UNESCO envoy: Cultural action is key for Mali’s reconstruction

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Culture is essential to a sustainable recovery in Mali, Lazare Eloundou, the UNESCO envoy to Mali’s donor conference held on 15 May, told EurActiv in an interview. 

Lazare Eloundou Assomo heads the Africa Unit at the World Heritage Centre of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

He spoke to EurActiv Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

We are speaking on 15 May while the Mali donor’s conference is still ongoing. This country has suffered massive destruction to its cultural heritage by Islamists, before the French intervention. Is this a topic at the conference?

Indeed it is, because one of the documents that has been used as basis for discussion by the various donor countries, as well as the EU and France as organisers of the conference, is the sustainable recovery plan which has 12 priorities, and among them is the priority to support cultural projects, based on the action plan developed between UNESCO and France on 18 February in Paris. It is therefore a fundamental issue, as culture is indeed the pillar and the base of all actions which would allow not only guaranteeing peace and fostering reconciliation, but also putting in place the conditions for a sustainable recovery in today’s Mali.

But isn’t the cultural dimension neglected?

It is true that among the questions discussed - the security aspects, the humanitarian situation, food security, health issues - are getting a lot of attention. These issues are indeed of fundamental importance. What we are trying to say today at this conference is that besides all this, the cultural aspects should in no way be neglected, because they constitute a basic element. Because the populations, be they refugees, be they in Bamako, in Gao or in Timbuktu, are extremely attached to it. They have experienced a cultural shock as the destruction of their cultural heritage was an attempt to destroy their identities. Helping to put back in place this identity, as UNESCO proposes, will guarantee beyond any doubt the sustainability of all other actions. This is the message UNESCO is conveying at the conference.

I have only seen on television the happiness of people in Mali who got liberated from the Islamists and were able again to live a normal life. How did you see it on the ground?

Before answering I would like to say that if UNESCO was able to put on the agenda these issues, this is thanks of the action of our director general [Irina Bokova]. For many months she has been calling on the international community, on the [UN] Security Council to take decisions. This is how we have been included in the [UN] MINUSMA mission in Mali, this is how we acquired a substantial experience on the ground. This is why we have a precise strategy how we are going to reconstruct the cultural heritage, and make sure that the priceless manuscripts are preserved, as soon as the financing will be secured. I think that the enormous joy of the liberated population in Mali only confirms how important the action of the international community is.

What kind of synergies are there between UNESCO and the EU in this field?

The fact that we are here as observers at this conference hosted by the EU shows that we are partners. The sustainable recovery plan is the basic document on the base of which the EU, the donor countries will put in place an action plan for the followup of this conference. It is in this framework that we are going to continue our contacts with all our partners of the European Union.

The visit to Mali of French President François Hollande in February, together with your Director General Irina Bokova, was an emotional moment. He said that this was the most beautiful day of his political career. Looks like a good sign, a good augur?

It’s a very good sign, and the fact that the director general went there on the ground to assess the destruction inflicted on the mausoleums, to the libraries in the North of Mali, has strengthen her resolve that this cultural heritage be reconstructed, to guarantee reconciliation and lasting peace. This symbolic visit together with President Hollande has also allowed showing to what extent the cultural issue is part of the answer which is sought to the Mali crisis. And this is where UNESCO is engaged.

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