Here's a good tie-breaker for your next pub quiz. What do 111 Neolithic houses built on stilts, a shoe factory in Germany and Senegal's Saloum Delta have in common? The answer? They were all inscribed onto the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2011.
In all, the cultural arm of the UN added 25 sites to the list last year, increasing the total number of locations it considers to be 'of universal value' to 936. In the past decade, 248 sites have been added. A further 36 have been shortlisted for 2012, and another 1,500 have been identified for possible future inscription. There are 1,500 more that are awaiting consideration. In times of economic gloom, international heritage seems rather chipper, and this year UNESCO certainly appears to have a spring in its step as it prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its World Heritage convention. However, the reality may be different.
IDENTIFYING WORLD HERITAGE
The international agreement that underpins the World Heritage list--the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage--was adopted by UNESCO in 1972. The inspiration came both from the centenary that year of the foundation of Yellowstone National Park and from concern at the time over the construction of the Aswan High Dam during the 1960s, which led to the damaging, relocation and flooding of a great deal of Egyptian heritage.
Then, as now, the convention aspired to place certain monuments, locations and landscapes on a lofty, higher pedestal in recognition of their unique value. 'The physical expressions of our common heritage are the special places of universal significance, places that are equally important to all cultures and humanity,' says Kishore Rao, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 'They may have local origins, but their significance is something that transcends that country or locality.'
While this may be the case, the criteria for defining World Heritage status have shifted since the convention was established. Originally, the intention was to produce an expanded and updated version of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 'In the early years, the choices--the Taj Mahal, Pyramids, Grand Canyon--were no-brainers,' says Rao. 'You didn't need much research to establish that they qualified. As time went by, different cultural landscapes emerged--industrial sites, modern heritage--and you appreciate that these, too, have an iconic value for different cultures and regions.' Rao's colleague, Dr Mechtild Rossler, the centre's policy chief, points out: 'The World Heritage list would not be complete without the Sydney Opera House or the city of Brasilia, which are examples of modern heritage.'
All of which seems reasonable enough. But as the number of sites inscribed edges towards 1,000, the status and merit of World Heritage sites is coming under increasing scrutiny. Such a large club may be elite, but can it still be exclusive? Critics question whether the large number of sites on the list today dilutes the brand; that cash-strapped UNESCO has over-reached itself and is influenced by petty national politics; and that countries increasingly see World Heritage sites as a tool for self-promotion and a way to catch the eye of the tourist. This may make for heavyweight coffee table books full of glorious photographs, but is it so effective at bolstering cultural distinctiveness?
UNESCO officials are honest about the challenges they face. 'The system is really, really overloaded,' says Rossler. 'The challenge is to keep up with funding for sites, for protection, for improving capacity. The crucial issue is the credibility of the World Heritage convention. We have to save the values for which the sites were inscribed. We have to take ourselves back to the origins of the convention.
'Everybody thinks UNESCO is a funding agency, but we're not,' she continues. …