaration of the high-level political forum on sustainable development referred to culture as an ‘enabler of sustainable development’. Finally, the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, a statement by heads of states, emphasised the urgency of recognising culture as a sustainable development goal.

This recognition resonated with the growing evidence of culture’s value. The UNCTAD report revealed creative economy, the world’s fastest-growing sectors, as crucial to development, particularly for developing economies, as they export more creative goods than developed ones. The Inter-American Development Bank's report highlighted the creative economy's high growth rates in the region, and the European Commission’s study emphasised culture's value for cohesion and civic engagement. The unprecedented post-pandemic focus on the contribution of culture to people’s wellbeing and health resulted in many research projects, such as the WHO research series on the health benefits of the arts.


Structural deficiencies in the cultural ecosystem

As UNESCO's report on the implementation of the 1980 Recommendation on the Status of the Artist reveals, the political recognition of culture grows, but the cultural sector remains fragile. In 2023, as one of the post-pandemic developments, the policy focus has shifted from measuring the external benefits of culture to understanding the issues faced by CCSs. 

Amidst global turmoil, attention also turned to artistic freedom. Our World Summit on Arts and Culture, convened in May 2023 with the Swedish Arts Council in Stockholm to explore the theme Safeguarding Artistic Freedom, highlighted that the reality of polycrisis threatens artistic freedom in various countries across the globe, including those that have traditionally excelled in safeguarding rights. UNESCO’s report Defending Creative Voices, which was presented at the Summit, placed specific focus on the situation of artists in emergency context, revealing shrinking civic space and limitations on artistic freedom in the situation of conflict and other emergencies.

The Summit featured precarity of working conditions in CCSs as another barrier to the exercise of artistic freedom. Regional studies, like the EU Report on Working Conditions and the ILO paper on the African cultural and creative economy, as well as national reports, such as those published in Finland and New Zealand, unveiled multiple gaps in protection systems and factors undermining sustainability of careers in the arts. Cultural workers’ problems have not only been revealed by studies, but also by real life events, such as the first shutdown of Hollywood in the last 63 years, due to actors’ and writers’ strike over wages and the threats posed by artificial intelligence (AI).


Shifting from declarative acknowledgement to tangible recognition

The increased recognition of culture’s value and awareness about gaps in regulatory systems made it clear that declarative acknowledgement of culture must go hand in hand with tangible recognition of its value. This was the transition we advocated for in our Dossier prepared for MONDIACULT. In 2023, the world has seen many signs of such tangible recognition, for instance, the development of frameworks for artists’ insurance (Jamaica), and laws on artists’ status (Spain), enhancement of artistic freedom (Malta), and social protection (Seychelles). Some countries introduced initiatives supporting sustainability of jobs in CCSs, such as Saudi Arabia’s programme to boost cultural employment. The European Parliament proposed to establish an EU-wide Framework for working conditions, which would include a new legislation and a platform for exchange. The issues of ethical behaviour and workplace safety standards were addressed by several new actions, such as the establishment of the Creative Workplaces in Australia and the Creative Industries Independent Standards Authority in the UK.  Moreover, this is also an opportunity to look at what local governments are doing to advance this cause such as UCLG’s Culture Summit in Dublin in November titled: Culture. Future. Goal. We Act to Bring Local Visions to Global Tables.


Vigilance and urgent action in the digital space

The digital realm has also been an area of many changes. While digitalisation offers opportunities for business and artistic growth, there is also a heightened awareness of associated risks, as emphasised in UNESCO's recent Guidelines for the Governance of Digital Platforms. This year, significant strides were taken globally to strengthen copyright frameworks, including the Copyright Act in Nigeria, the new music policy in Pakistan, and the establishment of a new agency for intellectual property rights in Egypt. The rapid progress of AI prompted a vigilant response from lawmakers, policymakers, and the cultural sector. There is a growing recognition of economic, social, and ethical concerns related to AI, along with a call to enhance transparency and oversight, as reflected in UNESCO's Policy Paper on AI Foundation Models, the European Parliament's first regulation on AI, and the African Union's draft Artificial Intelligence Continental Strategy. This vigilance demonstrates an increasing acknowledgement of the vulnerabilities of CCSs and the commitment to safeguarding culture's values.

As we journey towards the UN Summit of the Future in 2024 and the UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development in 2025 as well as plan and develop IFACCA’s own actions, the ongoing efforts to prioritise culture in key national and international policy agendas remain essential for shaping a sustainable future where cultural diversity and artistic vibrancy thrive. Anticipating important developments, we will continue providing you with the key cultural policy updates from around the world. Watch this space...


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