Mahmoud Mohieldin on Culture and Development

Thursday, November 30, 2017

To preserve our civilization, we need to listen to lessons of history and culture. Drawing on collective wisdom will help us rebuild better and smarter, to safeguard our precious cultural heritage, so that — together — we can build a world that is more peaceful, prosperous, and more secure.


On Culture and Development

Remarks by World Bank Group Senior VP Mahmoud Mohieldin at the 30th General Assembly of the International Centre

for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)Thursday, November 30, 2017 Rome, Italy

Distinguished delegates, excellencies, and friends, I am delighted to be here today — at the 30th General Assembly of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property — to talk about the scope of the development challenges embedded in cultural heritage preservation, the World Bank Group’s work in this area, especially in fragile and post-conflict settings, and the programs that we are currently doing in partnership with UNESCO and other development partners to develop global knowledge and improve our effectiveness.

I would like to acknowledge ICCROM and its role in promoting the conservation of all types of cultural heritage, as well as its contribution towards training, information sharing, research, cooperation, and advocacy within its critical mandate. ICCROM was created by UNESCO to address the “how” of cultural heritage preservation, paving the way for its role in this field as a technical body.

Cultural Heritage in the Context of Global Goals and Conditions

As you know, in 2015, 193 countries endorsed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals — or SDGs — which seek to protect people and the planet, while leaving no one behind, by 2030. These goals are extremely ambitious — ending poverty, hunger, child mortality, improving incomes, etc. — and global economic, environmental, and social conditions won’t make them any easier to attain.

Yet by 2030, and following the current patterns, disasters are projected to cost cities around the world over $300 billion dollars, with the concentration of people and assets in cities making them vulnerable to cascading failures in the wake of a disaster. Conflicts and climate-induced displacement are pushing even more people towards cities. Right now, there are 66 million inhabitants displaced, with roughly one-third of those settling in cities. These numbers are expected to grow significantly in the future, because of climate change.

Cultural landmarks and the historic core of cities are often the victims of collateral damage, during urban battles, or even when deliberately targeted due to their symbolic meaning. Disasters and conflicts not only limit people’s access to their cultural heritage, but also affect their intangible practices and creative industry.

Cultural heritage is a scarce resource, but when used properly, can be a valuable asset for recovery and critical economic growth to reduce poverty and achieve other important social goals. Rebuilding sustainable cities after disasters is an opportunity that should not be missed to: strengthen urban resilience and social inclusion; improve land use planning; rebuild more efficient infrastructure; and conserve cultural heritage to contribute to both economic recovery and reconciliation.

As cited in “The World in 2018” by the Economist, John Ruskin, the Victorian social thinker and art critic said “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds; the book of their words; and the book of their art. Not one of these can be understood without reading the two others. But the only one to trust is the book of art.”

Sometimes we take culture for granted. In development work it has often been ignored. We tend to value it when it under threat or when policy or project outcomes go wrong because it was not adequately considered in the design phase.

Indeed, this has been emphasized by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (2000), who said “…culture interacts with development in many different ways. It is involved in both the ends and the means of development. But the acknowledgement of the importance of culture should not be translated instantly into ready-made theories of what works, what needs to be cultivated and what must be preserved. There are complex epistemic issues involved in identifying the ways in which culture may or may not influence development, and also deeply ethical and political issue of the social choice involved in accommodating diverse concerns.”

Disasters send us a reminder that investing in cultural heritage conservation can make our heritage resilient and mitigate the damaging effects of disasters. In the medium term, conserving and promoting our unique cultural heritage would also attract sustainable and responsible tourists, encourage the private sector to invest, create jobs, encourage creativity, while protecting the environment.

We can preserve historic monuments and landmarks, while improving cultural amenities and public facilities. Our libraries, museums, theaters, parks, and spaces for performance, art and creativity, both conserve our heritage and help give birth to a creative and entrepreneurial future.

World Bank Group Approach

The World Bank Group has a long history in this area, integrating these approaches into our country partnership strategies, and aligning them with national objectives and the World Bank Group’s twin goals to end poverty and boost shared prosperity in a sustainable manner.

The World Bank’s role in the protection of built cultural heritage dates back to the first reconstruction loan to France after World War II. It is only, however, in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the institution started to engage in cultural heritage conservation in developing countries, such as the pilot rehabilitation of the Hafsia neighborhood in the Tunis medina or the upgrading of Lahore’s historic walled city.

The Bank Group increased lending and technical assistance for cultural heritage in the late 1990s, following the international conference held in Florence in 1999, and now has financed more than 300 lending and non-lending operations that include components in historic city regeneration and cultural preservation.

In some cases, cultural heritage conservation may be a part of a large project, which supports urban development, urban regeneration, environmental protection, or infrastructure rehabilitation. But there are also a notable number of stand-alone cultural heritage projects which conserve World Heritage Sites, National Monuments, and historic old towns and villages, for example in China, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Haiti, Peru, Georgia, and Russia. In addition, the World Bank Group has carried out technical assistance activities supported by the Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development Multi-Donor Trust Fund, under Italian and Indian financing. These activities typically include studies focusing on heritage protection and management, small works, and preparation of sustainable site management plans, yet they often lead to more significant investment projects. Our projects emphasize the primary role of local governments and local communities as core stakeholders in the design and implementation of all works and activities.

The rationale for the Bank’s involvement in cultural heritage stems from the sector’s potential for economic and social development, through its ability to generate revenues from existing cultural assets, for example through tourism-related activities, provide economic opportunities, promote employment, and contribute to poverty alleviation.

Regenerating historic cities and preserving cultural heritage sites helps foster sustainable tourism. Tourism plays a significant part in the economy of most countries. With the UN declaration of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, tourism is growing and can grow faster in a sustainable manner. After passing 1 billion international visitors in 2012, the global industry is expecting 1.8 billion by 2030.  Tourism is growing faster than the global economy. Since the World Bank Group first engaged in tourism, the sector has undergone rapid growth and significant change.  Travel and tourism has evolved into a diverse and sophisticated sector and is now recognized as one of the world’s most economically significant, representing 10% of global GDP, 5% of total investment and one out of every 11 jobs — half for women and youth. Culture tourism is growing particularly in developing countries; in some nations, tourism is becoming the 2nd most important export sector.

World Bank Group Cultural Heritage Work in Post-Conflict and Post-Disaster Reconstruction

The Bank’s experience regarding cultural heritage at risk in conflict-affected and post-conflict countries is always part of comprehensive plans, designed in the context of development partnerships. World Bank Group-financed post-conflict or disaster projects often involve several development partners, given the humanitarian, reconstruction and recovery dimensions that are at the core of the activities. They are challenging to implement, as they need to strike a delicate balance between the imperatives of speedy recovery, sustainable development, and improvement of the living conditions, while taking the cultural dimension into account.

Right now, the World Bank Group has a portfolio of about $1 billion dollars in support of cultural heritage conservation and post-disaster/post conflict reconstruction around the world. We are involved in the three phases of post-conflict reconstruction of historic cities: pre-conflict (prevention by strengthening disaster risk management and institutional preparedness), during the conflict (protection) and post-conflict (recovery, maintenance, sustainability, and re-appropriation).

Out projects often utilize the Bank’s extensive experience with disaster management. They underline the importance of community involvement and the need for flexibility. Designs are often adjusted to accommodate local needs and they may also be affected by resurgent conflicts. Despite their inherent difficulties, however, all projects demonstrate the power of cultural heritage in fostering a collective sense of identity, pride, and social cohesion.

It is also important to note that we believe we must work with our partners to build resilience before there is a disaster or conflict. Thus, our work encompasses preventive approaches, to protect cultural heritage through the strengthening of disaster risk management and institutional preparedness.

Our projects are developed at the request of national governments, which often appoint technical units to implement the activities. The local governments and institutions are then best suited to play the coordinating role that can, in turn, be supported by partner NGOs, associations, and private entities.

World Bank Group Project Examples

I’d like to share a few examples from fragile contexts, two representing successful approaches in the past, and another forward-looking plan to begin work as soon as conflict ceases

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the World Bank Group worked with many partners to restore the destroyed Mostar Bridge, which crosses the river Neretva.  Working with UNESCO and the Aga Khan, we combined grant funds with bilateral financing to reconstruct the Mostar Bridge and a number of buildings in the old city. The local communities, who contributed to the design and implementation of the project, identified the authentic restoration of the bridge as a priority. In recognizing and rehabilitating their shared heritage, the project helped foster reconciliation among social and confessional groups. It also had considerable economic impacts: tourist arrivals increased 20-fold by 2004, reaching 700,000 in 2006; several hundred small- and medium-sized businesses were created, including shops, hotels and restaurants, and various businesses; and the coastal tourism circuit was expanded to include excursions to Mostar.

The World Bank Group’s Lebanon Cultural and Urban Development Project sought to rebuild after over a decade of conflict, which has cost the country billions, wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, and displaced hundreds of thousands.  Our approach was to bring communities together around common goals, strengthening cultural identity and resilience, and delivering social and economic benefits. The Bank Group focused on the historic cities of Baalbek, Byblos, Saida, and Tripoli, which represent a significant sample of the country’s unique archaeological and urban heritage, including the World Heritage Sites of Baalbek, Byblos, and Tyre. World Bank Group loans were combined with funding from the French, Italian, and Lebanese governments.

The road wasn’t easy, and was interrupted several times due to local fighting and political uncertainty. Nevertheless, the project highlighted Lebanon’s resilience and its sustained commitment to protect their heritage while promoting equitable urban development, better quality of life, economic opportunities, and quality tourism. Byblos’ historic center has been entirely rehabilitated and attracts a sustained flow of visitors from within and outside Lebanon; large parts of Saida and Tripoli’s historic districts have been rehabilitated, including the restoration of two ancient “khans” for cultural and hospitality purposes; and urban and archaeological works have been implemented in Baalbek and Tyre. In all locations, houses were upgraded and local businesses are developing as a result of the project activities.

Even as the Syrian conflict continues in its sixth devastating year, partners are already planning its recovery, with cultural heritage envisaged as key to its future revival. The Syria Information and Research Initiative uses satellite imagery and social media analysis to plan reconstruction. It provides a sketch of the damage that occurred in six of the country’s key cities (Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dar’a, and Lattakia). This initiative will help estimate the cost of the war damage and help plan post-conflict reconstruction.  The technology, which has been tested for decades following natural disasters, includes remote-based, data-collecting techniques that are now being tailored to gather data while man-made disasters unfold. Satellite images show Aleppo as the most-affected city, followed by Homs and Hama. The data points to housing as the worst-hit sector, including in historic districts.

What we’ve learned from these engagements is the importance of coordinated approaches that encompass conservation, restoration & rehabilitation, urban planning, and management. It is equally important to incorporate in the reconstruction design the economic potential and benefits of properly managed and maintained cultural assets. Designed and implemented in collaboration with the communities, such operations can go a long way toward fostering solidarity, improving local conditions, and inducing economic development.

Partnership with UNESCO

This past July, the World Bank Group and UNESCO signed a renewed Memorandum of Understanding to reinvigorate the two institutions’ joint commitment to advance sustainable development by investing in culture, urban development, and resilience in an integrated manner. As part of this, we are working with UNESCO on a joint white paper on culture and post-disaster and post-conflict city reconstruction and recovery (and I understand that some of UNESCO key authors are with us today). The paper has a particular focus on fragile and conflict-affected situations, where there is often institutional fragmentation and limited capacity. The white paper, entitled “Culture, Recovery and Reconstruction: Sustainable Development Policies to Address the Impact of Conflicts, Disasters and Crises in Cities,” has an objective to “develop a framework and operational guidance for task teams and practitioners during the planning, financing, and implementation process of post-disaster and post-conflict urban reconstruction”. It will review six global case studies in-depth (Beirut, Timbuktu, Sarajevo, Seoul, Tokyo, and Medellin) as well as several practices by different organizations and countries to distill lessons learned.

The goal is to send a message to our operational teams in both institutions to work together in joint Post-Disaster Needs Assessments, and Recovery and Peace Building Assessments. It also will target government policy-makers in affected countries, focusing on a new framework, guiding principles, and best practices to consider cultural aspects during the planning, financing, and implementation process of post-disaster and post-conflict urban recovery and reconstruction process. The draft white paper will be presented and discussed at the World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February, 2018 to ensure that the paper reflects a broader perspective and feedback from development partners and experts. We look forward consulting with all of you in ICCROM and other experts in the room in the course of preparing this paper.


We know that, to be successful in building these durable global public goods and critical services, we have to work in partnership — with UNESCO, ICCROM and other international agencies, with MDBs, bilateral partners, CSOs, foundations, academic, and many others.  These partnerships are even more critical in fragile, conflict-affected, and post-disaster contexts.

To preserve our civilization, we need to listen to lessons of history and culture. Drawing on collective wisdom will help us rebuild better and smarter, to safeguard our precious cultural heritage, so that — together — we can build a world that is more peaceful, prosperous, and more secure.