Indonesian dancers
Indonesian dancers

BALI, INDONESIA |  Believe it or not, culture remains a vague concept in the area of sustainable development. Governments around the world have been acknowledging the strategic role of the power of culture in sustainable development, but at present culture has not yet offered a clear, actionable alternative pathway.

This has been true in the Philippines where the current administration has deployed the Commission of Filipinos Overseas to organize global seminars on the role of culture and education in migration and development. I spoke at one of these seminars in 2011.

The question of culture’s role in sustainable development arises again in Indonesia this month. From November 24 to 27 November 2013, the Indonesian government is hosting a “World Culture Forum: The Power of Culture in Sustainable Development.”

As is typical of these so-called high powered conferences, officials at the Indonesian ministry of culture and education are bringing out the impressive guns as speakers: Amartya Sen, Chancellor, Nalanda University, India (Nobel Laureate for Economic Sciences); H.E. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO; and journalist Fareer Zakaria. Meanwhile, cultural operators and individual artists themselves are barely mentioned on the website.

For complex reasons, I am unconvinced that this World Culture Forum will actually go anywhere. Merely outlining who the speakers are, the stated intentions of the meeting and the abstract nature of the expected outcomes in this post will illustrate why.

According to the website, which you can visit here, the conference was organized as a direct response to a 2011 call by the United Nations General Assembly asking for “a more visible and effective integration and mainstreaming of culture into development policies and strategies at all levels.”

No less than the President of Indonesia himself, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is spearheading this forum, whose anticipated outcomes will circle around these ideas:

  • New pathways for locating culture as an integral part of sustainable development
  • Ethical frameworks for ensuring community engagement and stakeholder benefits
  • New participatory models for promoting cultural democracy
  • Draft frameworks for evidence based measuring of sustainable cultural development
  • Strategic inputs into the framing of Sustainable Development Goals in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

The World Culture Forum is envisaged, says the Indonesian government, “as an arena for sharing experiences, strengthening meaningful relationships, appreciating cultural diversity and fostering policies that enable local and national cultural communities to flourish in an age of unprecedented globalization.”

The intent here is purely governmental, which is the first issue: “Culture must become an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the post-2015 Development Agenda.” In other words, this is a meeting that hopes to include culture in a post-2015 agenda.

The key word here is “include.” That verb is precisely my problem with governmental efforts such as this World Culture Forum. Politicians in the UN General Assembly perceive a disparity; they find it ironical that among the countries of the South, there has been a “continuous growth and prosperity in the domain of culture” even though the world has experienced any number of debilitating financial crises.

“This is the most significant indicator in considering the paradigm shift from the persistent deficit model of culture in development to an affirmative and empowering approach where creativity, knowledge, culture and technology are drivers of job creation, innovation and social inclusion,” the organizers explain.

The United Nations’s definition of sustainable development actually does not include culture among its main thrusts. The UN is interested in jobs, energy, cities, food, water, oceans and disasters. Culture, so far, is something to be slotted somewhere in the agenda list. Indonesia’s World Culture Forum is fundamentally flawed because it wants to insert or include or consider culture as an aspect that might encourage sustainability, which is defined as “a decent standard of living for everyone today without compromising the needs of future generations.” It sees culture as “marginalized,” rather than central or basic, like food and water. Culture is an activity somewhere over there. How can we graft it for our purposes?

I am not convinced that the leading international agencies and so-called critical thinkers who will be engaged in the symposia in Bali are actually the real innovators who will produce a paradigm shift in the cultural section. In my experience, politicians, commentators, journalists and leaders of international agencies often consider culture as mere add-ons to their other agenda. They have not spent serious time studying culture. They barely participate in it, except when they see a movie or go to a concert. They see culture as something that might decorate or merely promote the richness and diversity of world cultures. Something bourgeois. Culture is not a social program worthy unto itself. And that is why this World Culture Forum, while laudable, will simply go nowhere in particular, if not fail, even if they finally figure out some way of agreeing about how to talk about culture.

Note how culture’s artifacts are less-significant asides to the political agenda. As the World Culture Forum in Indonesia has been devised, the real meat consists of too-broad swathes of undefined topics:

  • Holistic Approaches to Culture in Development
  • Civil Society and Cultural Democracy
  • Creativity and Cultural Economics
  • Culture in Environmental Sustainability
  • Sustainable Urban Development
  • Inter-Faith Dialogue and Community Building

As for the cultural programming itself, there will be a film festival showcasing national and international films from all the Bali Forum participating countries. “This festival is also aimed to support Indonesia’s cultural image and to demonstrate the professionalism and variety of the Indonesian film industry both in its output and for Indonesia as a location for film production by international companies,” according to the government website.

There is also a World Ethnic Music Festival that presents various kinds of world ethnic music, which involve many countries: USA (Hawai), Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Australia, India, South Africa (Cape Town), United Arab Emirates (Dubai) as the participants. It will takes place at Art Center Denpasar from November 25 to 27, 2013.

There is no mention of what films will be shown, who are the musicians who will perform, or how the films and ethnic music connect with the larger discussion. Beyond awareness and entertainment.

It is too easy to get cultured, too simple to seed it but too difficult to tend to it. Because these films and world ethnic music are intended as promoting a country’s cultural image to the rest of the world (the surface definition of “soft power” in a nutshell), I seriously doubt that the un-sustainability of culture in these countries of the South will actually be linked to basic questions of equity, fairness, and social justice. I seriously doubt that these so-called critical thinkers will actually model for us how culture gives us greater access to a better quality of life.

Fareed Zakaria, for example, is an amazing intellectual and thinker, but he is not my go-to-expert for models of cultural sustainability. Nothing in his entire body of work has proven to me that he has been deeply invested in real culture, except as cultural frictions related to politics and journalism. I am sure he can speak about corporate culture, organizational culture and political culture as resources for competitive advantage. But has he ever put forward initiatives and efforts that deal with public and private investment in the arts? A major focus of state art strategies is strengthening tourism., but has he ever undertaken a journalistic investigation that questions how effectively states have stimulated markets for artistic goods?

I do not mean to single Zakaria out. Numerous politicians, policy experts, UN officials, so-called business leaders, and sustainability experts have a blinkered and non-integrative view of how culture works in society. Everyone knows that by investing in the arts and incorporating arts and culture into their economic development plans, countries can reap numerous benefits — economic, social, civic, and cultural — that help generate a more stable, creative workforce; new tourism; and more livable communities. But as long as cultural sustainability is framed in terms of promotion, national image, tourism and economic advantage alone, there will never be a true paradigm shift.

Why? Because strong cultures remain merely instrumental drivers for other political aims and not worthy outcomes to pursue and develop on their own. –rg

Indonesian male dancers
Indonesian male dancers
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