Notes from China: The CIW at the Hangzhou International Congress

Culture: Key to Sustainable Development, Hangzhou International Congress, UNESCO, May 14-17, 2013 

Hangzhou International Congress title slide, May 2013

2015 is fast approaching and it is clear that society will fall far short of achieving the Millennium Development Goals laiout by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The international community is now considering how best to move forward post-2015. UNESCO is working to promote a new approach to human development and progress that integrates culture as a key enabler and driver of inclusive social and economic development – and to this end, brought together 500 people this past month in Hangzhou, China, to discuss and debate an agenda for change.

One key task is to create advocacy and learning tools that highlight the connection between culture and human development. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) was invited to share its perspective and experience as one of the few wellbeing projects that takes culture into account – and I was very honoured to introduce the CIW to this international audience.

The Session – called “Defining Poverty and Measuring Wellbeing” – brought together three different perspectives. Dr. Cristina Ortega Nuere, Director of the Institute of Leisure Studies at the University of Deusto, presented an overview of the use of culture as an indicator of wellbeing and human development.  Our presentation looked at one specific national example (the CIW), the approach that we took in developing the Index, and the position of culture within our Framework. Dr. Michèle Lamont, originally from Canada and now a Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, presented her thoughts about the significance of culture in shaping the experience of poverty and deprivation among marginalized groups.

This was a fascinating session, highlighting the difficulties and potential of efforts such as the CIW to expand our understanding of human progress. Dr. Nuere’s survey of wellbeing projects confirmed the range of approaches to measuring wellbeing and the difficult position that the concept of culture occupies within the context of measurement frameworks and strategy documents.

UNESCO, for example, defines culture as a “set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group” that encompasses not only art and literature, but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. It has created a framework for organizing cultural statistics based on this definition to facilitate the production of comparable international data, but readily acknowledges that the measurement of the economic dimension of culture is more fully developed. The idea of culture as an “enabler” of human development, for example, is not captured here, nor is the idea of “cultural liberty” (i.e., the freedom to choose forms of cultural participation, identity, and lifestyle of value to the individual, without fear of exclusion).

Participants on the panel and in the audience agreed that these different dimensions are essential to understanding culture and its specific contribution to human development. But there was no agreement about how best to represent or track these aspects of culture – or even the place of the subjective perceptions of culture – in measurement frameworks.

Dr. Lamont’s presentation stressed the importance of this work, particularly in relation to poverty reduction. She argued that the poor suffer not only from a lack of resources, but a lack of cultural recognition. And so, we need indicators that assess the degree to which individuals and groups demonstrate or enjoy a proud identity, a sense of collective capability and efficacy, and a collective sense of hope. In essence, we need to focus on the conditions that enable the “transformation of stigmatized identities.” 

In this regard, the audience was very interested in the CIW’s efforts to embrace participation in cultural activities (included under Leisure and Culture) as well as concepts such as sense of belonging and trust (included under Community Vitality). That said, some questioned the focus on individual wellbeing and wondered how this orientation fit with a focus on collective or societal wellbeing. Dr. Nuere highlighted new work taking place in Latin America measuring the vitality of ethnic minorities as promising work along these lines.

Audience members were also very interested in the potential uses of indicator projects such as the CIW. I suggested that indicator projects help to tell community stories, and in so doing, can become extraordinary opportunities or platforms for articulating community aspirations and engaging residents in an ongoing dialogue about the kind of community and country they want. Through the process of creating, producing, and disseminating community stories, connections are forged between residents and communities – the foundation of inclusive human development.  

Hangzhou Declaration title page

The Hangzhou meeting is a successful example of mobilizing energy toward putting culture on the human development agenda. The concluding Declaration will hopefully advance the cause of more effective development frameworks at the global, regional, and local levels in the post-2015 era.

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