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Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the UNESCO Conference on Culture and Development in Hangzhou, China

Wednesday, 2013, May 15
Aga Khan IV (H.H. Prince Karim)

Madame Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO,
Honorable Ministers,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen.

My warmest thanks go to all of you who have received us so generously here in Hangzhou, our Chinese hosts and our many friends from UNESCO.

I am honoured by your invitation, and pleased for this opportunity to talk about two subjects that are very close to my heart – culture and development.

UNESCO is to be saluted for keeping the work of cultural development high on the international agenda. And I also want to recognize the important work that China has been doing, in cooperation with UNESCO and through its own advances in cultural development. It is indeed striking to realize how many of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites are here in China, with this beautiful city of Hangzhou high among them. We are deeply pleased to be here.

I referred to culture and development a moment ago as two separate subjects. In fact, as your participation here attests, they are inextricably linked.

It was not so long ago, however, that culture and development were not thought to be so compatible. “Cultural heritage” was often seen as a potential drain on fragile economies, even a barrier to modernization.

The closer linking of culture with development grew initially, I believe, out of an increasing respect for the pluralism of developing societies. We came to recognize, as UNESCO has emphasized, that “one size simply does not fit all". And cultural diversity has thus become part of the development equation.

My intention today, however, is not simply to talk about cultural adaptation as another component of general development. What I propose to discuss with you is how cultural heritage can itself be a “trampoline” for social and economic development, in the same way that agriculture, water resources, power supplies or transportation systems have traditionally been perceived.

Even in settings of abject poverty, cultural legacies, though once dormant, can become powerful catalysts for change.

I propose to demonstrate that proposition by describing some experiences of the Aga Khan Development Network over the past three decades. More precisely, I will speak about our work in restoring historic buildings as well as public and domestic spaces of cultural significance, in the poorer parts of the world.

I noted that UNESCO, in its Backgound Paper for this conference, suggested that – and I quote – “one of the identified gaps in the Millennium Development Goals was their focus on outputs rather than on processes, what has been described as a concern for 'what' at the expense of 'how'".

My purpose, quite simply, is to talk to you about the “how".

My attention to cultural legacies was triggered, over three decades ago, when I realized that the proud architectural heritage of the Islamic world was endangered. The art forms through which great Islamic cultures had expressed their identity and their ideals were deteriorating.

The result, for huge segments of the world’s population, was a fading of cultural memory. The world was threatened by an enormous cultural disaster.

Even worse, there were few resources for addressing this situation. Architectural thinking, globally, was dominated by western industrial models. Islamic architecture itself was abandoning its heritage in the face of an all-consuming modernity.
Our response to that situation began with the creation, in 1977, of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, dedicated to the renewal of this legacy. Soon afterward came the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and under its aegis, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme.

Over the last two decades, this programme has developed 20 major projects in nine different countries, many of them at UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each one has taken about ten years to complete. In the process we have worked with dozens of partners and thousands of local employees. The projects have attracted sizeable collateral investments and millions of visitors. And they have helped reduce poverty and improve the quality of life in the affected communities, and well beyond.

In the last ten years, capital investment in the Historic Cities Programme reached US$ 182 million. Almost one-fourth of that came from partner donors. These may not seem like overwhelming figures, but the multiplier effect has been prodigious.
One of our first projects grew out of a seminar in1984 about public spaces in large Islamic cities. We met in Cairo, a city that my ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, founded over 1000 years ago. Over the centuries an enormous dumping ground for debris had developed there, covering some 32 hectares. Almost unbelievably, it had never been built upon. In 2001, we undertook to transform that area into a state-of-the-art green space. And in 2005, a beautiful park was opened in the area of the Azhar.

Adjoining the park, however, was one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods, Darb al Ahmar. Some 200,000 inhabitants had been living there for centuries amid the ruins of Cairo’s oldest buildings. The project quickly became a great archaeological adventure, uncovering and restoring ancient walls and gates, six historic mosques, and dozens of houses and palaces. Local residents were trained in restoration skills and some 200 are now permanently employed at the site.
Equally important, the work expanded into social dimensions, providing neighbourhood education and health services, and a supportive microcredit program. Our approach from the outset was that each reconstruction project should include a broad plan for social development. We call the approach Multi-Input Area Development.

Today the entire area, once one of the most dense and impoverished urban agglomerations on the planet, has become a remarkable residential and cultural cityscape. In 2001, most inhabitants were squatters, with no title to their property. Today, 24 percent have a legal title. Over the last decade, family earnings increased one-third faster than in the whole of Old Cairo. Literacy rates climbed by one-fourth. Meanwhile, the very nature of society has been transformed, in an area where evil social habits had been perpetuated for generations. Al Azhar Park, meanwhile, has attracted more than 13 million visitors.

Let me now move on from Egypt to Afghanistan, where we have engaged in similar work, restoring thirty buildings, monuments and public spaces in the heart of Kabul. The focal point has been the historic Babur Gardens and the ancient Mausoleum of Timur Shah. As in Cairo, we have also prioritized the regeneration of nearby neighbourhoods. Since its completion in 2007, the Bagh-e-Babur monument and the surrounding gardens have attracted over 400,000 annual visitors. And similar efforts are also underway in the West Afghan city of Herat.

Let me move, quite literally, from “A to Z” – from Afghanistan to Zanzibar, where my grandfather began to build schools over a century ago. In 1996, we developed, with the Zanzibar government, a master plan for the redevelopment of Stone Town. It involved restoring eleven historic buildings, creating a new Serena hotel, rehabilitating Kelele Square, rebuilding and extending the old seawall, and revitalizing the nearby Forodhani Park. And we hope, too, that it will lead to the creation of an Indian Ocean Maritime Museum, celebrating Zanzibar’s rich history as a crossroads of commerce and culture.

But we need not confine this discussion to urban centres. Some of our most interesting work and challenges have come in the high mountain valleys of Northern Pakistan. Few international travelers visit there today, but the area was once a critical link along the historic Silk Route. The cultural lynchpin has been the restoration and repurposing of historic forts and palaces, watchtowers and mosques, homes and markets – expanding jobs and diversifying the economy. Here too, the inputs have been multiple: innovations in water and land management, a revival of village organizations and a productive infrastructure including roads, bridges, schools and clinics.

As you know, the mountain terrain not only separates Northern Pakistan from neighbouring regions, but it also isolates communities of each valley, one from the other. And yet, as word of the restorations spread, people of other villages began to ask, “How can we share in this work?” It was a heartening example of regional cohesion growing out of cultural diversity.

Another complex illustration is found in India. Our major restoration project in Delhi was conceived in 1997, marking the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. It focused on a proud historical symbol, the Gardens of the Tomb of the Emperor Humayun. The project combined disciplines such as archaeology, conservation science, soil analysis, stone carving and hydraulic engineering, drawing as well on local artisanal skills. As a result, the special grandeur of past centuries is today part of public life.

The life of the neighbourhood has also been revitalized. Important initiatives in health, education and sanitation grew out of our quality of life assessments, and we continue to monitor quality of life indices, through baseline studies, on a regular basis.

The most recent news from India has also been encouraging. The government there has approved the creation at the redeveloped complex of an Interpretation Centre designed to make its complex story more accessible for residents and visitors.

The Delhi project extends over an area of some 100 hectares, three times the scale of the Cairo project. It is our largest development to date, and we have deliberated about its scale. Clearly, some projects will be too small to be worthwhile, but it is possible for projects to get too big, to become unmanageable or to collapse under their own weight. What is always needed is a keen sense of proper scale.

Complexity has been another central watchword for the Historic City projects. In the country of Mali, for example, the restoration of the Great Mosque of Mopti involved close collaboration at all levels of government. It also drew on a wide range of professionals and craftspeople: architects, masons, plasterers, metal workers, electricians and potters. Meanwhile, social inputs again complemented the construction work, including water and sewage networks, vocational training and again micro finance initiatives. The Great Mosque of Mopti is one of three ancient mud mosques that were restored in Mali, along with those at Djenne and Timbuktu. And yet another nearby project, the new Bamako National Park, is already receiving half a million visitors a year.

I cite these examples – Cairo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Zanzibar, Delhi and Mali – as case studies from our experience. I could mention as well the restoration of three ancient citadels in Syria, the forthcoming rehabilitation of Nairobi’s central city park in Kenya as well as the Khorog city park in Tajikistan, and other projects from Mostar to Samarkand.

For all of these journeys, the development process has been long and complex, but filled with stimulating lessons. Let me briefly summarize five of them.

First, these cultural projects depend upon an ethic of partnership. This means that traditional separations between public and private domains must be set aside. The concept of public-private partnership is an essential keystone for effective cultural development.

The role of governments, including municipalities, is fundamental in providing what we often term “an enabling environment” for development. But the public sector cannot do this work alone. A creative mix of participants is needed, corporations and development agencies, foundations and universities, individual donors, faith communities and local community groups.

I have one more comment to make about partnerships. It is absolutely essential that effective partnerships are maintained throughout the life of a project, including the post-completion period. Let me cite our own experience in support of this point. Of the 20 Historic City projects that we have undertaken, only two have failed the test of time. But in both cases what was missing was a strong partnership structure for post-project management.

This discussion leads me to a second conclusion: while cultural development often begins with physical legacies, planning must focus well beyond the cultural goals. We cannot somehow assume that a favourable social and economic impact will flow naturally as a by-product of cultural commitments. Issues relating to the quality of life must be considered from the beginning and monitored throughout the project's life.

A third point in this list of lessons learned is that the engagement of the local community from the earliest stages is imperative for success. Cultural endeavours, in particular, involve risks that go beyond external, economic factors. Their progress can depend heavily on variable qualities of human nature, including the pride and confidence of the peoples involved. In any development effort, there will be a tipping point along the way when we see the glass as half full rather than half empty. But these tipping points are more likely to tip in the right direction when attention to local confidence has become an ingrained reflex.

There is a fourth point that is also special to historic restoration projects. That is the fact that we can never be sure just what we will encounter as the work of rediscovery moves along. There are many unknowns going in, and we must be ready for surprises. I think, for example, of how little we knew, when we started, about the extent and condition of the Ayyubid Wall in Cairo, buried for 500 years or more. The Wall in fact had been so completely obscured that plans had been suggested for building a highway over it, until its remains were identified. In this case, as in so many others, the resilience and adaptability of all the partners, including the people of the local neighbourhoods, was critical.

Let me finally highlight a fifth lesson. Planning for such projects must anticipate how they will operate on a continuing basis after they are completed. In many cases, a permanent service facility will be put in place, a site museum perhaps, a scholarly centre, a children’s library, a training workshop, a clinical resource, or research facility. Financial planning must take these opportunities into account, as a set of costs to be sure, but also a potential source of revenue. Up-front investment will be on everyone’s mind at the start. But our financial strategies should include eventual income streams that will sustain the project over the long run. One of the least happy outcomes for any cultural initiative is that it becomes a net drain on the local population.

In this respect, I want to return to the example of Cairo because I think it is very illustrative of what can be achieved. There, Al Azhar Park not only provides important employment for the community, both directly and indirectly, but it also attracts over two million visitors a year. And with these visitors comes a stream of revenues; fees and charges for entrance and for special events, licenses, parking fees, retail sales and so on. The result is that the project now produces a surplus of some 800 thousand US dollars a year. That surplus is then reinvested in the same area, helping to ensure long term sustainability.

I have summarized for you here a complex array of information, hoping that it may spur attention and interest, especially in discussing not only the “what” of cultural development but also the “how".

Whether it be in Asia, Africa or the Middle East, in high mountain or coastal areas, in urban or rural environments, in peaceful or post-conflict situations, the case is proven in my mind that cultural development can contribute, in unique and distinctive ways, to the human aspiration for a better quality of life. And that of course, precisely, should be the objective of the post 2015 development agenda.

Thank you.

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