Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Role of Cultural Heritage in Poverty Reduction

We economists tend to see well-being, and poverty in particular, as a matter of finances and income. But fortunately, at least in the Bank, we have come a long way from that simplistic view. Reducing poverty is not only about increasing productivity and income. It is about enabling people to have a broad sense of well-being and opportunities to express and make choices about their lives.

As the famous Bank series “Voices of the Poor” and the follow up “Moving Out of Poverty” have shown us, poverty is much more than lacking a steady or sufficient source of income. Being poor is being vulnerable: to crime and violence, to the lack of justice and access to services. Being poor means inability to negotiate, bargain, and get paid. Poverty, in a nutshell, is a kind of decline in social connectedness. So that’s why social solidarity and cultural identity are so relevant to poverty reduction.

One aspect of cultural identity is cultural heritage, an issue that was widely discussed at the 13th Annual International Symposium: Economic Benefits, Social Opportunities, and Challenges of Supporting Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Development, held May 20 – 22 at Word Bank headquarters in Washington DC. The conference, organized jointly with the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, explored fascinating topics –from the contribution of cultural heritage to the development of sustainable communities, to the looting and illicit traffic of cultural treasures.

In my own address at the symposium, I expressed my full support to the Bank’s work on this area. Besides helping developing countries on macroeconomic issues, we should continue to provide technical and financial resources to national and local governments for regenerating historic cities and conserving their cultural heritage assets. They both are the physical setting where the cultural identity of local communities materializes, and the right place to generate economic opportunities relating to traditional and indigenous skills.
Historic cities and cultural heritage assets can provide opportunities for tourism development, one of the biggest industries worldwide, which can generate substantial revenues and employment.

But the value of sites such as Notredame, the Taj Mahal, or Machu Picchu, cannot be measured only in terms of revenues and tourism. So, recognizing this intangible quality of cultural heritage, the UN Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) defined it as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history …”
At the end of the day what really matters, in my opinion, is the importance that communities and society itself give to their own cultural heritage, whether it is tangible or intangible, and regardless of what its “real” material value is. For some hard-core, old-school economists, this might sound as a platitude, but unless we take cultural heritage seriously, the fight against the many faces of poverty will remain elusive. 

Ouro Preto in Brazil, one of the author's favorite cultural sites