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Global Sustainable Security: Promoting Cultural Heritage for Resilient Societies — december 15, 2016

Global Sustainable Security: Promoting Cultural Heritage for Resilient Societies

At a ceremony at the UN Headquarters on 12 December 2016, Antonio Guterres was sworn in as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations. What kind of leadership will he provide on the all-important security issues? Given his experience as the prime minister of a small European country and as a longstanding UN official – most recently devoted to problems of migration and refugees – will he be a traditionalist or will he embrace some of the broader agendas promoted by the UN?

Roughly a year before the inauguration of Guterres, the international community released the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will guide the international development agenda for the next 15 years. It is a blueprint and a call for international organizations, NGOs, private companies, states and individuals to ‘free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet’. The ambitious 17 goals and 169 targets issued in a 35 page document range from improving global health, and building resilience to climate change, to creating sustainable consumption and strengthening international coordination. The SDGs are designed around the three E’s of sustainability: the environment, the economy and equity.

The term ‘development’ in the SDG directs our attention to the developing world, and the term ‘sustainable’ directs our attention to the classical interaction between humans and nature. What they do not do, is direct our attention to emerging security concerns in a globalized age. While not advocating the securitization of global development, it can be helpful to think about SDGs through the lens of human, societal and environmental security. In the words of Ashok Swain they represent ‘global sustainable security’ (Swain 2013). Resource scarcity, climate change, pollution, water scarcity and internally displaced people directly or indirectly challenge the survival and endurance of social, ecological and political systems.

This challenge has at least two dimensions. First, an unsustainable world economy and ecological system increases the likelihood of violent conflict. A neoliberal global economy that encourages over consumption, population growth, and increasing levels of urbanization, places severe stress on nonrenewable resources, such as water aquifers and fossil fuels as well as food production, which can lead to inter- and intra-state conflict.

Second, the referent object of security is no longer limited to the survival of the state but now includes the individual, the environment, values, ideology and religious beliefs. Traditional aspects of security, such as territorial disputes, now exist in a more complex and wider threat environment. This is by no means an intellectual fad; it is real and it is inescapable. The annexation of Crimea, an emerging global coalition against ISIS, regional tensions over the Spratly islands, the migrant crisis, the containment of Ebola, natural hazards and terror attacks in Brussels and Paris reflect just some of the threats that make up this complex system of global risk.

This dark side of globalization paints a depressing picture for the future of the human race. ‘Top-down’ solutions through increased international coordination and cooperation on global sustainable security is certainly helpful, but it remains doubtful if this alone can provide any profound change to existing threats. Instead, ‘bottom-up’ initiatives that strengthen the long-term resilience of societies are needed. Individuals and societal groups need to be better equipped to mitigate risk and respond to crises. But how can a community of people effectively resist disorder, ‘bounce back’ or adapt from catastrophe?

One method is to invest in social capital by promoting accessible forms of music, art, sport and dance. Studies have shown that investment in tangible (public places, museums, libraries) and intangible (rituals, festivities, carnival) cultural heritage can produce increased level of social trust, common values, a ‘sense of place, local pride and sense of belonging’ (Murzyn-Kupisz & Dzialek 2013). Increasing social trust and a sense of self-worth can modify temporal perceptions of risk from short-term thinking to a holistic understanding of risk whereby society emphasises the need to invest in the future to preserve the present and past. Like the Swedish NGO, Star for Life (that promotes an anti-HIV/AIDS education scheme based on encouraging students to realise their future potential in Southern Africa), cultural heritage can help individuals forge a definite and positive view of the future where aspirations can be fulfilled. This universal approach towards societal resilience is reflected in the opening paragraphs of the SDGs, which aims to ‘ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.’

Cultural heritage provides not only a vehicle for self-recognition as a society, but also provides a mirror for society to manage the past and to discuss, mould and create their own identity through critical reflection. It provides an important tool for cultivating cultural depth, the inclusion of different cultural perspectives, and thus a stronger sense of self worth as a society. If this can be achieved, resilience to global and local threats will follow as an intrinsic desire to preserve contemporary social memory. This will translate into thinking in the future and thus allow for a change in social mind-sets towards preparing and preventing for future contingencies.

The survival and endurance of social, ecological and political systems will not be enhanced if individuals lack a credible sense of self-worth and thus a bleak vision of the future. Creative solutions are needed to create sustainable security for developed and developing states. This can be at least partly achieved by emphasising what we already have: innovation and humanity.

In light of the incredibly diverse range and profound threats that pervade the world – from the ongoing conflict in Syria to extreme poverty, climate change and the trafficking of persons – the promotion of cultural heritage is unlikely to be at the top of Guterres’ to-do list. Yet, if a central part of UN’s mandate is to achieve long term change that contributes to peace and stability by addressing the root causes of conflicts, then attention must also be placed on cultural heritage as a source of security. This is not easily done. It requires fortitude, foresight, courage, and determination to re-orientate perspectives on security. We now expectantly turn our gaze toward Guterres to see if these leadership qualities manifest themselves in promoting a more resilient and secure world.

Simon Hollis

Swain, Ashok. (2013) Understanding Emerging Security Challenges: Threats and Opportunities. Oxon: Routledge.

Murzyn-Kupisz, M. & Działek, J., (2013). Cultural heritage in building and enhancing social Capital, Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development 3 (1), 35-54.


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