Since Saudi Arabia initiated the first meeting of G20 culture ministers during its 2020 presidency, its mandate has endured, continuing to celebrate, enrich and embed the cultural diversity of the G20 members
Culture is central to human life and thus to much of what the G20 does. Culture defines a person’s unique identity and humanity. It connects them with others in the communities they share, and with the nature and other living things they need to live. It provides a common foundation on which society depends. It creates the essential trust among people that the local and global economy need. It brings alive a reverence for people’s ancestors from a distant past, including for Indigenous peoples, who know how closely humans are connected to, and depend on, the natural world. It produces, and relies on, language, which enables learning, cooperation and social cohesion. It enhances an awareness of the rich diversity of cultures in the global community, fostering an understanding and acceptance of differences. It thus helps quell conflicts and build a world of peace, an especially important contribution, as armed conflicts around the world are taking so many innocent lives this year.
Saudi Arabia’s pioneering start
It was therefore important that Saudi Arabia initiated the first meeting of G20 culture ministers during its 2020 presidency. This initiative has now become institutionalised and expanded as a core component of India’s 2023 presidency.
Saudi Arabia pioneered the process shortly before King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud chaired the Riyadh Summit on 20–21 November 2020, while the Covid-19 pandemic had shut down the world. The resilience, vitality and centrality of culture shone through those dark days. People continued virtually to connect, share ideas, express themselves artistically and visit museums, galleries and historic sites, such as Saudi Arabia’s iconic Diriyah Gate. Such digitalisation of the culture and creative community boosted economic growth, from a sector that before the pandemic had produced annual revenues of $2.25 trillion, exports exceeding $250 billion, almost 30 million jobs and potentially 10% of global gross domestic product.
The G20 initiative arose from Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan al Saud, who, as Saudi Arabia’s culture minister, hosted virtually the pioneering G20 culture ministers’ meeting on 4 November. Ministers agreed on several central principles, flowing from the overarching theme of the Rise of the Cultural Economy: A New Paradigm. Together with representatives of several international organisations, they addressed heritage preservation, sustainable development and culture as a stimulant for economic growth. They considered using new technologies, creating digital platforms for artistic expression and expanding access to cultural resources. They thus showed that culture is not a stand-alone silo but an integral, mainstream part of the G20’s economic, digital, health and ecological work.
At its conclusion, Prince Badr declared: “This high-level cultural presence at [the] Saudi G20 Presidency illustrates our shared belief in the vital role of culture in propelling the innovation ecosystem of economies … The onus is on us to preserve our shared heritage for future generations and to produce and disseminate culture in a sustainable manner.”
To ensure a living legacy, the culture ministers agreed to meet annually. Indeed, the Riyadh meeting was co-chaired by Dario Franceschini, Italy’s minister of cultural heritage and activities and tourism, whose country would assume the G20 presidency in 2021. He stated: “Precisely in a difficult moment like the one we are experiencing, the universal values of culture can represent the foundations on which to build rebirth … The serious crisis unleashed by Covid-19 has laid the foundations for an important innovative turning point in terms of the diffusion of new technologies.”
Culture’s integral link to the natural environment was reinforced when, in conjunction with the ministerial meeting, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture announced the creation of a world-class centre to manage, restore and protect the underwater cultural heritage in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.
The culture ministers’ meeting had an immediate impact at the G20 summit a few weeks later. It was the first time G20 leaders addressed culture in their communiqué, where they devoted 106 words to it. They made four commitments on culture, connecting it to the economy, employment, local and rural community development, and the global ecology.
Italy’s fast follow-up in 2021
Following in Saudi Arabia’s footsteps, Italy mounted the second G20 culture ministers’ meeting on 29–30 July 2021. It was now held in person, at the historic Coliseum in Rome. The Rome Declaration of the G20 Ministers of Culture contained 19 commitments. Eight were on culture alone, but climate change had five, the digital economy three, labour and employment two, and crime and corruption one. Culture and G20 culture ministers thus contributed directly to all three of the G20 Rome Summit priorities of ‘People, Planet and Prosperity’, and to the G20’s work on the economy, society, ecology and security.
The culture ministers created the G20 Culture Working Group. They tasked it to show how the cultural and creative sectors contributed to sustainable and balanced economic growth, and asked it for actionable recommendations “advancing the contribution of culture and cultural heritage in addressing climate change and promoting climate-focused cultured action”. They thus emphasised culture’s connection to the greatest global existential threat.
Culture also appeared in the communiqués from the G20 tourism ministers on 4 May, agriculture ministers on 18 September and, most extensively, foreign affairs and development ministers on 29 June.
When G20 leaders themselves met for an extraordinary virtual summit to discuss Afghanistan on 12 October 2021, their chair’s summary stated: “The G20 recalls the importance of any action that could undermine Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, in particular its destruction and illicit trafficking, and calls for its preservation”. This linked culture to crime and corruption, and implicitly to terrorism, for the first time.
At their regular Rome Summit on 30–31 October, leaders devoted 261 words in their declaration to culture, more than double the total at Riyadh. They again stressed the importance of culture to the economy, society and ecology, but added “employment, social protection, digitalization and business support measures and … threats to irreplaceable cultural resources and protecting and preserving cultural heritage damaged, trafficked or endangered by conflicts and disasters, recalling the objectives of [United Nations Security Council] Resolution 2347”. Their one commitment on culture asked “our relevant institutions to further pursue the G20 cooperation on culture”. They thus broadened and made more continuous the G20-led cultural work. They further deepened the global governance of culture outside the G20, by supporting the world of UNESCO and now the UNSC itself. In doing so they explicitly linked culture to peace and security for the first time.
Indonesia’s advances in 2022
In 2022, Indonesia’s G20 presidency brought to the expanding cultural agenda the rich diversity of Southeast Asian culture. The G20 presidency’s return to another Muslim-majority country reinforced and enriched the path set by Saudi Arabia at the start.
G20 culture ministers met on 12–13 September in Borobudur, Central Java, under the theme of Culture for Sustainable Living. Nadiem Makarim, Indonesia’s culture minister, declared: “Culture is the motivator and enabler of sustainable development, and Indonesia is committed to facilitating cultural recovery, as well as supporting artists and cultural practitioners”. All the ministers, plus those from guest countries and the UNESCO director-general, discussed paths for a sustainable cultural recovery after Covid-19.
Culture ministers agreed on collaboration and engagement with multi-stakeholders, initiatives on education, training, digitalisation, creative industries, job creation, the preservation of cultural sites, inclusive participation and digital ecosystems. They agreed to explore the creation of the Global Arts and Culture Recovery Fund. Several cultural events took place as part of the meeting.
Just before the culture ministers met, G20 environment and climate ministers met on 31 August, and linked their work to culture. They encouraged efforts by, among others, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the Global Peatlands Initiative to provide “ecosystem-specific advice based on [a] physical and cultural landscape approach with the potential to ultimately cover all ecosystems”.
Throughout the autumn Indonesia mounted many G20 events on culture in its various forms, including fashion, the creative economy and food. Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s minister for tourism and the creative economy, estimated that the G20 would bring about 1.5 million international tourists to Bali and a total of 3.6 million tourists by the end of 2022.
India’s expansion in 2023
Under India’s G20 presidency in 2023, the importance of culture expanded in several ways. India saw the Culture Working Group as a unique opportunity to foster an inclusive, just, sustainable society. It sought to celebrate, enrich and embed the cultural diversity of the G20 members, to secure holistic living in a pro-planet way.
India included the Culture Working Group as one of 13 under the sherpa track and scheduled four meetings: on 22–25 February, 14–17 May, 15–18 July and 24–25 August. Its agenda had four priorities: protecting and restoring cultural property, harnessing living heritage for a sustainable future, promoting cultural and creative industries and the creative economy, and leveraging digital technologies for the protection and promotion of culture. These were based on ‘culture for LiFE’ to promote environmentally conscious lifestyles for sustainable living. Working with UNESCO, India organised webinars on each of these priorities.
The results of the working group meetings were to be endorsed and expanded by the culture ministers’ meeting on 26 August, and then by the leaders at the New Delhi Summit on 9–10 September. The ministers’ and leaders’ agreements will be enriched by the tourism ministers, who noted on 21 June that “tourism creates jobs for people of all ages and skill levels … in many other sectors, including … handicrafts, culture and creative industries.”
There still remains much for the G20 leaders to do at New Delhi, to ensure that culture is mobilised as a value in its own right and as an effective instrument to achieve all the priorities that the Indian presidency has set.