Chapitre 10.
Indicators for the measurement
of culture’s contribution
to sustainable development

Jordi Baltà Portolés[1]


This paper discusses the current context and challenges with regard to the design and use of indicators to measure the place of culture in sustainable development, particularly in the framework of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005) and the preparation and approval of the United Nations’ post-2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It examines several global and regional initiatives in this field, and explores the motivation to improve existing knowledge in this area, the challenges encountered and opportunities that can facilitate further progress.


Ce texte porte sur le contexte et les enjeux actuels à l’égard de la conception et de l’usage d’indicateurs de mesure de la place de la culture dans le développement durable, notamment dans le cadre de la Convention de l’UNESCO sur la protection et la promotion de la diversité des expressions culturelles (2005), et dans celui de la préparation et de l’approbation de l’Agenda post-2015 des Nations Unies sur le développement durable. Le texte examine plusieurs initiatives mondiales et régionales dans ce domaine, ainsi que la motivation pour améliorer les connaissances existant dans ce domaine, les enjeux rencontrés et les occasions favorables qui peuvent faciliter le progrès.


In the context of the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (hereinafter referred to as ‘2005 Convention’) and taking account of today’s broader international discussions on the place of culture in sustainable development, this paper aims to address the relevance of information and monitoring systems in this area, as well as the main challenges and opportunities identified to further progress in this field[2].

This initial section presents a set of background contributions and issues which will provide the basis for the subsequent analysis.

International contributions to the measurement of culture and sustainable development

Over the past two decades, several initiatives have stressed the need to improve the architecture of cultural information systems with the aim of, among others, analyzing and stressing the connections between culture and other areas of sustainable development. In the mid-1990s, the World Commission on Culture and Development’s report Our Creative Diversity proposed an international agenda of priority actions, the first element of which was an annual Report on World Culture and Development, with improved indicators as one of its core elements (World Commission on Culture and Development, 1996). That proposal was the basis for both editions of UNESCO’s World Culture Reports (published in 1998 and 2000), which placed emphasis on the importance of cultural indicators and the need to improve cultural information systems. However, it was subsequently discontinued. In parallel, the 1998 Stockholm Action Plan on Cultural Policies for Development also called for strengthening research on cultural policies for development, including the possibility of establishing an observatory of cultural policies[3].

Since the turn of the century, several initiatives are worth mentioning as well: the focus on cultural liberty of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs (UNDPA)’s 2004 Human Development Report (Fukuda-Parr, 2004) ; several publications of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, including the 2009 UNESCO Framework for Cultural Statistics (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2009) ; the three editions of the Creative Economy Report published between 2008 and 2013 by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), UNDPA and UNESCO (e.g. UNDPA and UNCTAD, 2008) ; and the five-volume Cultures and Globalization Series edited by Helmut Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar (e.g. Anheier and Isar, 2007). Relevant initiatives have also been undertaken at the regional level, such as the Observatory of Cultural Policies in Africa (OCPA) and the Ericarts / Council of Europe’s Compendium on Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe[4], which later inspired the WorldCP International Database of Cultural Policies, led by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA) in collaboration with several regional partners[5].

Emerging global initiatives

In recent years, renewed and increased attention has been given to measuring the interaction between culture and other dimensions of sustainable development. This can be seen in part as the result of the lessons learned and expertise gained in previous efforts and the need to bring them together into multidimensional frameworks, as well as the increasing pressure felt by organizations active in the field of culture and sustainable development to provide clear evidence of the relevance of this link, not least in the context of the negotiation of the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda and the accompanying Sustainable Development Goals. This set of strategic objectives and targets accompanied by indicators, which replaces the Millennium Development Goals, was adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit (New York, September 2015) and will provide guidance for global sustainable development policies until 2030.

In the intergovernmental context, a set of publications emerging from the UNESCO Culture for Development Indicators (CDIS) programme was presented in late 2014, following its testing in a dozen countries (see in particular Alonso and Medici, 2014; Cliche, 2014). CDIS focuses on seven policy dimensions which serve to analyze the links between culture and other dimensions of sustainable development, namely economy, education, governance, social participation, gender equality, communication and heritage. The framework is now available for implementation in other countries and could make a substantial contribution to improving national cultural information systems, as well as for awareness-raising and policy development purposes.

Increased attention to the role played by culture in sustainable development and the need for better information systems in this area has also increasingly demonstrated the need for a combination of quantitative and qualitative indicators. This factor, together with the awareness that the integration between culture and sustainable development is particularly experienced at local level and imposes specific requirements on local governments, provided the basis for Culture 21: Actions, a toolkit adopted by the Culture Committee of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) at the ‘Culture and Sustainable Cities’ Summit held in Bilbao in March 2015. This new framework, which builds on the 2004 Agenda 21 for culture, identifies nine thematic engagements (e.g. cultural rights; heritage, diversity and creativity; culture and education; etc.) and 100 specific actions which provide the basis for self-evaluation and peer-learning among local governments and cities interested in improving work in this area, and which will be accompanied by more detailed evaluation and implementation tools (UCLG Culture Committee, 2015).

Civil society has also been increasingly active in calling for the integration of culture in global sustainable development agendas and, in the context of the discussions on the Post-2015 Agenda, has made proposals for improving the knowledge base and integrating specific indicators in this area. The global Culture 2015 Goal campaign, which brings together a number of global networks including the International Federation of Coalitions for Cultural Diversity (IFCDC), IFACCA and UCLG’s Culture Committee, presented in February 2015 a document that proposed indicators to measure the contribution of culture to the objectives and targets that constitute the current draft negotiation of the Post-2015 Agenda[6].

Indicators in the context of the 2005 Convention

The importance of the collection, analysis, dissemination and sharing of information, including indicators, in the context of the 2005 Convention is expressed in particular in articles 9 (which emphasizes information sharing and transparency) and 19 (which addresses the exchange, analysis and dissemination of information) (UNESCO, 2005). The former article introduces the need for Parties to submit quadrennial reports on the measures and policies adopted to implement the Convention. In this context, the Conference of the States Parties to the Convention has approved a common framework to be used by Parties when reporting, including specific indicators both on policies and measures and on the national context regarding the economy of cultural goods and services, cultural production and participation trends (UNESCO, 2015a).

However, recent analyses of the implementation of the 2005 Convention have identified the lack of relevant information on the diversity of cultural expressions as a major challenge. Analysis of the first batch of quadrennial reports submitted in 2012 revealed that he response rate in the statistical annex varied considerably from one question to another and could be improved, mainly due to the absence of available data and information, the latter becoming one of the main obstacles to a better understanding of the development potential offered by the cultural sector[7].

Similarly, an evaluation of the standard-setting effects of the 2005 Convention in policies and legislation found that an important barrier to implementation was the lack of baseline data on cultural policies and cultural industries in some countries to inform evidence-based policy-making, inspire other countries and encourage further ratification (UNESCO, 2014). Concurrently, improving the availability of information and data on cultural policy and the cultural industries at national level (e.g. through national or regional cultural information systems) and the exchange of best practices was identified as an enabling factor for the effective implementation of the Convention (Baltà and UNESCO’s Internal Oversight Service, 2014).

Following this introduction, the next sections will address the motivations, challenges and opportunities identified to improve the design of measurement indicators and the availability of data regarding the place of culture in sustainable development in general as well as, more specifically, in the context of the 2005 Convention. The analysis combines a focus on the global level with a particular focus on the needs of “Global South” countries.

Motivations: why indicators matter

The aforementioned efforts to improve the availability of indicators and data, while diverse, serve to attest the importance given by a wide range of stakeholders in the field of culture to specialised knowledge and measurement. A set of factors can help to explain this importance:

  1. Indicators express ways to analyse and interpret the world and, when applied in a political context, they may contribute to channelling policy discussions, setting priorities, designing policies and measures and allocating resources. To a certain extent, indicators reinforce and express the issues that matter, or at least those that are and will be more visible in the agenda. In this respect, the absence of clear, agreed-upon indicators may be seen as a hindrance to the strengthening of the place of culture in the policy agenda. The strong connection between data availability and policy impulse is particularly visible in the case of quantitative indicators (e.g. GDP and related economic indicators; comparative indexes and rankings, etc.), but qualitative indicators, particularly when agreed upon by several stakeholders and implemented sustainably, could provide increasing guidance for t context analysis and policy design. Some of the aforementioned initiatives, such as UNESCO’s CDIS and UCLG’s Culture 21 Actions, may be seen as a step towards generating a suitable policy framework on the basis of a renewed understanding of the place of culture in sustainable development. It is worth noting that both initiatives have foreseen accompanying advocacy and policy development measures, thus including monitoring in a broader policy cycle.
  2. When accompanied by suitable cultural information systems, and particularly when data collection becomes a permanent, regular feature, indicators provide the basis for the improvement and transfer of information and knowledge. Given the need to improve the understanding of the place of culture in sustainable development and to present illustrative evidence in this respect, indicators should be seen as a structural step towards a better understanding of how cultural aspects are, to use UNESCO’s recent discourse, enablers and drivers of sustainable development, i.e. how they facilitate and provide a context for development, on the one hand, and how they can contribute to economic and social development, environmental sustainability and peace, on the other. Several of the initiatives presented in the previous section, including the 2005 Convention’s quadrennial periodic reports, UNESCO’s CDIS and UCLG’s Culture 21 Actions integrate a visible knowledge-transfer component.
  3. Among stakeholders active in the field of culture and sustainable development, it can be said that the motivation for improving indicators and the knowledge base lies, on the one hand, in the need to share discussions and arguments about key factors in this field and, on the other hand, in the potential unification of priorities and resulting strategies. Ultimately, indicators should express the issues which are seen as most relevant as regards the connection between culture and sustainable development and they will be strengthened if different stakeholders apply compatible research frameworks and are able to present, use and exchange comparable data. Recent efforts such as those conducted by the Culture 2015 Goal campaign, which brings together a diverse range of networks (e.g. those with sectorial interests in music, libraries or heritage, as well as those focusing on specific regions of the world and those which involve civil society actors, local governments and state agencies), can be seen as an expression of this internal learning and priority-setting process, providing a space for the cultural sector to speak with a ‘single’ voice. The development of the UNESCO CDIS framework, which has also seen the involvement of a wide range of experts and national governments, may also be said to result from a similar learning process.
  4. Finally, an objective of external communication may be said to underpin ongoing efforts to improve indicator design and data availability. Indeed, by presenting unified, comparable data, it should be easier to illustrate the importance of cultural aspects in sustainable development and to raise awareness of third parties. General understanding and assertions about the importance of culture in sustainable development have not always been accompanied by adequate, illustrative evidence, hindering the ability to raise awareness of those actors not directly involved in the discussions. Target publics in these awareness-raising initiatives may include policy departments not directly concerned with culture (e.g. economic development, education, social affairs, sustainability), the media and the public at large. A communication and awareness-raising component may be perceived as present in several of the initiatives described earlier, from the Our Creative Diversity report to recent initiatives such as UNESCO’s CDIS and the Culture 2015 Goal campaign.


The efforts made over recent years to improve the design of indicators and availability of data on culture and sustainable development have faced a number of difficulties, which continue to hinder progress in this respect. Some result from the nature or substance of the subject matter, namely the understanding of how cultural aspects meet sustainable development, whereas others concern methodological and resource-related aspects. The main challenges identified are presented hereafter.

  1. An initial difficulty lies in the need to adequately appraise the importance of cultural aspects for sustainable development. On the one hand, there is a consensus that culture is an important factor in sustainable development – this has been expressed in a variety of ways, including Jon Hawkes’ affirmation of culture as the ‘fourth pillar’ of sustainable development (Hawkes, 2001), which has inspired initiatives such as UCLG’s Agenda 21 for culture[8], UNESCO’s understanding of culture as a ‘driver’ and as an ‘enabler’ of development (see e.g. UNESCO, 2013) ; and a set of academic studies which have collected the existing discourses in this field, including the understanding of culture ‘in, for and as’ sustainable development (Dessein et al., 2015). On the other hand, it could be argued that the qualitative, intangible nature of some of the areas in which culture and sustainable development interact (e.g. aspects related to the aesthetic quality of cultural expressions, the self-assertion provided by cultural identity as well as its links with human dignity and social cohesion, among others) renders an objective identification of indicators and evidence difficult – and entails the risk of focusing mainly on those areas for which indicators may be easier to find (e.g. contribution of cultural assets to GDP and employment creation).
  2. Progress in the recognition of how other dimensions of human life play a role in sustainable development has been facilitated either by the agreement on specific indicators which express that sector’s core priorities (e.g. schooling and literacy in the case of education) or the identification of indicators which somehow synthesize information deriving from different variables (e.g. life expectancy in the case of health). Neither of these cases has applied to culture in the past, in part because of the difficulties in finding relevant synthetic indicators (somehow resulting from the aforementioned complex nature of cultural aspects) and in part because of a lack of an agreement on priorities and messages that explain how culture and sustainable development meet – should the focus lie on the existence of cultural infrastructure (and, if so, should it be libraries, museums, theatres, etc. ?), on cultural participation, on non-discrimination and the exercise of cultural liberties, the existence of cultural policies, protection of cultural property, etc., and/or on the impact of culture on other dimensions of development (e.g. economy, education, etc.). The complex nature of cultural aspects may point to the need for a range of indicators covering different dimensions and encompassing the wide range of areas of synergy and levels of interaction with other aspects of sustainable development, as UNESCO’s CDIS and UCLG’s Culture 21 Actions aim to achieve. In any case, it seems necessary to at least reach a consensus on which these dimensions and indicators should be. As the recent efforts of UNESCO’s CDIS and the Culture 2015 Goal campaign show, progress in this context may be helped by the strengthening of global agendas (e.g. the Post-2015 Agenda), as well as increasing maturity and internal collaboration among stakeholders in the cultural sector.
  3. Beyond the design of appropriate indicators, one of the major challenges lies in the ability to collect and use data effectively. Indeed, as shown by the evidence provided by some Parties to the 2005 Convention in their quadrennial reports (as well as the fact that a significant number of Parties have so far failed to submit their reports in time)[9], many countries lack suitable cultural information systems and/or the relevant technical capacity in government (i.e. Ministries of Culture, National Statistics Office) to collect and interpret data relevant to the 2005 Convention and, more broadly, to the relation between culture and sustainable development. Efforts towards capacity-building and the improvement of national cultural information systems have been underway in recent years in the context, among others, of the Thematic Window on Culture and Development of the Millennium Development Goals’ Achievement Fund (see, among others, Baltà Portolés, 2013) and UNESCO’s CDIS, as well as at regional level (e.g. Mercosur’s SICSUR in Latin America)[10]. New initiatives are also planned in the context of the agreement signed in late 2014 between UNESCO and Sweden through the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), which includes support for capacity-building activities in the context of the 2005 Convention.
  4. Finally, it could be argued that a fourth challenge, which stems in part from some of the difficulties identified above, lies in the need to accompany indicators with narratives which could be understood by other actors and the broader public, in order to illustrate clearly how culture matters for sustainable development. Indeed, whereas a broad consensus about the importance of culture in quality of life could be said to exist in many communities around the world, it has not always been easy to transfer this into a political discourse that renders culture indispensable in the development of strategies and policies, in the same vein as the environment, human rights, education or gender. In the future, it may be necessary to accompany the design of indicators with better storytelling and illustrative evidence, capable of raising awareness of different target publics through suitable languages and addressing all of the thematic areas included in sustainable development.


On the basis of the background, motivations and challenges outlined above, and taking account of the current context and emerging developments, this final section suggests some opportunities that may exist for the improvement of measurement indicators on culture and sustainable development in the short- to mid-term. Some of the issues described below may provide inspiration for researchers and activists interested in pursuing work in this area, as well as with regard to the 2005 Convention, whereas others will require more integrated efforts at local, national, regional or global levels.

  1. The new UN Sustainable Development Agenda could be seen as an opportunity to increase focus on the place of culture in sustainable development, and to the need to establish and implement measurement methodologies in this area. Although the Agenda does not enshrine a specific objective for culture, some references to cultural aspects are included, concerning the appreciation of cultural diversity through education, the safeguard of cultural and natural heritage in cities and human settlements, and the development of sustainable tourism which promotes local culture and products (UN General Assembly, 2015). Insofar as appropriate indicators are also established to monitor progress as regards these targets (an issue which should become clearer in the near future), this should lead to reinforced efforts to improve cultural information systems and capacities at national and regional levels. More generally, discussions that led to the Post-2015 Agenda have also raised awareness of the need for new forms of measurement, including non-quantitative indicators, and for communities to be involved in the production and use of data. Indeed, the Synthesis Report submitted by the UN Secretary General in December 2014 indicated that ‘[…] alternative measures of progress, beyond GDP, must receive the dedicated attention of the United Nations, international financial institutions, the scientific community and public institutions […]. New measures of subjective well-being are potentially important new tools for policymaking’ (UN Secretary-General, 2014: para 135). In its 2014 report, the UN Data Revolution Group called for improved access to data and for ensuring that a more diverse range of important aspects of people’s lives be measured in the future (UN Data Revolution Group, 2014).
  2. The growing awareness by key stakeholders in the cultural sector of the need to make progress in this area should also be seen as an opportunity, as this is leading to increased efforts to generate internal consensus, speak with a single voice and the establish of suites of indicators that can be relevant for different sectors and at different levels, whilst ensuring internal consistency. Initiatives such as UNESCO’s CDIS, the proposed indicators developed by the Culture 2015 Goal campaign and the discussions maintained at the UCLG Culture Summit held in Bilbao in March 2015, including the adoption of Culture 21 Actions, all point to an growing consensus and joint work in this area[11].
  3. More specifically, efforts are also being made in the context of the 2005 Convention, including through the design of a new capacity-building program to enable Parties in the ‘Global South’ to improve their monitoring mechanisms and capacities, as well as the preparation of a UNESCO Global Monitoring Report on the implementation of the 2005 Convention, which will involve the design of new indicators of progress in this domain (UNESCO, 2015b). This could provide a context for researchers and activists in relevant countries to contribute to the design and implementation of new capacity-building and data-collection initiatives.
  4. Finally, in addition to the aforementioned global and regional initiatives, it is worth noting that progress has been made in recent years in the design and implementation of evaluation projects and related activities in the field of cultural indicators (e.g. collections of best practices, conference proceedings on cultural policy evaluation and indicator design, etc.). This could provide a space for the exchange and transfer of methodologies and knowledge, the identification of success stories and related technical assistance and capacity-building initiatives. Here again, a space could exist for research and training organisations in the ‘Global South’, as well as for regional and national authorities, to join forces and increase efforts to improve capacities and information systems in this area. Similarly, existing evidence in this field could provide a tool for advocacy activities on the importance of cultural aspects for sustainable development.


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  1. Advisor for the Culture Committee of United Cities an Local Governments (UCLG).
  2. The paper was originally presented at the international conference “Dix ans de Convention sur la protection et la promotion de la diversité des expressions culturelles: perspectives nationales et internationales”, held in Québec in May 2015. It was revised and partially updated in October 2015.
  3. For a detailed analysis of these processes and other global and regional initiatives in the field of indicators on culture and sustainable development, see Merkel (2012).
  4. See Compendium of cultural policies and Trends in Europe, [Online],, accessed November 2, 2015.
  5. See WorldCP International Database of Cultural Policies, [Online],, accessed November 2, 2015.
  6. The Culture 2015 Goal campaign involves, in addition to the aforementioned networks, Culture Action Europe, the International Music Council (IMC), Arterial Network, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the Red Latinoamericana de Arte para la Transformación Social. See Culture 2015 Goal (2015). ‘Recognizing the Role of Culture to Strengthen the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda’, [Online],, accessed November 2, 2015.
  7. “While some Parties have provided comprehensive statistical information, comparable figures are not available for many areas. This is a familiar and long-standing issue in the field of cultural statistics in all regions of the world.” (UNESCO, 2012: Annex I, para. 5).
  8. See Agenda 21 culture (2014), [Online],, accessed November 2nd, 2015.
  9. 71 of the 116 reports expected between 2012 and 2014 (i.e. 61%) have been submitted. Significant differences exist when looking at the data by region: only 32% of reports in Africa (9 out of 28), 52% in Latin America (12 out of 23) and 55% in Asia-Pacific (6 out of 11) were received, compared to 91% (21 out of 23) in Europe and North America. See UNESCO (2015c).
  10. See SICSUR, [Online],, accessed November 2nd, 2015.
  11. For additional information, see United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) (2015). “UCLG Culture Summit 2015”, [Online],, accessed November 2, 2015.

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