Since the devastation wrought on cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and many other countries, international donors have ploughed hundreds of millions on cultural heritage related projects in crisis affected contexts throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. As an outcome, cultural heritage is fast becoming appreciated by governments and funding agencies as an integral component of international assistance programmes.
Yet, in light of its growing importance, international responses to cultural heritage in situations of violent conflict and instability have not seen a commensurate discussion about ethics and principles of interventions. Considering the emerging field of heritage related international assistance and the projects that it offers support to, established humanitarian and development principles need to be considered and integrated into the work of donors, state agencies, cultural operators, contractors and a growing array of cultural heritage actors.
Whether in the form of disaster, long-term conservation or emergency activities, support to cultural heritage can assist societies to recover. In the UK for example, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport allocated over £30m to the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund to support cultural heritage in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, amongst other countries. The British Museum alone received £3.2 million for what it said to be post-ISIS emergency support in Iraq, focusing on excavations and training. Since 2017, UNESCO in Iraq has secured over $100m for the ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’ initiative, with the European Union and the US similarly offering large amounts for cultural heritage. In Iraq alone, over $500m in recent years has been or is in the process of being spent based on cultural heritage, with the US, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union and its Member States leading in funding projects.
Cultural heritage programmes are also being funded through the private sector. The newly established private donor organisation for cultural emergencies and conservation, ALIPH, which is supported by France, China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and other countries, has similarly spent tens of millions on Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other countries affected by conflict and instability. Cultural operators that are involved in direct implementation such as the World Monuments Fund and the US-government institution, the Smithsonian, have also secured similar amounts for cultural projects from private funders.
While there have been no detailed studies of these interventions and their size and impact, particularly on beneficiaries and communities, a common factor amongst donors and operators however is that none of this work has been guided by a code of conduct and charter of principles. Some institutions do of course have a code of ethics but these are not as relevant or applicable when projects are implemented outside their home countries.
Rather than viewing cultural heritage as a separate field of activity to peacebuilding and humanitarianism, donors and international operators need to urgently focus on learning about the full impact of their interventions on societies that they work in and hold their work to the highest degree of accountability, not least by the minimum standards of their home countries. This is particularly relevant in a situation of degraded civil societies and weak state institutions whose capacity and power for engaging in the design and implementation of foreign funded projects are highly circumscribed.
Considering the significance of cultural heritage as an indispensable element in people’s lives, identities and histories, donors and cultural operators need to review how their interventions affect the countries and societies in which they work. For example, generalised trauma is a key characteristic of conflict affected societies, meaning that interventions in the field of cultural heritage need to be particularly cognizant about the way projects are designed, who they work with and how activities unfold once they are funded. These issues are far from being translated into actionable practices, frameworks and approaches let alone seriously discussed.
As such, interventions in the cultural heritage of other countries need to be openly discussed and issues pertaining to it elevated to the highest echelons of policy thinking, planning and practice.
We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. A good start would be to integrate and where possible adopt existing humanitarian principles to heritage related work. By learning from the Sphere Handbook’s Humanitarian Charter, for example as well as ethical principles more generally, we could apply much of what we have learnt over the past few decades to the field of cultural heritage assistance.
At the heart of what could be a new cultural heritage relevant ethics is the established humanitarian principle of ‘Do No Harm’. Assistance and other forms of interventions in the field of cultural heritage should not exacerbate conflict or social tensions and put partners and communities in harm’s way, either when projects are implemented or after they have been completed. In this context, interventions should be sensitive to conflict dynamics and their legacies, which continue well after countries have been labelled ‘post-conflict’ by foreign funding agencies.
Four core principles taken from the world of humanitarianism could make a good starting point in these discussions.
One of the key humanitarian principles of interventions is humanity. To address human suffering, to help those in need, is a moral obligation. The principle of humanity is frequently taken for granted, however. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution, goes a step further and was accepted by the UN in 2005 and has been used as a pretext for armed international interventions. It was expanded to the protection of World Heritage later and today the UN and UNESCO are meant to apply this moral code to cultural heritage.
‘To do good’ or ‘to do something’ is in many cases thought of as enough, especially with charity and volunteer organisations. To organize and support heritage colleagues and address cultural collapse in a crisis, however, needs a professional approach. How aid and projects are designed and for whom are key questions in this regard. Participatory approaches are required to be integrated and made a point of discussion. After all: ‘Whatever you do for me without me, you do against me’(Gandhi).
Neutrality is about offering assistance without taking sides. Violent conflict ruptures society and creates divisions. Many people withdraw from society or escape, leading to cycles of long-term damage. Dynamics of conflict should be considered by heritage related assistance and cultural operators. They are often not even spoken about or integrated into programmes.
Whilst there might be a need to support groups, especially the weak and vulnerable and those that have been deliberately targeted or affected by conflict, it is also important to note that fractures in society are an outcome of war itself and at times discriminatory state policies. Social analyses or assessments of interventions are missing and there is a fear that large amounts of foreign funding could exacerbate and reproduce existing problems.
A common responsibility to all affected by conflict, rather than those donor agencies deemed to be closer to their interests, should be of paramount importance. Pertinently, it is a duty on all donors and cultural operators to ask why they are selecting one section of society over another. Projects are an opportunity for self-reflection on such things as intentionality, which shapes the design and delivery of programmes.
Impartiality – to provide aid and deliver projects without discrimination – is a difficult obligation. It is, however, central to the development of cultural heritage ethical principles. In the light of other guiding principles that identify drivers and connectors in a violent conflict, impartiality has its limitations. It requires interventions to be cognizant of not only the context in question, but importantly donors and implementing parties’ own positionality and power.
Arguably, no one is impartial, and we all have views about how society should be governed. The main question here, however, is mostly one about power and the type of relationships forged in projects. These factors have generally been ignored, or altogether dismissed in cultural heritage work, with the focus of discussions about other people’s contexts rather than those of the donor country’s interests and politics.
As a corollary, all forms of heritage – tangible or otherwise – need to be respected and treated equally in emergency and recovery programmes as they are all significant to society. Cultural heritage is a resource for everyone. Interventions in the field of cultural heritage have shown however that projects are generally focused on what is primarily of direct relevance to donor interests. This has remained unchanged, even in situations of emergency and collapse. In Iraq and Syria, for example, cultural heritage interventions both now and in the past have preferred to focus on pre-Islamic tangible heritage and have as such mostly ignored Islamic heritage and other fields such as modern architecture and other important parts of the identities of people. Interventions that focus on one part of history over others – not least in a country as diverse as Iraq – are more likely to be viewed in those countries as oriented to foreign interests than local priorities.
Archaeology in Iraq, for example, is still underpinned by colonial-era practices. Indeed US-European archaeologists and related agencies have not changed their approaches which are oriented primarily to knowledge extraction. Everything else that is championed today, such as issues of sustainability, conservation, community, and education, are peripheral or merely used to look relevant. Indeed, the scale of the challenges are huge for archaeology, especially when many archaeologists think that their interventions exist in fields that are separate to issues concerning conflict, development, politics and society.
Interventions have increasingly become politicized over the last decades. Some large international projects have little if any sense of impartiality as they are designed to support particular sections of society, creating in their wake deep fissures and inequalities. For example, USAID has spent over $373 million for Christian groups in Iraq alone, favouring groups that suited its own political agenda. In what is an ethnically and religiously mixed society, the repercussions of these huge programmes targeting conflict affected communities over others have yet to be fully understood. Favouring one group over another is, in fact, the very opposite of neutrality and does little for social cohesion and for building long-term peace.
Although cultural heritage assistance is mostly derived from government or private donors, there should be always an adherence to principles of independence. Whilst this is problematic given that donors themselves have their own agendas in relation to cultural heritage, principles pertaining to independence should influence, as much as possible, how projects are designed and implemented.
A code of conduct that champions independence would ensure that both donors and grantees also factor their role in other people’s cultures and countries. Significantly, the principle of independence, long cherished in humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross, could offer an important entry point into building good, trust-based relations in cultural recovery and support to communities.
Notwithstanding the fact that international development departments reflect foreign policy of the donor country, independence could constitute not only ideal constructs but working practices that shape programmes and the relationship they have to other countries. It could be central to the success of programmes as they rapidly move from conventional state-to-state cultural diplomacy to more assertive and interventionary heritage programmes that are implemented in-country, especially in contexts where state institutions are themselves weak and society is undergoing multiple, concurrent crises.
Donors and other cultural heritage actors need to appreciate that cultural heritage is also a sovereignty issue. New cultural heritage assistance programmes should not normalise unfettered interventions that violate the sovereignty of other countries. Cultural heritage should not be a new tool in reshaping other people’s countries such as fostering neo-liberal capitalism and liberal democracy. It is all too often the case however that cultural heritage has been exploited as a trojan horse – often under the banner of emergency assistance – to shape society in ways conducive to political interests.
Towards a Code of Conduct for Cultural Heritage
There are other principles, taken from international development, that should similarly be integral to the preparation of a code of conduct in cultural heritage projects. These are also listed in the Sphere Handbook (2018) and include respect of local cultures and customs, building local capacity, the need to involve beneficiaries in project management, work to reduce future vulnerabilities, meeting basic needs, ensure accountability to both donors and recipients of aid, and finally recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects. Other key principles that should be appreciated are about the use of data and knowledge from other countries’ cultural heritage and our collective responsibility regarding looting of cultural artefacts. These are just a handful and there are many others that need to be considered.
To most funding and implementation agencies in the field of heritage these principles are not new. Nevertheless, acceptance does not mean they are part of implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Unfortunately, these additional principles are frequently rendered marginal to international assistance programmes in this field.
As cultural heritage is an integral part of the lives of people, interventions should be scrutinised and held to the highest levels of accountability. Worryingly, neither accountability nor ethical principles characterize what has become a boom period of huge windfalls for cultural organisations, which are mostly contracted to undertake work in other countries. Similarly, huge overhead expenses have been secured for home country implementing institutions, providing little if any incentive for changing practices and the status quo.
Taken together, a code of conduct would also assist in ensuring transparency and openness. Huge government and private funding have translated into competition for funding rather than co-operation. Combined with a situation of weak outputs and the need to support long-term cultural sustainability, participation, partnerships and the priorities of crisis affected countries, the sector is characterised by dysfunctionalism and a rush to extract resources in the name of helping others. This became especially clear during the Corona pandemic.
New funding in the past few years has been designed for emergencies but in fact most cultural organisations that donors are working with have carried on as normal and their programmes have little changed practices regarding addressing cultural crises. By centering ethics at the heart of cultural heritage, projects are more likely to be sensitive to the crises that they claim to be addressing.
This is just the start of what will be a long journey. Leading by example should be a priority and necessitate a review of cultural heritage interventions, the role of donors and implementing organisations. It is now time to open the discussion about ethics and humanitarian-based principles regarding the work being done in countries affected by conflict and other disasters.
René is an independent conservation and heritage expert, based in Holland. As a conservator he worked at the National Library of the Netherlands and designed risk management plans for different heritage institutions home and abroad, and has worked in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst other countries. His website is http://www.cultureindevelopment.nl/About_Culture_in_Development/Rene_Teijgeler
Mehiyar is Deputy Director of the University College London’s Nahrein Network