International Cooperation and Cultural Heritage Programs: in the name of which heritage?

Posted by / 25th April 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

International cooperation  in the cultural heritage sector is strongly  dependent on  investments with a top-down approach which does not substantially consider local communities in decision making. On the other side  of the  system, NGOs should fill the gap,  but when working  as a medium for  governmental funding,  no space is left  to plan actions based on the real needs of local communities. The Mutual Cultural Heritage (MCH)  program  in Galle, Sri Lanka, is just an example of this kind of attitude, and despite claims of sustainable cooperation, there is a clear discrepancy between  financial support and local needs. This raises concerns about ownership and heritage management.

The Mutual Cultural Heritage Program in Galle: in the name of which heritage?

The Netherlands launched  the first phase of the Mutual Cultural Heritage (MCH) Programme between  2009 -2012. According to the Cultural Heritage  Policy Framework, ”common cultural heritage” meant relics of a past that the Netherlands has shared with others: buildings and engineering constructions, archives, underwater wrecks and museum exhibits, as well as intangible heritage. The aim of the Common Cultural Heritage policy was to “collaborate on the sustainable maintenance and management of the common cultural heritage”.

After settling on the policy, the Dutch government identified eight priority countries: Brazil, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Russian Federation, Suriname, South Africa and Sri Lanka. In order to implement the plan, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science allocated funding and  contributed €2 million a year for the MCH program making cooperation agreements with the above countries.  One million was assigned to the relevant Dutch embassies. The other million was added to the budgets of the Netherlands’ three cultural heritage agencies: the National Archives (NA), the National Service for Archaeology, Cultural Landscapes and Built Heritage (RACM) and the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN).

All the MCH projects in Sri Lanka started  just after the end of the civil conflict, in 2009, and were  focused on project proposals and restoration plans   concerning Dutch remains such as forts and  Dutch archival sources. The shared heritage identified for the projects was related only to Dutch colonial heritage. Particular attention within the Mutual Cultural Heritage  was given to  Galle, a town located 120 km  south of Colombo, declared World Heritage Site in 1988. Within the MCH programme, the ancient Dutch  rampart and the drainage system in Galle Fort were  restored as well as the Dutch Warehouse in which the National  Maritime Museum was later established.

Furthermore, as part of the cooperation with the Netherlands, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage of Sri Lanka issued a  tourism development programme in Galle, which comprised the establishment of a boating service for local and foreign tourists.  In relation to this latter specific aspect,  UNESCO  has expressed,  since 2010, serious concerns about the management plan. The plan was criticised for lacking clarity and threatening the cultural heritage of Galle, particularly through the establishment of a new international harbor.

On the Dutch side a Dutch NGO was involved in the MCH program- the Centre for International Heritage Activities (CIE)- but its role was confined to organising informative meetings and workshops, inviting stakeholders such as UNESCO, the Sri Lanka Central Cultural Fund, ICOMOS and Dutch specialists. CIE managed funding provided by the Dutch Government to organize the above activities, but no locally based activities were arranged to monitor the MCH programme.

On the Sri Lankan side, apart from ICOMOS, which works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage sites, no local Sri Lankan NGOs were engaged, nor were any community based activities organised to evaluate the management of the MCH program or to raise awareness about the program itself. This is significant because heritage legislation and the concept of heritage itself are not the same in Western countries compared to many other parts of the world. Therefore, the meaning and nature of procedures is not always obvious. A constructive attitude toward monument preservation and management depends on the position that a local community takes in these processes in order to relate with, and create, a sense of ownership of the heritage in question. If local involvement is not planned, one consequence could be the alienation of heritage, thereby losing its links to the local, living community.

What is happening in Galle is that the local owners cannot afford the costs of maintenance for the old historical buildings because of the absence of legislation on heritage and the lack of funding from Sri Lanka authorities. Instead, many locals preferred selling their properties to foreigners. Furthermore, rather than to encourage local investments or raise local awareness, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) of Sri Lanka is trying to attract even more foreign investors, and uses the restored Dutch Hospital, in Galle Fort, as an example. It is planned to be leased as a mall with spas, restaurants and shops. On the UDA website it is not specified which kind of companies are going to manage those shops and restaurants, but if they will be led by foreign franchises and companies, the whole heritage management programme will be unlikely to offer the supposedly full benefits to local populations.

A realistic sustainable future for international cooperation and heritage management?

The main question here is how management is planned, in the name of which heritage, and how and in which ways local communities will eventually benefit from the outcomes if they are not substantially involved in the process. These issues are particularly sensitive because they touch and shape a local sense of ownership, legacy and the perception of heritage itself.

Galle showed that the MCH program did not actively involve local communities despite its goals to collaborate on sustainable maintenance and management of the common cultural heritage. A more vital and tangible heritage policy, heritage law and heritage management needs to be developed in sustainable international cooperation and heritage management. This will only be possible if governments, considering their own shortcomings, will accept the responsibility of equal cooperation, which should start with solutions, perspectives and approaches driven by the most important stakeholders: local communities. 


Further reading:

Lowenthal, D. (1985). The past is a foreign country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Van Maanen E., Ashworth G. (2013). Colonial Heritage in Paramaribo, Suriname: Legislation and Senses of
Ownership, a Dilemma in Preservation? International Journal of Cultural Property (2013) 20:289–310.


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About the author
Marta Laureanti is a guest author. As an archaelogist, she specialises in cultural landscapes, with a particular interest in heritage legislation and heritage management.

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