Sustainability and Culture: Perspectives from the Andean Region

In September, the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 was held as a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly for the formal adoption of the post-2015 development agenda through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which replace UN Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs present a new phase in global coordination in order to solve pressing global social, economic and environmental problems.

3. Christina and Herando

For the last several months, we have been conducting research about the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in promoting a sustainable development approach. The concept of sustainable development was first formally presented at the Bruntland Commission in 1987: “Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While this concept has its roots in the environment and development, it is increasingly understood that sustainable development cannot only focus on the environment. In 2002, in recognition of this, the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development presented the idea that sustainability needs to be conceptualized as three pillars (environmental, economic, and social equity) that are interdependent[ii]. As such, sustainable development includes how communities achieve environmental protection, economic viability and social equity. Adopting a sustainable development perspective can lead to better solutions to complex problems around issues associated with environment, the economy and the equitable distribution of resources.

While we accept sustainable development by its three pillars: environmental, economic, and equity (social); our research recognizes a fourth pillar that has been recently discussed: culture. Academics and practitioners have debated the role of arts and cultural activities in the construction of society for some time. Boal (1979)[iii], in his groundbreaking work, The Theatre of the Oppressed, asks the central but complex question: “Should art educate, inform, organize, influence, incite to action, or should it simply be an object of pleasure?”

We believe that the relationship between culture and development needs to be further examined. Culture contributes not only as an economic and productive sector but also provides a range of non-monetary benefits, such as inclusion. While policy debates at international and transnational spaces have argued for the inclusion of culture within the dimensions of sustainable development, in practice and on the ground, we have found that cultural services and programming do not necessarily benefit from these debates. share

The Andean Region

The Andean region is a remarkable region to look at sustainability and culture. The region has rich tangible and intangible cultural heritage in its Andean and Amazonian indigenous communities. Several governments in the region have been trailblazers in the implementation of innovative policies related to sustainable environmental practices and have created laws that incentivize local artistic and cultural production. The region also includes several cities which are global leaders in urban design and planning promoting; this includes huge networks of pedestrian and biking lanes.

Our current work in the Andean region considers cultural NGOs in particular as important actors in development. Cultural NGOs are nonprofit organizations that are working in the production, dissemination, training, research and knowledge creation related to culture. We are interested in exploring if and how cultural NGOs in the Andean region have contributed to sustainable development through cultural services and programming. We have a great team of students from the University of los Andes: Alejandra Carson, Cristina Franco, Hernando Pacific and Lina Arrieta who are helping us consolidate this research (see photos).

2. Lina

Global Perspectives from New York City

Recently, we presented the start of this research at the International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, New York on September 23, 2015. Of course, the conference was strategically timed. As mentioned above, this year is a key year for sustainable development! The ICSD brought together people from government, academia, the United Nations, international agencies, NGOs, and grassroots organizers to explore ideas around sustainable development. The conference showcased papers related to issues around climate change, the challenges of measurement and accountability within global goal objectives, promoting inclusion through the objectives and much more. Not to our surprise, there was limited discussion on the role of culture in sustainable development. However, we were pleased with the reception of our ideas and were very surprised when our names were called for Best Paper Award of the conference. It proves to us that including cultural NGOs in both the policy and academic debates of sustainable development is important, desired and valued.

Indeed, the United Cities and Local Governments group explains that “development policies and projects which do not take into account the cultural dimension have failed”[iv]. Advocates for the inclusion of culture in the SDGs had proposed a goal that is explicitly about culture suggesting the wording: “Ensure cultural sustainability for the wellbeing of all”[v]. This did not happen, unfortunately, there is not specific SDG related to culture. However, we will continue to examine this through the lens of cultural NGOs in the Andean region and perhaps eventually beyond. Our research joins advocates who argue that culture is already critical to the three pillars of sustainable development and should be further recognized in its role in development.


– Susan Appe, Assistant Professor, Public Administration, CCPA, Binghamton University,

– Laura M. Milanes-Reyes, Instructor, School of Management, University of los Andes. Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, University at Albany,

Interested in sustainability issues? Binghamton University launched a new Sustainable Communities master’s program for the fall 2016. Or, check out the Department of Public Administration’s sustainable communities specialization in the MPA program at Binghamton.

5.Bogota pedestrian

[i] This research and participation in the International Conference on Sustainable Development was partially funded by the CCPA’s Latin American Partnership Fund at Binghamton University, by the Department of Sociology’s travel funds for doctoral students at the University at Albany, SUNY, and by Uniandes School of Management travel funds and a grant for a research assistant. We would like to thank our sponsors for their support!

[ii] Kates, Robert, Thomas M. Parris and Antohony A. Leiserowitz (2005). What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 47.3 (2005): 8-21.

[iii] Boal, A. (1979). Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, p. xv

[iv] United Cities and Local Governments (n.d.). Culture as a goal in the post-2015 development agenda, page 3. Retrieved from,

[v] United Cities and Local Governments (n.d.). Culture as a goal in the post-2015 development agenda, page 4. Retrieved from,

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