UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Why Are They So Few In Africa?

This year, eight mosques in northern Ivory Coast and Ivindo National Park in Gabon have landed one of the coveted places on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In addition to the two sites in Africa, the responsible committee at its 44th session in the Chinese port city of Fuzhou named 16 candidates from Europe and another 16 from other world regions as new World Heritage Sites.

The geographic imbalance in UNESCO’s awarding of titles is not new. Almost half of the 1154 UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in Europe, fewer than 100 in Africa. Kenyan George Abungu has a simple explanation for this: “The process is too Eurocentric.”

UNESCO Convention too Eurocentric

George Abungu is an archaeologist who served as director of the National Museum in Kenya. He has a clear view of the work of UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural and Communication Organization – and points to the founding year of 1972, when “mainly white men” launched the convention.

“Naturally, it’s Eurocentric, and African countries have to prove the extraordinary value of their sites to humanity through a Western perspective in order to make it onto the list,” Abungu said in an interview with DW.

Christoph Brumann of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle takes a similar view: “Initially, World Heritage was more or less tacitly conceived around Europe’s elite and monumental heritage. The focus was on cathedrals, palaces, temples, historic old towns,” said Brumann in an interview with DW.

Lack of experience and finances for applications

Criticism of this had already been voiced around 30 years ago, said Brumann, which then led to reforms. Today, common heritage and cultural landscapes, where the human-environment interaction is particularly interesting, could also make it onto the official list. That could help African nominations. But the problem, Brumann said, as does Abungu, is that “there are too few applications from African countries.”

This is also due to the complicated application requirements: Dossiers with hundreds and thousands of pages have to be compiled for an application. “This is simply much easier to manage for countries with better know-how, more experience with monuments and nature conservation, and more money than for many African countries,” said Brumann.

UNESCO intends to do more for Africa

Capacities are indeed low, Mechtild Rössler also acknowledged. She has been director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center in Paris since 2015. “Nevertheless, we have made progress,” Rössler emphasized. UNESCO supports African countries with donations from the “African World Heritage Fund.”

Intense discussions at the summit, however, revealed further need for action, Rössler said: “We see that we need to do much more in certain regions to prepare solid nominations and increase the capacity building with regard to conservation, on-the-ground management and risk preparation, because many World Heritage Sites are endangered – that’s a huge task to accomplish.”

Spread the responsibility over many shoulders

Universities should play a more important role in this, according to Rössler, and become more involved in the protection of cultural heritage in particular. Their experts could help assemble studies and documents for a country’s application. But governments also have a duty, she added.

Kenyan archaeologist Abungu also criticized the fact that universities have for a long time been reluctant, but many of them are also struggling to survive. The African World Heritage Fund has to serve 54 countries with scarce resources, he said, and that is not possible. UNESCO’s strategy to create more balance in nominations worldwide, he argued, has failed.

Economic interests take precedence

Governments in Africa face other problems: they need to boost the economy, buy vaccines and create work for people to eat. “The main reason why African governments haven’t been pushing for the listing of their territories lately is the fear that they won’t be able to run development projects afterwards,” Abungu explained in an interview with DW.

National parks, for example: communities were displaced there in colonial times and now they want their land back, but often there are valuable minerals or other resources there. In the Tanzanian nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site Selous, for example, the construction of a mega-dam is planned despite fierce criticism.

To remain a natural heritage site, the landscape would have to remain untouched. So for similar reasons, a particularly large number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa are considered endangered, Abungu said. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an armed conflict is raging over raw materials, among other things, sites have already been removed from the list.

Collectively safeguarding our shared heritage

The much-touted tourism sector also offers little incentive for states, municipalities or other investors to put money and work into an application for the UNESCO designation, explained Abungu. Tourism is far too underdeveloped in the majority of areas for a UNESCO World Heritage Site to attract large numbers of visitors.

Text and Photos by DW.

“African governments need to understand that the convention is a vehicle to help them conserve valuable sites,” Abungu said. But politicians have their own interests, they want to exploit resources, create jobs and make profits. That’s why the only way to preserve these sites would be with the help of the global north: “We should change the strategy, invest more from the north to the south to protect humanity’s common heritage.”

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