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A global fund in Geneva to secure our peaceful heritage

A member of a non-governmental international organisations dedicated to the conservation of the world's monuments and sites inspects a room of the 150-year-old Sursock Palace, that was heavily damaged by the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut. (Credit: Keystone / Bilal Hussein)

Anyone who visited the Ottoman-Venetian styled Sursock Museum, nestled in the heart of Achrafieh district only 800 meters away from the port of Beirut, remembers how it payed tribute to the passion of its founder for the arts and artists of Lebanon.

Shattered in the explosion that shook the capital on 4 August, this pretty little gem joined one of too many cultural legacies blown to pieces by raging conflicts all around the world.

Rebuilding, rehabilitating, restoring museums like Sursock becomes the task of dedication organisations like the International alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas (ALIPH), based Geneva. The only global fund exclusively dedicated to protecting cultural heritage sites in conflict areas, ALIPH supports to more than 100 in 22 countries for an overall commitment of $38 million.

Valéry Freland, executive director of ALIPH, told Geneva Solutions:

"Our deep conviction is that investing in heritage is investing in peace. But this is not a discourse of good conscience. What makes our fund special is that it finances concrete projects in the field involving local and international actors and not abstract conferences in Paris, London or New York.”

How are peace and heritage linked? Saving heritage to build peace is an idea that is gaining ground. The European Union discussed its role in the protection and enhancement of cultural heritage in conflicts and crises last November. A fortnight ago, UNESCO launched its concept of Heritage for Peace, the founding idea on which ALIPH was founded. The foundation was born thanks to Jean-Luc Martinez, president of the Louvre, and his 50 French proposals to protect heritage in the context of massive destruction published in 2015 in the midst of the global war on terrorism. Barely a year later, at an international conference in Abu Dhabi, France and the United Arab Emirates decided to create a global fund with the support of UNESCO to save the heritage of humanity threatened on so many fronts.

In March 2017, ALIPH was created. Geneva, often referred to as the "capital of peace" and humanitarian law, was chosen for its ecosystem of international organisations. The confederation, for its part, granted them the status of a foundation, giving them the agility needed to intervene rapidly in the field. France, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco and China and three private partners endowed them with a capital of $80m.

Projects’ selection. After only two years of operations, ALIPH is already financing over 100 projects in 22 countries and added 29 new projects in 2020 alone.

NGOs and cultural institutions from all over the world respond to calls for projects launched by ALIPH once or twice a year. Their main project is the rehabilitation of the Mosul Museum and its collections destroyed by ISIS, in partnership with the Louvre Museum, the Smithsonian, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), and the World Monument Fund. ALIPH is also financing the restoration of the Raqqa museum in north-east Syria for less than $75’000 and is preparing to rehabilitate its collection by finding the artifacts and restoring what needs to be restored.

But ALIPH also has an emergency procedure for projects worth less than $75'000. In 2018, for example, the director of the Museum of Civilisations in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, called on ALIPH to prevent further looting and to reinforce the museum's security during the elections. The museum, which now has armoured doors, went through the election process without incident.

Musée des civilisations, Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire (c) Fondation Tapa (2).jpg
installation of armoured doors at the Abidjian Museum of Civilization (Credit: ALIPH)

Special action plans for Covid. The health crisis did not threaten the finances of the fund, although it will need recapitalisation by the end of 2023. In spring, ALIPH initiated a Covid-19 action plan, committing $2m to help cultural heritage workers and organisations weather the pandemic. Over 100 operators received funding of less than $15'000 to cover salaries, digital upgrades, and to purchase sanitary equipment. One of their projects helped artisans in Palestine to sell their products on the internet.

Likewise, following the explosion in Beirut this summer, ALIPH allocated an initial envelope of $5m for emergency stabilisation and protection of damaged cultural heritage. The overall damage of Beirut's heritage is estimated to amount to $300m with more than 600 historic buildings partly or totally destroyed. Gilbert Nicola, a local architect, speaking about the Lebanese heritage in general:

"Our project (with ALIPH) is not just to save the buildings and collections, but also to save the social fabric, to regain our soul, our history, our Beirut, or we will lose our city.”

Around 20 projects including the Sursock Museum, the National Museum, the Sursock Palace and multiple historical buildings and religious sites immediately received approval from ALIPH’s Foundation Board. Freland:

"We were the first to sign with the Sursock Museum to help them with $500’000, but also the National Museum with $200’000, the Orient, Saint Joseph and National Libraries, or to stabilise houses.”

MUSEE SURSOCK (c) Thomas Raguet (1).jpg
The roof of the Sursock Museum was blown away and all the stained glass shattered by the explosion. (Credit: ALIPH)

How to work in these areas? This is where being based in Geneva makes sense. ALIPH funds several projects led by groups based in the city of Calvin like Fight for Humanity who know their way in north-eastern Syria with two projects against the traffic of artifacts. The Aga Khan Development Network helps them in Afghanistan. Last year, they also signed an MoU with the Fondation Suisse pour le Déminage (FSD) which prepares the ground helps ensure an area is safe before a rehabilitation project is launched. Freland :

"Thanks to these partnerships we were able to launch projects that were complicated. By relying on all types of local or international cultural organisations we can operate in many areas.”

ALIPH relies on the expertise of quality local actors and international organisations who have the know-how in the field, such as the World Monuments Fund, active in northern Yemen or northern Iraq where the Yezidi temples are located.

At the Raqqa museum, while a French NGO, la Guilde Européenne du Raid, came to assess the extent of the destruction, they found themselves face to face with a small local NGO, Roya, which were beginning to restore the building but had no funding.

But why so many funds for heritage? By creating jobs, heritage plays a role in the economic and social development of a region. Sandra Bialystok, spokesperson for ALIPH:

"When operators step in for several years they create a small economy around a rehabilitation project. A person working means a family’s eating: the impact is exponential.”

But it also has an educational and training dimension with the trading and skilling up of artisans who are working on the site. It also helps women empowerment and knowledge with many cultural projects carrying a strong artisanal aspect. Finally, it creates cultural and social links. Freland :

"The rehabilitation of the Christian monastery of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah in the south of Mosul was carried out by a French NGO, a French architect, an Iraqi archaeologist, Sunni workers with the involvement of the mayor of the city and religious authorities: it is an intercultural link.”

Bialystok:

“The projects touch what’s very important for countries for their development policies and feeds into a vast network of SDGs.”

And perhaps in a few months' time, if the health crisis allows it, we will be able to visit the Sursock Museum again, without its magnificent stained glass windows, alas, but at least to admire the largest collection of modern art in Lebanon.