Beyond universalism

Published on 06 July 2023 Go back to The ACU Review
A collage of an abstract landscape

By sidelining culture’s essential contribution to development, the SDGs risk replicating the same systems of structural inequality they seek to address.

By Kylie Message, Australian National University

At the heart of humanities research is the understanding that there is a cultural – that is a human, contextualised, even messy and contested – element to every aspect of life. But while the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are also concerned with human life, the humanities are largely absent from their framework.

In this article, I hope to show that the humanities can offer forms of learning and produce knowledge that make a substantial contribution to an improved global future fashioned from more ethical approaches to decision-making across all levels and forms of governance. I steer away from the language of ‘applied humanities’, and advocate instead for the terms ‘public humanities or 'public culture research’ to indicate a dialogue-based model of engaged research that can lead to an expanded knowledge of human cultures: what binds us together and what differentiates us – as individuals and as members of diverse communities and life-worlds.

The missing pillar

The Sustainable Development Goals promote the idea that increased interconnections between ‘people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership’ offer a pathway by which governments, intergovernmental organisations, civil society groups, and NGOs can approach the fight against poverty, inequality, hunger, and climate change.

People and human wellbeing are centrally positioned within Agenda 2030 – the global framework supporting the SDGs – as is the accompanying but inherent assumption that ‘culture’ is fundamental to achieving the goals. But while there is some potential for understanding the contribution of culture through the agenda’s third pillar of society/social responsibility, the acknowledgement of culture’s contributions is limited. In fact, there is only one explicit reference to culture in the SDGs, presented in the context of heritage under SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.

The British Council has argued that culture is the ‘missing pillar of the 2030 agenda. Because culture shapes and gives expression to the ways we understand and make meaning from our lives, it argues that culture should ground all approaches for people-centred development: ‘Culture is the glue that binds humanity together: from our traditions and practices passed down to us over generations; to our creative expression of the world around us; and our innovative imagination of the future, culture is all around us. And yet, in the UN Agenda 2030 there is no specific goal on culture. It is not formally recognised alongside the three pillars of development — social, economic and environmental’.

Advocacy campaigns around the world have added to the chorus of voices calling for the explicit recognition of culture in the SDGs and future goals. These calls culminated at the UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development in Mexico last year, when 150 states adopted a declaration calling on the UN to ‘firmly anchor culture as a global public good and to integrate it as a specific goal in its own right in the development agenda beyond 2030’.

Missing and marginalised

The people-centred pathways and outcomes of the 2030 Agenda have also been widely criticised by many Indigenous Peoples for sidelining culture as a dimension of development. While all 17 goals are relevant to many concerns expressed by Indigenous communities, there are only six direct references to Indigenous Peoples. The Agenda’s marginalisation of Indigenous Peoples parallels its representation of culture: both are presented as fundamental to all development processes and yet do not feature explicitly in the agenda itself.

Some Indigenous Peoples have supported the demands for culture to be recognised as the fourth pillar of sustainable development and are developing their own indicators to inform their development needs. Other Indigenous researchers reject outright the legitimacy of the SDGs on the grounds that, as the University of Tasmania’s Jen Evans argues, they ‘produce, protect, and perpetuate ongoing colonisation, White privilege and possession, and ultimately harm Indigenous Peoples, their country and homelands’.

Reflecting the UN’s bias toward the global north and ‘a priori’ governance structures, the agenda repeats the damaging presumption that the wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples will be improved by adopting the values and practices embodied within the SDGs. But in promoting these externally-determined measures, the agenda takes as its point of authority the governance teams that develop implementation and reporting frameworks, rather than the individuals and communities that should be recognised for having agency based on their knowledge of, and connections with, cultural identity, cultural practice, language, and ownership of traditional country.

This paternalistic approach fails to acknowledge that member states do not always represent the interests of their constituents equally and that there is often an implicit, if not explicit, bias towards the view of governments over people, especially minorities. It prevents meaningful, respectful engagement with Indigenous Peoples and their homelands as equal sovereigns. This approach cannot acknowledge conceptions of self-determination or accommodate a broader framework based on the relational aspects of self-determination connected to the natural world, human collectives, and sustainability.

Section of quilted artwork inspired by NASA photos of the Earth from space

‘A gulf of incomprehension’

The absence of culture, the cultural sector, and the concerns of Indigenous Peoples in the SDGs result from the structural assumptions about knowledge and governance that the goals’ creators employed. Beyond the primary lack of engagement with, and recognition of, diverse peoples, communities, practices and issues that these gaps represent, however, exist a slate of problems arising from the agenda’s monitoring and reporting systems. These additional problems occur because the SDGs’ indicators reproduce the perspective, interests, and frameworks, as well as the underlying political and financial power, of those who produced them.

Without culturally relevant indicators – designed by and with targeted communities – national SDG reporting efforts will be inaccurate. The indicators and results may appear detached from human experience, as if they are relevant to another cohort or person. Inappropriate indicators will produce distorted data sets and skewed results. Worse, they can create perverse outcomes where communities or practitioners adopt ill-conceived goals to receive financial or other benefit.

In 2010, France’s then president, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke of the risks of accepting information as neutral. Treating data as objective, he remarked, ‘as if they are external to us, beyond question or dispute, is undoubtedly reassuring and comfortable’. But, he cautions: 'It is dangerous because we get to the point where we stop asking ourselves about the purpose of what we are doing, what we are actually measuring, and what lessons we need to draw. This is how we begin to create a gulf of incomprehension between the expert certain in his knowledge and the citizen whose experience of life is completely out of sync with the story told by the data.’

Sarkozy’s comments are consistent with recommendations made by campaigns advocating for greater recognition in the SDGs of Indigenous concerns and culture alike. To create some remediation for the missing ‘culture’ goal, the British Council recommends embedding the SDGs in the delivery of cultural initiatives developed from local needs and values as articulated by local communities. Assessing the impact of these initiatives would be measured according to an also locally-generated framework. The Council’s argument is based on its belief that sustainability can only be progressed where communities, local actors, and cross-cutting needs and ecosystems are centrally positioned and recognised as expert and authoritative holders of knowledge.

Structural neglect

The exclusion of substantive meaningful references to either Indigenous Peoples or to culture (these terms are not synonymous) compounds the effect that the SDGs present human behaviour as a problem to be corrected. In noting this assumption, a 2022 report from the UK Institute of Advanced Studies, The SDGs: Contributions from the Humanities, argues that Agenda 2030 ‘relies on reductionist views of motivation and focuses on individuals to the neglect of the wider economic, political and social structures which they inhabit’. This false dichotomy pairs culture with otherness. It suggests that humans can have power or culture, but never both. As cultural custodians, Indigenous Peoples are rendered powerless twice over. In addition, this framing cannot recognise the reality that culture produces politics.

This important critique reveals that Agenda 2030’s lack of self-reflexivity and self-examination replicates historical systems of structural inequality. It shows how the SDGs extend the enduring legacy of structural racism and bigotry whereby Indigenous Peoples and anyone who does not conform with ‘standard’ models are seen as outliers by the measures applied to them.

'Stories can give power – or take it away’

A third oversight in the 2030 Agenda is acknowledgment of the contribution that humanities can make to sustainable development. The absence is not just apparent in what the SDGs address, but in how they have been formulated. In other words, the methodologies that comprise humanities and humanities-related research in culture and development fields, as well as in approaches to decolonising knowledge, are invisible in the agenda.

The absence of the humanities in the SDGs further undercuts the goals’ capacity to engage accurately with under-represented areas. It suggests the agenda is out of touch even with privileged mainstream populations across the world who, in their activation for or against the ‘culture wars’, also assert the importance of history, culture, and identity to all.

At its broadest, the humanities includes all disciplines and interdisciplinary fields of knowledge that primarily use qualitative methods to study the human cultures, practices, and products of the past, present, and future. It does not provide a single cut-and-paste template for communicating research outputs. Instead, it offers an ever-expanding set of tools to help people question baked-in assumptions, or to identify the most pressing research questions for any given problem.

Increasingly collaborative and multidisciplinary, the humanities draw from advanced understandings about complex and diverse sets of knowledges and information to deal with human culture or look at the implications for human life of even the hardest of ‘hard’ scientific research. Characterised by a commitment to critical thinking and contextualised knowledge, the humanities often also interrogate academia’s own meaning-making practices and governance structures.

Doing this well requires us to ‘become better critics and listeners, more careful about what we take in and who’s telling it, and what we believe and repeat, because stories can give power – or they can take it away’. Although this statement was written by writer and historian Rebecca Solnit to reflect on current challenges to climate activism, it can help illustrate the problems arising from the SDGs. Without the attention Solnit advises, the narrow language and indicators of the 2030 Agenda will lead to decontextualised outcomes that are ‘hemmed in by stories that prevent us from seeing, or believing in, or acting on the possibilities for change’.

A humanities approach can help us understand that the SDGs are also a form of storytelling, with frameworks and desired outcomes that are neither neutral nor objective. This argument that all structural forms of knowledge are types of storytelling resonates with the position presented in the Institute for Advanced Study’s Contributions from the Humanities report: ‘The humanities offer a vast reservoir of parallels and examples of human behaviour, across time and space, which can help us to think about probable outcomes and to imagine new possibilities.’

Challenging assumptions

Understanding human behaviour across time and space might mean listening enough to find a way to talk to someone who holds different views to you. It might involve creating a safe space for empathy and education, or for collaboration, or translation, or entering a space that is unfamiliar or that challenges your own assumptions.

It can mean speaking across – often with the intention to challenge – faceless institutions and infrastructures of established and historically embedded ideological norms. It also requires identifying and activating spaces of recognition and ethical engagement between people who occupy different power relations in different contexts.

This work is undoubtedly difficult, because, as Canadian anthropologist, Cara Krmpotich explains, it involves the complex challenge of understanding ‘how to bring people together around a common interest without assuming what people’s objectives, values, and priorities will be’. Understanding culture and human interactions and connections with each other and the environment is central to this work, and the humanities shows us how to do it.

Professor Kylie Message is Director of the Humanities Research Centre and Professor of Public Humanities at Australian National University. She is a Research Fellow of the National Museum of Australia and Director of the Australasian Consortium of Humanities Researchers and Centres.

Images (from top): ‘Of the earth’ , a collage by Keddy Ann Outlaw via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Space to earth series by quilter Judy_and_ed via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

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