Reflecting Cultural Diversity

Different cultures usually have different views on what constitutes sustainable development. Such differences can be small variations in what types of economic or political policies should be adopted to promote sustainability, or they can represent significant divergences from the underlying development paradigm. This will influence both what a society would like to measure with indicators and which reference levels are seen as desirable or sustainable. The indicator sets most in use today are biased toward the dominant values of a Western-style market economy. For example, the reliance on GDP and related indicators reflects an economic development paradigm with a strong emphasis on the individual rather than the community and on material rather than social or spiritual dimensions of society, which may not be shared across all cultures.

This narrow focus also means that many aspects of society that are crucial to sus-tainability but are not part of the dominant political paradigm are absent in indicators. For example, there is a body of research on the importance of community values, such as trust and cooperation, for fostering collective action to manage common resources that could provide a basis for useful indicators (see Ostrom 1992).

The first challenge confronting indicator developers is to look again at the various indicator sets, particularly those used for intercountry comparison on sustainable development, to see whether significant cultural biases can be identified and made transparent, if not reduced. The second challenge is to develop indicators for a broader range of sustainable development issues identified within cultures that are largely underrep-resented in the scientific and political debate on indicators.

Despite such cultural differences, there are still many values common to all human beings that should be reflected at the core of any indicator set. Everybody, regardless of culture, needs a minimum amount of food, clean water and air, shelter, space, health care, security, self-respect, social relations, respect for other living beings, and time, access, and opportunity to develop one's abilities.

The need to preserve the ecological balance of the world is also universal. The ability of diverse cultures and countries to agree on common values and priorities and to reflect them in indicators is exemplified in the Convention of Biological Diversity, where indicators to address different aspects of biodiversity at the ecosystem, species, and genetic levels were agreed on in 2004 (Conference of the Parties 2004). Although a common target is set for these indicators to achieve a significant reduction in the loss of biodiversity by 2010, countries are free to choose more ambitious targets. Another example is the MDGs and their derived targets and indicators for areas such as food, water, and health (United Nations General Assembly 2000).

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