News

Why Africa has relatively few UNESCO World Heritage sites

NELSON MANDELA was imprisoned on Robben Island by South Africa’s apartheid government for 18 years. In 1999, five years after he was elected president, the site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. The statement on its inclusion lauds a rich history: mines that date back 400 years; the tomb of an 18th-century Muslim leader; and a second world war military base. But although it notes the site’s “sombre history” it makes no mention of Mandela.

The Economist Today

Hand-picked stories, in your inbox

A daily email with the best of our journalism

UNESCO, a UN body, has since 1978 listed and honoured the world’s cultural and natural heritage of “outstanding universal value”. More than 1,100 sites now adorn the list, from the Taj Mahal to Stonehenge and the Great Barrier Reef. Nearly half of the sites are in Europe and about a quarter are in Asia and the Pacific. But sub-Saharan Africa is home to just 96 such sites—a miserly 9% of the total—despite accounting for 15% of the world’s population, 18% of its land mass and an immense amount of its heritage and history.

In including some African sites, like Robben Island, UNESCO often glosses over the very reasons why they matter to local people. “We need sites that celebrate the Africans themselves,” says Webber Ndoro, head of ICCROM, a conservation charity. About half of the UNESCO sites in Africa are recognised on the basis of cultural value, compared with four-fifths of those in Italy. UNESCO experts given the task of assessing nominations are typically more sympathetic towards classical villas than sacred forests. As a result, UNESCO tends to pick African sites that celebrate European colonial architecture in the continent, rather than those with indigenous significance.

World Heritage nominations are assessed by experts and voted on by a panel of delegates at the annual members’ convention (last year’s event was postponed). This year’s meeting, which began on July 16th and culminates with an announcement of the new sites on July 28th, is expected to anoint about 20 new locations out of 39 applications. European countries have proposed 20 sites, whereas African countries have put forward just two candidates—the lowest tally of any region—one each from Gabon and the Ivory Coast. Mr Ndoro says schemes to train local experts in reviewing African submissions have had little impact because they are not given enough responsibility by UNESCO or their governments.

Cost is another barrier to getting African heritage on the list. Making an application means filling in hundreds of pages of forms. UNESCO grants to help countries with the burden of paperwork are capped at $30,000. Ultimately, countries that can afford to nominate more frequently get more sites on the list.

UNESCO knows it has a problem. In the 1990s, it made its World Heritage criteria less focused on European-style architecture. Wood-and-earth structures are now more readily accepted, as are sites that recognise human interaction with the natural world. That has helped increase sub-Saharan African representation: since 1999 UNESCO has added 46 new sites. The new criteria have also benefited eight European vineyards, also added to the list.

Yet getting on UNESCO’s list may not be all it is cracked up to be. In some African countries, limited funds for conservation might be better spent on protecting existing sites. World Heritage status should bring economic benefit—not least from more tourism. But the surroundings of many existing sites, such as Timbuktu in Mali or Great Zimbabwe, an ancient city in the country of the same name, remain blighted by extreme poverty. Even Liverpool in Britain thought it better to let UNESCO this week withdraw its heritage status, which appeared to attract few additional tourists, preferring to develop its historic waterfront to encourage economic growth. That might give African countries pause for thought when considering the costs and benefits of getting more sites on the list.

Source

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button