For more than eighty years the British Council has recognised the value of cultural heritage across the globe, so the announcement that the British government will ratify the Hague Convention, as well as committing to a new fund to help protect cultural heritage, is very welcome. After all, military intervention and aid will only get a country so far on the path towards security and prosperity; culture and education must be two of the pillars of our international offer. This is for two reasons. One, as ISIL loots and destroys cultural sites across the Middle East, we are losing forever some of the most important and significant historical buildings and artefacts in the world; once they are gone they are gone and we must step up our efforts to halt this corrosion of civilisation. Immediate action is not an instantaneous panacea but it will help to maintain a sense of agency that is crucial in times of flux and insecurity. We can harness this agency to promote a space for debate; in the longer term this will provide stability, not to mention a vital source of income through tourism, when it is safe enough to go back.
The UK has a role to play because of our world class artists, curators, conservators and institutions. In many cases local museums and heritage sites across the Middle East and North Africa lack the capability to digitally document their infrastructure, meaning that when physically destroyed, they are gone for good. In others, the need is to develop skills and knowledge in management of these sites, and in advocating for the value of these places to the world at large. The British Council's museum-twinning programme has thrown up some unlikely bedfellows. The Bardo Museum in Tunis, housed in a beautiful 15th-century Hafsid palace (and itself site of a recent act of terrorism), has been working on its outreach programme for school children with museums and archivists from the North East of England. We have recently supported a visit by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, to Rabat, as part of a partnership with the Moroccan National Foundation of Museums. Institutions in Bristol and Lincoln have been linked with their counterparts in Egypt and we are offering fellowships to artists and curators from across the Occupied Palestinian Territories in partnership with Oxford Brookes, Newcastle and Lincoln Universities. We must hope that the Cultural Protection Fund will allow us to build on this work.
These links are key to future progress. Aside from the self-evident value of conserving such places for future generations, working in unstable regions in this way enables social development and the building of inclusive and open societies where human rights and freedom of expression are valued. The arts provide genuine alternative pathways for young people at risk at home and abroad, creating safer, more secure environments and a haven for those enmeshed in conflict. They offer hope and memory, strengthen families and offer routes to employment and security. In short, culture reduces intolerance and builds understanding and the arts can't stand by any more, or more importantly be ignored by governments and key international agencies. There are both long term aims and quick wins. It is too late for parts of Syria and Iraq but Libya, Mali, Afghanistan and Nigeria are places where preventative action could have enormous. In Nepal, though the trigger - an earthquake - is different, the consequences are the same; the loss of cultural sites and livelihoods. Britain must respond quickly to both man-made and natural disasters and at the British Council we are wholly committed to making sure that culture is a key driver of sustainable development.