It's supposed to be the gold standard for conservation. But is Unesco's World Heritage project harming the very places it seeks to protect?


Unesco insists all its sites adhere to strict rules about management and planning, but could it be that the task facing the organisation – effectively to protect the planet – has become so daunting as to be impossible? If it has, the man in charge must have one of the toughest jobs in the world. Speaking from his Paris office, Francesco Bandarin admits it's a tall order. "Sometimes you feel it's impossible to control everything, especially when you look at our founding principles," he says. "Our list is growing and the number of requests is growing, and it seems like the more work you do the more you get. It's a very big job – too big."

Bandarin suggests a solution would be to maintain a central committee, but to break some of the bureaucracy by handing partial autonomy to an "effective network of heritage institutes". Unesco has launched a review of its practises and Bandarin expects big changes by 2012, when World Heritage turns 40. "It's the only way we can cope with the crazy volume of work," he says.

Some critics don't believe in reform because the idea of "world heritage" is philosophically flawed. Robert Adam is one of Britain's leading traditional architects and has attended Unesco conferences. He calls the organisation's heritage body a "monster quango" and a "cabal". "Who owns heritage?" he asks. "We're moving to a system of governance by groups of unelected experts – Unesco helps to generate policy that goes into national government that often runs contrary to the wishes of citizens. But it's communities that own heritage."

Jeff Morgan at Global Heritage does not support such a radical view, but believes bigger changes than those proposed by Bandarin are necessary. The biggest problem, he says, is Unesco's failure to tap philanthropists and corporations. "If you're Coca-Cola, you don't want to sink money into the Unesco bureaucracy," Morgan says. He cites the case of Dan Pallotta, the author of Uncharitable, published earlier this year. Pallotta shook up the American charity sector by staging mass cycling events to raise more than $300m for health charities. But criticism from other charities about profits drove him out of business and good causes saw funds dry up. "Pallotta showed that charities are screwed up because they can't run like businesses," Morgan says. "He couldn't criticise from the inside, so had to write a book. That's the situation Unesco finds itself in. They can't rock the boat because if they start showing all the damage that's being done to many of their sites, they'll look bad."

Morgan says Unesco is woefully under-funded, but that the entire heritage industry lacks cash. "If you add up the funds available to the main players in preservation, you're looking at $100m a year. It's pretty abysmal if you compare that to nature conservation, where you're talking billions." Until balance is restored, Morgan insists Unesco could direct funds to more worthy places by ditching what he calls a bias for religious buildings and glamorous sites in the developed world. "Do we really need another cathedral preserved?" he asks. "I'm not worried about Stonehenge or Dresden when you look at the hundreds of major sites in poor countries that are deteriorating to the point of non-existence."

Morgan ends with a "school report" for Unesco. "Their mission is in three parts," he says. "First, they manage the list, for which they get a B-plus – there are some weird sites but they do a pretty good job. Then they monitor and enforce. I'll give them a B for monitoring, but a D for enforcement because they have no teeth. Finally, they preserve, which you can't even score them for because they have no money. The bottom line is that you need a strong network of conservation groups, led by Unesco, to provide a safety net for the most endangered sites in the countries with the least resources." Unless Unesco pulls up its socks, the price of failure could be more damaging to the cause of world heritage than the bombs that battered Dubrovnik.