OurWorldHeritage: the Promise of a Fledgling NGO

By Prof. Dr. Christina Cameron, Coordinator of the team Transformational Impacts of Information Technology

OurWorldHeritage issues a clarion call to those who care about UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention. “Threats from pandemics to economic depression, resource exploitation to politics, conflict to climate, development, disasters and more, today strain the very core of this landmark heritage protection treaty.” (OurWorldHeritage). Fragile natural environments and  cultural landmarks are in danger. 

This dire situation has motivated an informal coalition of concerned individuals to propose a new organization aimed at engaging citizens and civil society groups, as well as professional and academic organizations, in the protection and conservation of cultural and natural sites designated by UNESCO for their global importance. Targeting the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention in 2022, OurWorldHeritage plans to mobilize a global network to renew the original spirit of the convention and reinforce heritage protection for the next 50 years. 

The initiative to advocate for change was launched by citizens from more than 50 countries on 16 November 2020, the anniversary of the signing of the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Hosted at a virtual event by the dynamic international journalist, Zeineb Badawi, distinguished panelists debated the challenges facing the World Heritage system. They called for renewal and the active involvement of civil society. This opening event also invited people to participate in twelve monthly debates in 2021 on a range of issues, such as critical threats from climate change, disasters and conflicts, and new approaches to heritage conservation. Following the year of debates on key issues OurWorldHeritage will prepare a policy platform for World Heritage in 2022. 

The results so far have exceeded the organizers’ expectations. A robust global network of volunteers is in the making, with monthly convenors building inclusive teams of participants from different parts of the globe. 

The focus of January’s debate is the transformational impact of information technology for monitoring sites and facilitating the presentation and interpretation of multiple narratives to tell their stories. The debate opened with a round-the-world webinar that our emerging professionals dubbed a “Globinar,” attended by 900 people over a 24-hour period. The global reach of the Globinar is confirmed in the word clouds from participants naming their favorite World Heritage sites nearby.

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Table 1: Globinar word clouds from participants naming their favorite World Heritage sites nearby. (source: OurWorldHeritage, information technology team, 2021). 

According to one emerging professional, the Globinar was a memorable experience. “I have learned not only about new cutting-edge technologies to address heritage-related challenges, but also about the joy and effectiveness of teamwork during a pandemic, participation, inclusivity, and mentorship!” In addition to academics, site managers, young professionals and NGOs, the subject has also attracted a strong representation from the high-tech sector. A global competition is currently underway to highlight innovative uses of information technologies in monitoring and fostering engagement in World Heritage Sites.   

February’s debate on tourism is off to a great start with 21 events on offer and registration topping 10,000 participants. 

OurWorldHeritage has the potential to act as an integrator of diverse interests in the World Heritage system. Covid-19 has had the unintended consequence of shifting the world into virtual events. As a result, location is not an issue and global participation in the initiative has been unprecedented. During 2021, the monthly debates on the critical issues facing heritage conservation today will shape practical proposals to adapt the World Heritage system to the needs of the 21st century.