When His Highness the Aga Khan began building the components of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), he knew that much of the world’s patrimony was being lost to civil strife, decay, and ignorance. In 1983, he asked, “What would be the consequences… when cultural heritage is lost?” The answer to that question was clear: the loss of the touchstones of identity and our common humanity.
In many ways, the task at hand was saving the world’s heritage before it succumbed to destruction or terminal decline. This was especially important in the Muslim world, which contains one-third of World Heritage Sites – many of them in decline, some destroyed, some hidden behind commercial facades, others ignored. If something was not done, much of the cultural heritage of the Muslim world would be lost.
But how, in the age of many competing concerns, could culture be considered an essential part of development? How, during war or deprivation, could we consider restoring monuments? The question then became, “How to leverage culture as a catalyst for positive economic and social change?”
“The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme (AKHCP) was created to test the hypothesis that culture was, and is, an integral component of the development equation,” says Shiraz Allibhai, Deputy-Director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), “and that it can be a powerful tool to improve quality of life.” AKHCP devised a unique approach to urban regeneration that involves restoration and conservation, the creation of parks and gardens, urban rehabilitation and employment and vocational training programmes.
For three decades, AKHCP not only tested, but revised and refined its approach at 11 World Heritage Sites considered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to be of “outstanding value to humanity”. Many of these sites are in cities in the Muslim world, which are suffering from poverty, lack of infrastructure and services, post-war conditions, population growth and environmental degradation. But many of these same cities contain priceless riches that could be turned into assets for those living amongst them.
“AKHCP has shown that investments in culture can help create sustainable development – even in the most fragile and difficult contexts – and that it can have a lasting, positive impact in shaping people’s lives, identities and aspirations,” says Shiraz Allibhai. “By sustainable development I mean person-hours of work, of drainage systems installed, of parks created or restored that generate revenues and pay for their own maintenance, of community engagement that includes health care and education, of training programmes that create a whole new cadre of carpenters or stone masons, or the reviving of lost arts, like the earthen architecture techniques in Mali, or lime plaster in Zanzibar, or glazed tilework in Delhi.”
From Mali to Malaysia, AKHCP’s urban regeneration projects have helped transform historic cities and the lives of countless numbers of people. Overall, AKTC has worked on over 350 restoration and conservation projects in 11 countries including 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and created 10 major parks and gardens that have been visited by over 50 million people. AKHCP’s work, which has received over 18 major awards and is now recognised as the highest standard in restoration, is also helping shape government policy on the value of historic urban centres and the role of culture in strengthening identity and instilling hope.
The legacy of these projects is that over 3,000 men and women have been trained in skills such as carpentry, masonry, conservation, etc. They have used these skills in other projects, helping preserve their cultural heritage for future generations. The projects also directly impact over 500,000 beneficiaries through water and sanitation programmes, public open space improvements, housing improvements and other social initiatives. AKHCP has also demonstrated that investment in culture can have a positive, multiplier effect well beyond conservation – by promoting 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 – even in the poorest and most remote areas of the globe.
To view a gallery of images of AKHCP’s work on World Heritage Sites.