Should development concern itself with cultural heritage preservation?

Published on 14 February 2018

Image of Mariz Tadros
Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

Cultural heritage preservation. The words probably conjure images of dilapidated, archaic, exotic buildings needing repair. Whatever comes to mind, the odds are that it is more likely that cultural heritage preservation is associated with privilege, elites and experts. Defining and preserving cultural heritage is rarely associated with people living in poverty or on the margins. At least, this was the reaction when Brazilian anthropologist Eunice Ribeiro Durham asked the public at a general meeting what they associate with the word culture.

In practice, global development has struggled with all kinds of privilege: the role of the international development professional (versus local professionals), male privilege, urban bias, a Westocentric ontology, and the list goes gone…

If those working in development were to call for a greater engagement with cultural heritage, would this not compound the problem of uppers and lowers? Imagine focusing on restoring buildings in contexts where people are suffering from a myriad of pressing needs and oppressive circumstances? Certainly there may be some truth to this but it depends on what we mean by cultural heritage, who frames and owns the agenda, and what power relations inform its identification and preservation.

Exploring relationship between cultural heritage preservation and transformative development

In a new blog series, we are going to explore the relationship between the two spheres of cultural heritage preservation and transformative development.

Briefly, our definition of cultural heritage extends beyond the material (the buildings, artefacts, museums, etc.) and specifically focuses on the intangible, as defined by UNESCO to include:

We recognize that the tangible (the material) and the intangible are often intertwined (think of oral history around buildings for example) but we have no illusions that the focus in cultural heritage has been on what you can touch to the detriment of the immaterial.

This has undoubtedly circumscribed the opportunities for seeing the links between development and cultural heritage. We draw on Robert Chambers’ definition of development as  “good change” while acknowledging that in practice it has been pursued through all kinds of ideologies, modalities and with outcomes that are anything but good.

There has been some seminal work already done on understanding the relationship between cultural heritage and development, including for example, the UNESCO’s Culture: an enabler and driver of social cohesion with ongoing meetings on the subject producing highly engaging concept notes as well as the pioneering book on Museums, Heritage and International Development edited by Paul Basu and Wayne Modest, and the earlier publication Heritage Reader, which includes the work of Kate Clark and Setha Low.

We are going to specifically focus on intangible cultural heritage in relation to development, revisiting the themes of social cohesion, inclusion and sustainability and also set out a new series of propositions (three of which feature below).

We will also draw on the insights gained from the empirical work currently being undertaken by the Coptic Culture Conservation Collective, a new initiative that IDS is undertaking with partners in Egypt to understand the immaterial culture of the Copts experiencing encroachments for their faith.

Three propositional entry points for embedding cultural heritage in development practice

1. Incorporating cultural heritage in multidimensional understandings of wellbeing

Many leading development organizations, think tanks and agenda setters have contributed to developing frameworks for understanding the importance of taking into account non-material dimensions of wellbeing in order to gain more holistic understandings of development.

One such example is the OECD whose approach to multidimensionality in wellbeing, which is premised on three domains: material conditions such as jobs, income and housing and quality of life aspects such as access to health and education, security. However, these domains rest on sustainability sources:  human, natural, social and economic capital.

Interestingly, the word “cultural heritage” comes up once in the document under the section on social capital as a source of sustainability. Visiting cultural heritage is considered crucial for building social identity and cohesion (PDF).

“Participation in cultural activities allows individuals to link their individual and collective identity. It can also stimulate the accumulation of other forms of capital, such as knowledge”. (page 620 of the Framework and suggested indicators to measure sustainable development – PDF)

Yet cultural heritage is more than visiting heritage sites, as important as these are. In the Coptic heritage initiative, we purposely focus on the lived experiences of the people, as they have been transmitted inter-generationally and as they assume new forms and manifestations in sub-cultures, for example youth culture.

2. Intersecting, intertwining inequalities: the case for recognizing cultural inequality

Inequality is the flavour of the month in development studies.

In the 2016’s World Social Science Report produced by IDS and International Social Sciences Council and published by the UNESCO, the main UN organization responsible for advocating for cultural preservation, there is an explicit recognition of cultural inequality as the “differences in status between identity-based groups (self-determined, socially constructed or both).

It continues to say “Cultural inequalities encompass discriminations based on gender, ethnic and racialized categorizations, religion, disability and other group identities, rooted in cultural justifications and historic practices.” (p23 of the report)

While the report presents a rich analysis of inequalities across gender and a number of identities, there is no mention of cultural heritage as a site or feature of cultural inequality.

3. Repertoires of resilience

Resilience can be a cop-out word if it is used as a proxy for people’s ever-elastic ability to deal with disaster, crisis and hardship.

Evidently there are limits to people’s resilience- they reach tipping points and survival diminishes.

However, we also know that our understandings of people’s coping strategies in the face of inequalities, exclusions, and hardship is significantly enhanced when we are more at sync with their repertoires of adaptation, resistance, and hope. These repertoires vary but their own sense of who they are, where they are from, what has been passed on to them (and how that has been reimagined or reinvented) can be significant.

As anthropologists continuously remind us, heritage is not just of the things passed, it features in our daily lives, informs our interpretations of our reality and perceptions of the future. Heritage itself is transformed by our lived reality, taking on new forms, new modalities of expression and new meanings.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of online media: old and current intangible cultural heritage is being produced, circulated, reinvented in ways critical for understanding the pulse of the citizenry.

If we are to understand people’s resilience in relation to processes of transformation, be they positive or negative, then people’s oral histories – a core element of intangible cultural heritage – is one gateway to understanding the subaltern and the power dynamics beneath the surface, that often gets missed out on more conventional development planning, monitoring and evaluation approaches and tools.

Taking intangible cultural heritage seriously

The plea so far has been for taking intangible cultural heritage seriously in development, but the relationship is synergistic, and in the next blog, there will be a discussion of the relevance of development for the identification, capture, and preservation of intangible cultural heritage in ways that enrich this critical area of work.

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