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  • Sunder Nursery’s Central Axis with the 16th century Sunder Burj in the backdrop, New Delhi, India.
AKDN interview with Luis Monreal: Culture as a catalyst for development

Luis Monreal is the General Manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. He is a conservation specialist, art historian and archaeologist, and has held positions in many institutions. He has been the Curator of  Barcelona Museums (1965-1974) and the Secretary General of the International Council of Museums (1974–1985). He was Director of the Getty Conservation Institute (Los Angeles, 1985–1990) and Director General, “La Caixa” Foundation (Barcelona, 1990–2001).  He was also a member of various archaeological missions in Nubia, Sudan, Egypt and Morocco. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on art and archaeology. He is a Board member of the Gala-Salvador Dalì Foundation (Spain), a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Barcelona, Spain), Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France) and Gran Cruz de Isabel la Católica (Spain).

What does culture have to do with development?

The central question has been how culture, integrated with more traditional instruments of development, can be used to improve lives in urban, poor and even remote contexts.  How can culture generate employment, contribute to raising incomes, be a factor of wellbeing, improve health, enhance urban spaces, reinforce a respect for diversity, be a reference for individual identity and even restore pride and hope?


Luis Monreal.

The fact is that, in poor neighbourhoods, culture is often the only potential economic asset at the disposal of a community. So, we use culture as a lever, a springboard for improvements in the overall quality of life. We believe culture in general and historic heritage in particular can catalyse a community. Look at the revival of pilgrimages to khanqahs in Pakistan, or the two million visitors per year that come to Azhar Park in Cairo, or the picnickers in Kabul’s Baghe Babur.

Cultural operations can bring immediate economic opportunities to a community. While agricultural activities may be slow to provide a secure source of income, the development of cultural heritage assets can benefit the community rather quickly, principally through an array of tourism-related trades. For communities whose horizons have dimmed, or even given up hope, this is important.

His Highness the Aga Khan saw the power of culture when he asked, in 1983, “What will the impact of this be on generations to come? Are the young people in these countries going to recognize their own cultural identity in these buildings ten, fifteen, or twenty years from now? Or, are they going to find themselves in a situation where they will have achieved political independence but will find it extremely difficult to revive their own cultural traditions? What would be the consequences… when cultural heritage is lost?” (Interview with Paul Chutkow: “The Aga Khan’s Vision”, Connoisseur Magazine, September 1983)

The Trust’s answer to that question is the need to preserve cultural heritage for present and future generations to enjoy. We think that culture – by which I mean both tangible historic heritage like monuments, parks, gardens and museums, and intangible manifestations of culture, such as music – must be preserved and developed in a comprehensive manner.

Finally, as in all countries in which it works, AKTC, like AKDN, takes a long-term view.  Some of our programmes, which started over 40 years ago, show how the creation of parks and gardens, conservation of landmark buildings, improvements to the urban fabric or the revitalisation of cultural heritage can provide the conditions for other forms of development to flourish.

This extensive experience has shown that there are social and economic benefits that are generated when conserving cultural heritage. These benefits include the promotion of good governance, the growth of civil society, a rise in incomes and economic opportunities, greater respect for human rights and better stewardship of the environment. 

So, we do not think in the short-term, but in decades and in generations to come.


In Cairo, Azhar Park and its adjacent neighbourhood, Darb al-Ahmar, can be seen from the minaret of Umm as-Sultan Shaaban Mosque, along the Park's tourist itinerary.
AKDN / Nasser Rabbat

How can cultural restoration be considered humanitarian assistance?  Specifically, is what you are doing in the souks of Aleppo, for which AKTC won an ICCROM prize, considered to be humanitarian in nature?

Along with emergency health care and food provisions, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is often one of the first agencies of the AKDN to start operating in crisis situations. We consider it emergency humanitarian aid – first aid, if you wish.

We have been involved in several countries in situations during war, post war or other crises, including Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Mali. In those contexts, cultural heritage can – and should –  be a component of a package of humanitarian relief measures.

We share this concept with other organisations that have well-established records: ICCROM, the Prince Claus Fund and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, amongst them. The First Aid to Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis handbook, published by ICCROM after nearly a decade of field experience, provides a reference guide –  for cultural heritage professionals and humanitarians –  that integrates heritage safeguarding into emergency and recovery activities.

The International Red Cross (through a post on “Humanitarian Law and Policy”) also argues why cultural heritage should be considered in the framework of humanitarian programmes: “From Palmyra to Timbuktu, we see that the destruction of cultural and religious sites during armed conflict has profound psychological effects, leaving people disconnected, traumatized and even persecuted. Cultural property protection must be recognized and better addressed as a humanitarian issue in its own right.”

In 2019, the EU and Iraq agreed that the EU’s “humanitarian aid and development assistance” package would include: “the restoration and rehabilitation of cultural heritage”. Likewise, the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (a resource centre led by the University of Birmingham), likens culture to a need: “Culture is the cement that holds a society together.…Culture is thus a basic need – and must be a normal part of humanitarian emergency relief and reconstruction processes.”

In Syria, as a pilot project, AKTC started the reconstruction of the Souk of Aleppo, one of the most important examples of medieval secular architecture in the Muslim world.  It had been badly damaged during the conflict. It could not be abandoned to its own fate. Furthermore, its rehabilitation could provide opportunities to a community severely punished by the civil war. Our prime objective was to put back in service a historic site that plays a vital socio-economic role in the life of the community. 


The biennial ICCROM-Sharjah Award given to AKTC for its work in the central souk in Aleppo, Syria, seeks to honour and reward outstanding work that contributes to the protection and vitality of tangible cultural heritage in the Arab world.

How does the AKTC, specifically, contribute to the development of a country that has other international institutions and AKDN agencies in it?

Our approach is to bring to bear a wide range of technical agencies to work together in a given area. For example, almost all AKDN agencies operate in Afghanistan – a country where AKDN and its partners have committed over US$1 billion in development assistance since 2002. Our cultural programmes in Kabul, Herat, Balkh and Badakhshan have restored over 90 historic buildings but, at the same time, we also conducted humanitarian, social and economic projects that spanned over 240 cities and towns in the country’s 34 provinces.  

In Afghanistan, as in other countries, we tried to integrate cultural activities in overall development.  This is unique, I believe.  We feel that cultural heritage should be part of the multidisciplinary kit of development measures that can effectively raise economic prospects – and give hope – to people in critical situations.


Chihilsitoon Garden, a 12.5-hectare public site, is Kabul's largest historic public garden. Based on the successful rehabilitation and sustainable operation of Babur's Garden, in 2015 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture commenced a multi-year rehabilitation programme in Chihilsitoon Garden with the intention of providing high-quality public spaces for social and cultural interaction, educational programming, and sport and recreational activities.

How do you see a park or a green space helping with the development of a city like Delhi or Cairo?

First and foremost, parks have an economic impact.  They create permanent employment and generate income. Our park projects in Delhi and Cairo, for example, are self-financing. In Cairo, gate receipts and restaurant operations cross-subsidise the maintenance of Azhar Park. In this way, the Park is not a financial burden to the public sector – Cairo being one of the most overburdened municipalities around the world.

It should be noted that in several of the fast-growing cities of the Muslim world, we have tried to compensate for the scarcity of green space. In Cairo, for example, before Azhar Park was built, one estimate suggested that there was an average of less than one square metre of green space per inhabitant.

Furthermore, the parks are typically “platforms” from which you can see the splendour of the city’s cultural heritage. In Delhi, you look upon Mughal monuments and learn about their history. In Cairo, you view Al Azhar Mosque, the Citadel and many other prominent monuments of the Old City. So the parks we build contribute to the enhancement of the cultural environment. 

At the same time, we work to provide spaces for leisure where people from different social realms and origins gather and interact. They should be places of gathering.


Humayun's Tomb restoration, New Delhi, India.
AKDN / Christian Richters

Why are you involved in master planning, e.g., in Khorog, Lahore or Kabul?

Master planning touches on a wide variety of aspects that can improve the overall quality of life. Typically, we would try to improve many aspects of the urban context through master planning – as we are doing in Khorog, Lahore or Kabul.  We try to reinvigorate the town centre while relocating housing growth away from peripheral areas. We also think master planning should contribute to a range of housing forms, business spaces and cultural venues, each a response to the diverse needs of the resident community.  Master planning should also promote green design that increases energy efficiency in housing and infrastructure.

For example, in Lahore’s Walled City – where we have worked since 2008 – there have been spectacular improvements in the fabric of the historic city and in the quality of the environment. The process of change was gradual, but the benefits for the inhabitants are now evident to everybody. More recently, AKTC has been involved in George Town, Penang. Here, like in other geographies where we work, cultural heritage is not only a catalyst, but also an engine of economic development.


Lahore Fort - Picture Wall restoration work, Lahore, Pakistan.
AKDN / Adrien Buchet

We want to be a catalyst for ethical development.  In fact, being good stewards of our environment is embedded in the ethics of the Aga Khan Development Network. It is our responsibility to be good stewards of the planet  – to leave to future generations a world that is in better condition than the one we inherited.