The power of heritage to make a life worth living

Published on 29 March 2023

Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

At a conference in Beirut earlier this month participants gave evidence of the power of heritage to make life worth living for groups and communities that have experienced acute marginalisation and life-transforming ruptures.

Watch the video

Sharing experiences of intangible heritage and wellbeing

What does a young Bedouin woman living in Lebanon, a Syrian refugee cello player, an Iraqi rowing captain, a Syriac youth convening a senior citizens club, and a Moroccan olive tree planter have in common? They are all living embodiments of how heritage repertoires directly contribute to individual and collective wellbeing. They and other participants shared their experiences in the conference on intangible heritage and inclusive, sustainable development

The conference was organised by the Institute of Development Studies in collaboration with the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Inherit and funded through a British Academy grant to the Heritages for Inclusive Repertoires initiative.

The meaning and value of material heritage in the form of ancestral sites, monuments, buildings and objects of all kinds have long been understood as generating economic opportunities of development for people on the margins. But what of the power of heritage collections in the form of oral histories of a people, music, dance, food, social practices or festivals to sustain the survival of the excluded?

Local community ownership of safeguarding heritage

Stephen Stenning, the British Council’s Director Culture in Action, who established the Cultural Protection Fund, shared at the conference that the Fund was founded to respond to terrorist demolition of world heritage sites but soon there was a realisation of the importance of the role of local communities. This local community involvement is not only key for any safeguarding of heritage sites, but they themselves play a key role in mediating the meaning and significance of what has survived.

As Aphrodite Sorotou, Director of Inherit noted, if we are to link the dots between heritage and development – we need to start at the level of the subjective – and look at how have our own experiences with heritage shaped the way we see ourselves and our place in the world.

From the initiatives I have been privileged to convene (the Middle East Culture Conservation Collective, the British Academy Repertoires of Heritage for Inclusive Development and the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) ) and from the rich contributions of our conference contributors, I have identified at least four ways in which development and heritage make a life worth living:

1. Development, rights and heritage are indivisible

This was demonstrated by the struggles of the Bedouins of Lebanon as shared with us through the Cultural Corridors of Peace Project. Until early this century, Bedouins were deprived of educational opportunities for their children as well as access to resources because they were denied citizenship. However, the acquisition of citizenship did not take away the sting of stigma that Bedouin children and youth experienced from the wider society. How do you withstand vilification while safeguarding cultural practices that you hold dear?

The links between the rights of the marginalised and community wellbeing were also evident in the project with the Syriac Christians in Syria. Young people have been working with the senior citizens whose experience of age-related vulnerabilities has been compounded by being left behind, as a consequence of the large scale immigration of their families since the beginning of the war.

In Egypt, young people in their communities are discerning in which heritage norms and practices enhance flourishing and which intergenerational practices have had a harmful impact. As Marlen Meißner head of the department ‘Heritage, Nature, Society’ at German Commission for UNESCO reminded us, heritage is dynamic and so are communities, so there is a constant process of negotiating heritage repertoires.

2. The realisation of empowerment for youth is both a means and an end

Across almost all of the conference presentations, it was clear that there is no future for heritage preservation without the role of youth in crafting the vision and spearheading it forwards. However, youth are not merely instruments for the realisation of the safeguarding of heritage. Heritage practices opened up exceptional opportunities for young people to realise themselves.

Take for example the Action for Hope initiative in Lebanon where through a music school young people of refugee background are given a chance to learn to play instruments and then perform publicly. A group of young people supported by their teachers played for us in the conference and it was evident that this was not only about the preservation of old Arabic music, but the way in which young people exercised their agency in uniquely subjective ways through their music.

From Iraq, we also heard from faculty at the University of Duhok about how the skills and competencies acquired in heritage preservation enabled the youth to be well positioned to take advance of income-generating and career opportunities in a context where unemployment is high.

3. The power of heritage repertoires to engender sustainable livelihoods

The potential for innovative practices for building sustainable livelihoods via heritage repertoires are unlimited. Take for example, the initiative of the High Atlas Foundation in Morocco involving cultivating olive groves in land donated by the country’s tiny Jewish population. Here again, it is not about an instrumental use of heritage, but rather the benefits of imagining a future together that is informed by an appreciation of how the Jewish community enriching Moroccan society through its cultural and material contributions. It is about locally-led and owned process of nurturing social cohesion as a core element not only of sustainable but also inclusive society.

Similarly, through the initiative of The Ark for Iraq which involves the revival of the ancient art of boat and ship building, we saw a way of travelling that involves building vessels from natural material in our environment and requires only human power (rowing) to stir it forward. It is through the rowing clubs that have been activated using many of these vessels that has transformed the initiative from being an experiment in preservation of boats to one being relevant to the lives of young people who take up rowing as a sport. Here again, the power of heritage repertoires to marry sustainability with inclusivity become manifest.

4. Heritage repertoires play a critical role in sustaining the will to live

In almost every culture, there are popular sayings or proverbs about what it is like to live but not be alive. Wars, conflict, violence are experienced intergenerationally and their impact both materially but also emotionally and mentally are cumulative. The Ettijahat initiative recognises that especially in war settings such as Syria, the revival of the country’s rich textile handiwork is crucial for its civilizational value. But its significance is meaningfully and tangibly felt at another level: providing the artisans with a sense of purpose that they can pass on to the generation of youth in the hope that one day these enterprises may flourish.

From the Occupied Palestinian Territories, intergenerational transfer of the songs, legendary tales, folk practices also showed how heritage is neither “just” a thing of the past nor is it the “fluff stuff” that is on the side but rather intrinsically woven in individual and collective struggles for existence.

Despite the significance of heritage repertoires for enabling lives worth living, we are just scratching the surface of what this means for engendering heritage in development and engendering development in heritage. I suspect it will require a significant recasting of both arenas, but at least we have begun to realise that the interface between the two is a matter of utmost priority.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


About this opinion


Related content