Culture to be added to UNESCO’s approach to arts education, thanks to UAE

Intangible culture: traditional UAE crafts

The UNESCO Executive Board has adopted the first draft decision that the UAE has proposed to it. The subject was ‘A Framework for Culture and Art Education’, and frankly there was little danger that it would not be accepted – it proposes a consultation process and a report “identifying trends, gaps and needs … as well as Guidelines and Policy Recommendations” to endure that an updated and effective culture and arts education strategies can be adopted by UNESCO members.

This represents another step in the UAE’s desire to be seen as a competent and influential player on the international stage, and Noura Al Kaabi (right) – UAE Minister of Culture and Youth and Chair of the National Commission for Education, Culture and Science – makes a good impression as she stresses the importance of the proposal in a statement noting that “culture and arts education is the first step to supporting talent.

She’s right, of course. The key feature in the UAE’s proposal is the addition of ‘culture’ to ‘arts education’. Culture wasn’t previously covered by the portmanteau term; but clearly it’s important to incorporate into this area of education the range of cultural and creative fields that coincide with the arts.

And you couldn’t argue with that – or with the UAE’s approach. For a start the proposal fits with the overarching driver of UN decisions, the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – not to mention building on two UNESCO-led International Conferences on Arts Education and several past decisions preparing the way.

The draft decision is laden with uncontentious statements about culture and education – “two fundamental and complementary dimensions that enable people to lead more fulfilling lives, be equipped with the skills to make positive changes, and to be more adaptable in the face of the increasing complexity of contemporary challenges” – and points to a need for “an expanded set of abilities, skills and competences” to cope with “our increasingly multicultural societies” and the Covid-accelerated demand for online content and delivery.

There are a couple of points that caught the eye, though. One is the emphasis on the historical aspects of culture, and especially “intangible cultural heritage” (that’s crafts, dances, music and the like, to go alongside tangible heritage like ruins and artefacts). So “culture enriches the contents of education, notably through cultural heritage in all its dimensions …” Cultural heritage is a major concern of the UAE, of course, especially the intangible variety; and for many socially regressive UNESCO members a concentration on the baggage-laden past is preferable to accelerating the development of a contemporary approach to culture and creativity.

The meeting of UNESCO’s Executive Board in progress (virtually)

Another focus of interest is the need to provide “practical guidance on the incorporation of new technologies and artificial intelligence in the development and delivery of culture and arts education” but to ensure that there are also “alternatives based on different realities and environments”. Not all UNESCO members can afford the high-tech solutions; not all of them are open to increased online and AI-based access to socially liberal values.

These are matters of emphasis, of course, rather than the meat of the proposed draft decision – which in particular invites the UNESCO DG to start a consultation process that will end up in a rewrite for the existing frameworks on arts education to include more culture; and to initiate a world conference on culture and arts education in 2023 that will lay down guidelines and policy recommendations.

In essence, the UAE’s proposals – adopted unanimously during the 211th session of the Executive Board meeting in April – reflects a need for more practical expert and international dialogue on emerging trends and best practices in culture and arts education. Salma Al Darmaki, Secretary-General of the UAE National Commission for Education, Culture and Science, put it neatly: “The proposed framework builds on UNESCO’s efforts as well as the solid foundation provided by the two World Conferences on Arts Education convened by UNESCO in 2006 and 2010 [but] the world has changed since then. We have new technologies, new education and cultural concepts, and our aspirations for those sectors have also evolved.”

The Executive Board which passed the recommendation is one of the three constitutional organs of UNESCO (the others being the General Conference, which elects the Executive Board, and the Secretariat, which puts things into practice). The Board’s role is to look at UNESCO’s programme of work and the accompanying budget estimates; it then prepares the agenda of the General Conference and submits the programme of work to the Conference with its recommendations.

The UAE’s recommendation text is going to be put to 41st session of the General Conference at the end of 2021, and it will almost certainly be adopted. The only issues might be financial – intergovernmental conferences and voluminous reports can be pricey, and UNESCO’s budgets are a bit squeezed – but there’s a good chance that arts education will henceforth include culture.

Read the draft proposal for yourself: it’s available here.

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