The ‘heritage turn’ in international interventions in the Middle East and Iraq

Since the 1990s, donor organisations such as USAID and the development agencies in European countries, have delivered projects geared to building the capacity of domestic non-governmental organisations, promoting human rights and women’s issues and constructing new societal relations on the basis of liberal notions of state and society. Three decades into the delivery of those projects, and with the realisation that those interventions have had limited success, donors are starting to not only rethink how to do aid better, but focus on altogether new fields of activity. This new turn to heritage and culture represents a fundamental shift in aid practice and this blog touches on some of those issues.

The United Kingdom and its various funding bodies are crafting a new chapter in international development. The Cultural Protection Fund, a British Government programme managed by the British Council that spent about £30 million on various heritage projects in the Middle East, and other funding streams, had supported projects in areas that had been particularly neglected in international aid interventions.

For a long time now, and particularly since the 1991 Gulf War and again the Iraq War in 2003, heritage – cultural sites and infrastructures, including intangible culture – has been severely undermined and damaged. Saddam Hussein’s state appropriated heritage and created major damage to Iraq’s cultural infrastructure. The US military from 2003 also inflicted untold destruction on major historical sites, including Babylon. Generalised lawlessness, terrorism, insurgency, poverty and the actions of unaccountable political and religious elites have all played a part in inflicting damage on Iraq’s heritage. In this context, new interventions in the field of culture and heritage are much needed to promote and create sustainable local infrastructures to protect Iraq’s heritage. I explain why this changing aid modality has a greater chance of leaving a positive impact if it is able to connect with Iraq’s own heritage priorities.

 Some of the largest US-European interventions in aid history were designed to ‘strengthen’ and ‘develop’ civil society in post-2003 Iraq. Since 2003, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on civil society strengthening programmes. We don’t really know how much because no one keeps a record of these funds. What we do know however is that USAID alone spent a significant amount of resources on Iraq’s NGO sector. Large US-EU state donors prioritised this field of intervention over other areas, such as education, culture and heritage. One of the key challenges of those programmes has been the absence of continuity and sustainability. Domestic organisations working on such programmes have often been established purely to extract wealth for personal gain. When funding runs out, domestic organisations often disappear or recraft themselves as new organisations with a different purpose. The end result – now looking back at 16 years of interventions and one of the largest amounts of aid money spent in recent history –  has been exceptionally negligible. One of the main reasons for the absence of sustainability and continuity in such programmes has been because they have had little traction in wider society.  With no real local owners, foreign projects often fail. The heritage turn in new programme modalities, however, has shown that building on existing structures, whether people or institutions, can create a greater sense of local ownership over externally funded projects.

Unlike civil society strengthening and other liberal interventions, the new heritage turn works to build local networks with existing stakeholders. Interventions, especially in the field of heritage, are generally not designed to create new things, but rather, protect and promote, on the basis of locally existing cultural assets, even if severely diminished. It has been shown that when there is greater local ownership, there is a more efficient use of resources and often significant additional local resources are used to augment those derived from external sources. Channelling funds and expertise into existing cultural institutions may prove much more effective than building new institutions.

Civil society strengthening programmes were ideologically driven – designed with a view to creating a state based on an image of US-European society. This often meant that aid interventions would attempt to create and prop up domestic non-governmental organisations which would in turn be ‘change agents’ in society. The type of change, however, was often defined by Western donors where agency of local stakeholders was strictly defined. As heritage interventions attempt to connect to existing structures – whether people or cultural sites – it facilitates greater local agency. On the contrary, programmes that focused on the construction of ideational state and society often had weak social traction and were thus unable to connect to existing society.

The imposition under the US occupation of ‘Muhasa’sa’ –a political system for the allocation of Iraq’s wealth and power on the basis of sectarianism and ethno-nationalism – has been the antithesis of a functioning and democratic society. This system which has now percolated across Iraqi society has been deeply damaging and has constructed deeply fragmented communities. Iraq’s political system accentuates ethnic, cultural and religious differences rather than works to bring about a semblance of inter-community peace. By extension, Iraq’s cultural assets and institutions, including its churches, mosques, pre-Islamic sites, synagogues, temples and many other sites are now, under Muhasa’sa, controlled by competing political and religious bodies. The newly forged post-2003 political system has been disastrous to Iraq’s cultural infrastructure and arguably there is no national heritage when cultural assets are used, appropriated and instrumentalised – and sometimes even weaponised – for political party and religious group purposes. Moreover, group competition for resources has relied heavily on the appropriation of heritage and culture in post-2003 Iraq, which has been disastrous as cultural assets are exploited and often damaged in the process of being reconstituted for specific political interests. One of the detrimental repercussions of those processes has been the creation and deepening of fragmented societies and communities in Iraq.

International heritage interventions – if designed well and are cognizant of politics – could go a long way in building local capacity of community leaders, heritage experts, universities and other stakeholders interested in protecting heritage from the ongoing and continuous damage inflicted on it since 2003. Such interventions are particularly important in a context which has seen the near erasure of entire cultural groups and minorities, and where tangible heritage has been either undermined or deliberately neglected.

About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is a researcher at University College London (UCL). Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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