The Hangzhou International Congress


Sabrina Pratt


Culture and sustainability are becoming a priority worldwide. At the first international conference organized by UNESCO to discuss the link between culture and sustainable development since 1998, attendees from over 70 countries discussed culture and its role in raising the quality of life in developing countries, as well as related issues, including how culture contributes to achieving sustainable cities and environmental sustainability.


The context of the discussion was the goals set by the United Nations for international aid to developing countries where basic needs such as food, health, housing and education aren’t satisfied; peace and reconciliation efforts are needed; job creation and economic growth are critical; or assistance is required from outside the country due to a natural disaster such as a tsunami. Conference attendees returned to their countries inspired to advocate for new international policies and implement culturally sensitive projects and programs.


Culture: Key to Sustainable Development was held in Hangzhou, in eastern China. It was attended by more than 250 people—academics, leaders of international associations, business people, government officials, artists, philanthropists, architects and urban planners, cultural experts, diplomats, UNESCO staff and associates—all passionate about improving the lives of people.


What are these terms, culture and sustainable development? Culture may seem quite abstract until you start thinking of your way of life. The type of house you live in, the foods you eat, the dances or songs associated with celebrations, religious practices. The culture of your community is made of these things and more.


The term development is used to describe assistance given to a community with the goals of raising the standard of living or quality of life. In the context of international aid given by the United Nations member countries, foundations and others, the work may be done by outside organizations working to help a community. The congress presenters emphasized that a key to the success of community development programs and disaster relief lies in these agencies understanding the local culture.


This is especially important if you care about sustainability. For example, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti many international agencies provided the assistance of funds and experts to build temporary housing and supply food and medicine. Successful sustainable development lies in “resource use (that) aims to meet human needs while ensuring the sustainability of natural systems and the environment,” according to Wikipedia’s definition. If international aid is given without knowledge of the local culture, the desired result of improved quality of life may not be achieved. Michaelle Jean, UNESCO envoy to Haiti, pointed out that the layout of temporary housing in Haiti in straight rows instead of configurations typical of the area resulted in negative outcomes for the community and that knowledge of the local culture would have prevented some problems.


For me, attending the congress was an opportunity to find out what cultural sector colleagues across the world are doing. I spent over 22 years directing the city of Santa Fe Arts Commission, which is at the center of supporting an ecosystem of arts and cultural activities in Santa Fe. That work is accomplished through grants, coordination and networking, and programs that include the Art in Public Places Program and the Community Gallery located at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.


The opening plenary session was held in the formal setting of the Zhejiang People’s Great Hall, in a room designed for government meetings of perhaps 600 people. Seated in theater-style seats with a narrow table for note taking, we listened with headphones on, receiving simultaneous translations into English, French and Chinese. Opening keynotes were by Zhao Shaohua, vice-minister of culture for China, Michael Higgins, president of Ireland, and His Highness the Aga Khan, chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network. All made philosophical statements about the importance of culture in sustainable development. President Higgins, speaking in a recorded video message, said, “We need to recover a respect for indigenous wisdom as great as the excitement we have for technological innovation.”


The people attending the conference definitely have that respect. Speakers cited the importance of working closely with the local population rather than making assumptions. In some instances it was a case of a lesson learned when a program designed to help didn’t work. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder and chairman of the BRAC Foundation, spoke about treating infant mortality due to diarrhea in Bangladesh in 1979. An oral rehydration solution was given to the mothers to give to the infants. When the program was first started, the fathers were not included. Later the organizers learned that the fathers discouraged the mothers from giving the solution. An essential aspect of the culture, the role of the father in the household, had been ignored.


Measurement of results was also a topic of discussion. UNESCO introduced a new framework for measuring cultural health, which has recently been implemented in Cambodia. Helena Norberg-Hodge, director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, described Bhutan’s gross national happiness index, an alternative to measuring a country’s well-being by its gross domestic product. Santa Fe residents answered their first happiness survey in May this year during Sustainable Happiness Week, sponsored by the city of Santa Fe and the Center for Emergent Diplomacy. The survey and events were inspired by Bhutan.


Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market is an excellent example of a US-based organization helping people from other countries through a sustainable development program based on local culture. The foundation of the annual market, held every July, is respect for traditional artistic practices. This respect is furthered through a UNESCO awards program, and artists and craftsmen are given training in how to market and sell their work. The result is new income generation that raises the quality of life in their home communities.


New Mexico has many organizations that understand the value of working with the local community so that programs are based in the local culture, and also understand the importance of respecting indigenous wisdom, as prescribed by President Higgins. The principle of taking into account the local culture, and therefore the desires of the community, is applicable on local and regional levels, not only in international aid situations.


In the 1990s the city of Santa Fe Community Youth Mural Program was funding murals created by Santa Fe’s youth. The purpose of these expressions of local culture was to combat graffiti with a sustainable approach: graffiti-tagged walls and utility boxes were much less likely to be tagged after a mural was installed. It might seem that a mural of any subject would be better than graffiti tags on a wall. Not so. People want their environment to be consistent with their local culture. A key to the success of these projects was determining what communities had an interest in the aesthetic quality of a particular wall.


Con Alma Health Foundation’s work to improve the health of New Mexicans is also in keeping with recommendations made at the Hangzhou Congress. Con Alma recognizes the importance of community self-determination. Dolores Roybal, executive director, stated in an email: “We support the identification, preservation and communication of traditional practices that maintain, foster and improve health status, including cultural and linguistic competencies.”


What does that mean on a practical level? Con Alma’s staff and board understand that their work on health issues cannot be one-size-fits-all. Examples of some of their grants are in a sidebar with this article. They are each targeted to a particular community. Community members are driving the projects. The ideas and strategies have come from the community and are therefore culturally appropriate and much more likely to be successful and sustainable.


The Hangzhou International Congress ended with agreement by the congress participants on The Hangzhou Declaration, “Placing Culture at the Heart of Sustainable Development Policies.” The five-page declaration includes these opening statements:


We consider that in the face of mounting challenges such as population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation, disasters, climate change, increasing inequalities and persisting poverty, there is an urgent need for new approaches…


These new approaches should fully acknowledge the role of culture as a system of value and a resource and framework to build truly sustainable development, the need to draw from the experiences of past generations, and the recognition of culture as part of the global and local commons as well as a wellspring for creativity and renewal.


The declaration has been and will be used to continue the conversation at United Nations meetings in New York and Geneva. Francesco Banderin, assistant director general for culture at UNESCO, stated in a letter to congress participants that “this is an ongoing process, and only through our joint and continued advocacy efforts will culture be an integral part of the global sustainable development agenda…”


Further information on the Hangzhou International Congress and the full text of The Hangzhou Declaration can be found at



Sabrina Pratt is the former director of the city of Santa Fe Arts Commission and the owner of SVPratt Creative Strategies, a small business focused on forward thinking for cities and cultural organizations.





Con Alma Health Foundation Grants

A Culturally Sensitive Approach to Helping Communities


Colonias Development Council—$14,000 (2012 Small Grant) to create a team of promotoras to distribute information about health, legal and social services in Doña Ana and Otero counties. The Desarrollando Conciencia para el Apoyo Familiar, a project of the Colonias Development Council, will create a cadre of promotoras—from traditional health, mental health, and promotoras de comunidad—who offer a broad range of assistance to the health system by providing information about health and social services through one-on-one contacts and outreach. Through an intensive, well-designed training and supervision program, promotoras para el apoyo familiar will expand and disseminate information about health, legal and social services in a linguistically, culturally and community-sensitive manner.


Mora Valley Community Health Services—$10,000 to support efforts to mobilize the community to address substance abuse in Mora and San Miguel counties. Funding was requested to support a community-wide effort to address a substance abuse crisis in Mora. In a community of fewer than 5,000 people, there were 11 overdoses in 2011; four of which were fatal. The work group is comprised of community leaders, elected and appointed officials, representatives from local schools, county commission, Mora Clinic, local churches and the general public. Recent overdoses have galvanized the community to take action on their own through the “Empowering a Substance Abuse Free Community” project. Mora is a predominately Hispanic community. This broad community approach reflects the culture’s value and respect for community.


New Mexico Asian Family Center—$8,000 to support efforts to provide culturally appropriate resources and access to health services and education for NM’s Asian community. The New Mexico Asian Family Center is a place for Asian immigrants and their families to share their concerns, learn about their own and other cultures, build supportive networks and increase self-sufficiency.




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