Q&A: Irina Bokova on saving culture in times of conflict

Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general. Photo by: Sikarin Thanachaiary / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

Rarely since its founding in 1945 has the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization been so close to the frontlines of conflict. Created to help rebuild education systems and cultural exchange after World War II, the organization today is at the center of a plethora of new, complex battlefields.

In Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, UNESCO is co-leading efforts to tackle antiquities trafficking by extremist groups. They have sent cultural missions to battle-torn Aleppo and Mosul to assess the damage to heritage sites. And across the globe, UNESCO is leading a debate about how to reach the millions of displaced children worldwide with a quality education.

The nexus between conflict and culture has given a new urgency to UNESCO’s work. Devex sat down with Director-General Irina Bokova to discuss progress in heritage preservation, building local trust, and how arts and culture offer powerful policymaking tools in countering extremism and building social inclusion. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Recently, we’ve heard a lot of discussion about culture and arts as a mechanism to achieve other development goals — countering extremism, promoting equality and inclusion. In a constrained funding environment, does that argument increasingly need to be made?

I think there are different levels in this discussion, and it is not just one argument or one vision about culture that needs to be emphasized. I do believe [culture] has been largely neglected because of other reasons: If it’s a conflict, [the tendency is to say,] ‘Oh, military means will solve a conflict.’ If it’s social inclusion, then the economy will grow and automatically things will come up. They don’t. This is where the roots of society and the meaning of culture comes into the picture, on different levels and for different reasons.

“Culture can bring a lot of solutions and perspectives if it is taken seriously. I think we are starting to take it seriously.”

— Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general

I would say the worst development — but it is the strongest argument [for safeguarding culture] — is violent extremism and destruction of heritage and diversity, the persecution of people based on their religious or ethnic background, the attempt to disintegrate diverse societies and to impose one vision: To erase history as if nothing happened. I think all this has made us think a little bit differently about culture, heritage and what is at stake. This is one part of the story.

The other very important part of the story about culture and its impact on society is that we need new sources of energy — we need new sources of creativity. The ultimate renewable source is human ingenuity. It is everything the human mind can create. This once again puts culture and arts into the picture, because this is the way to find new solutions to present day challenges. This is also the way to make more social inclusion and even to create jobs. Recent studies show that the cultural industries have around 30 million jobs around the world, more than the automobile industry. So is this an economic factor? It is. Most of these jobs are locally embedded jobs, they cannot be exported, they create social cohesion and in many of them, women find also their place. The tendency is that these cultural industries in some countries are the fastest growing.

Culture can bring a lot of solutions and perspectives if it is taken seriously. I think we are starting to take it seriously. The recent resolution of the United Nations Security Council 2347, which is about protecting culture in conflict in Syria and Iraq mostly, is a huge success for those of us who think that issues of conflict, peace and security cannot be solved only by military means — and that cultural heritage matters, for peace, security and reconciliation.

How has this nexus between heritage and conflict resolution reshaped your thinking or work at UNESCO?

We are guardians of the six major cultural conventions … How did [this work] change? It changed enormously, because there are so many emergency measures to be taken.

Let us take the trafficking of antiquities, which I think is the most visible part of our action. We worked with the Security Council for another major breakthrough resolution on the financing of extremism, adopted in January 2015, Resolution 2199, which concretely entrusted upon UNESCO and Interpol this global responsibility to lead the efforts to stop the illicit trafficking of antiquities. We have created a platform together with Interpol, with the World Customs Organization, with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, and a number of other partners.

Looking back on these two years, on one side, there is a huge progress into the ratification of the conventions. Just recently, France ratified the second protocol. The United Kingdom [has made it law and needs to send us formal notification of ratification]. This is a huge advancement. We want more and more governments to ratify, in order to have the international legal basis for this sort of cooperation.

In the meantime, through this platform, we have created shared databases. More than 60 governments have made changes to legislation or practices, or strengthened institutions, in order to cope with this. We work with the European Union, which adopted the new Cultural Diplomacy Platform last year, very much influenced by us. They are working on another directive which is obligatory for all the EU members. Inspired by UNESCO, the Council of Europe is adopting a new convention on penal actions for illicit trafficking. And we have worked with the International Criminal Court. It was the initiative of UNESCO to have the first conviction for the destruction of culture in Mali.

We have restored the mausoleums in Mali. In Iraq, we established an international coordination committee for the preservation of Iraqi culture. We have sent numerous missions, in Nimrod, in Mosul even, in Ninewa, to make an assessment first [of the destruction]. We have already sent a mission at an expert level to Aleppo.

We are really coordinating the international efforts for all these places of conflict, and also to raise the awareness of why it matters and mobilizes wide variety of partners and stakeholders to participate in this global movement. What we want to stir is a global movement.

There’s been concern throughout the U.N. about the impact of potential budget cuts, particularly from the U.S. What impact would this have on this sorts of programs?

Unfortunately, the U.S. suspended funding for UNESCO in 2011, when Palestine joined UNESCO, so we are not threatened. It was not a deliberate decision by the government, and we continue to have very strong partners [in the U.S.].

I think it’s important to have the U.S. engaged with us, I think we share a lot of concerns and ambitions, particularly in preventing violent extremism. We are more and more concentrating [on] preventing terrorism, which is very much relevant to the current political debate.

The other conflict-related topic that UNESCO has taken a lead on is education in emergencies. What is your organization’s role in that debate, and where do you think the most action is needed?

“In protracted crises like that of Syrian refugees, we need at least 10 percent of the humanitarian aid to go to education.”

— Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general

We are not a humanitarian agency, but we are leading the global debate and setting the stage for some important developments. Even before the Syrian crisis, we regularly published global monitoring reports on education. By sheer coincidence unfortunately, the report we launched in the Spring of 2011 was dedicated to Education in Emergencies — and [we called it] the “hidden crisis” because we already knew that education is neglected in situations of crisis, conflict and human displacement.

We were ringing the alarm bell even before [the Syrian crisis], because only 2 percent of humanitarian funding was going to education. We were advocating strongly that this is not enough. I think part of our advocacy [is visible in that] last year the EU announced that they were increasing [education spending] from 2 to 4 percent. Our experts say that this is not enough. In protracted crises like that of Syrian refugees, we need at least 10 percent of the humanitarian aid to go to education.

We were one of those advocating for refugees from the very beginning of the crisis, but equally for the host communities. This is part of our work: to support Jordan, Lebanon, Syria to some extent, and Iraq with coping with the refugees that they are receiving in their countries. To strengthen their ministries’ abilities, to train teachers, because teachers are under stress when they teach classes of refugees.

Because we are not building schools, our specificity is to lead global advocacy and debate about the importance of this matter. And then to look at the textbooks, the teachers, and to support the ministries in the host countries to see how they cope with teachers, textbooks and other vocational training. We are not just talking about primary schools, but adolescents — how we introduce technical vocational training. We started working with Turkey, for example, on technical vocational training, secondary education, which was neglected in the beginning, and even higher education. The aim is to see where these students can go and study, so that we are not going to see a lost generation in the making.

In a global mood of distrust toward institutions, how can or should the work of the U.N.  and UNESCO specifically change to win back trust?

It’s a very important question, because with the new technologies and transparency that exists, the expectations are very high. We know that politics is about matching expectations, and whether you respond to expectations of people.

I think you can build trust by showing very concrete examples. In Mali, for example, we went and saw what was destroyed, and we said: “We will help you rebuild.” We did it. After two years, I went back, I launched it and I saw the local population — the local population was not just joyful, I had the feeling that I was giving them back their identity. Now, we have the trust of Malians when we want to implement projects.

I think trust is built by very concrete deeds. What you say, what you promise, you do it. It’s not just lip service to some big cause: You’re really transforming people’s lives. If we can show people not just the big words but also the local level, we will have more trust.

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About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.