The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 22nd May 2013

Gondar's Conservation Master Plan

Given by - Bianca Nardella

Reviewed by - Dorothea McEwan

The speaker, an architect from Florence, had been appointed in 2005 as project leader of a large international initiative looking into the cultural heritage of Gondar. Five World Heritage Sites in Gondar had been selected to be investigated for a conservation strategy in the context of international development projects.

Numerous tourists go to Gondar each year to admire its castles and churches, as well as the location and the city itself, so the Ethiopian government is keen to expand tourism and improve tourist facilities in such a world famous city. The speaker shared her experience of being a project leader of a prestigious project and was candid in describing the impossible, or impossibly difficult, situation she was faced with.

The project had been funded internationally to the tune of five million Euros. The rationale for the investigation carried out by eleven international experts and five Ethiopian experts was 'funding for development'. But whose development? The donors, among them such heavyweights as the World Bank, made it clear that they wanted to fund something worthwhile. Therefore, the scale of the investigation was ambitious. However, issues arising out of this investigation were not followed up and plans for action did not solidify.

The project started in 1998, was signed into existence in 2002, but consultants were appointed only in 2005. The multidisciplinary team, composed of international and local experts, experienced tensions which led to conflict on a personal and institutional level. The cross-cultural understanding and cooperation was hampered by difficulties of communication, the absence of a clear understanding of who was working for whom, and the most important question: what kind of authority did such a commission actually have?

And still, they soldiered on, researching various aspects of what needed to be done to safeguard the survival of the buildings: the master plan of the site, the analysis of key issues, and an agenda for action were duly started and findings written up. But who were the specialist contact persons in Ethiopia, the officers of the municipality, of the region, or of the country?

Nardella found the lack of dialogue stifling to the point of stating 'better not to do anything at all'. A lot of money had been expended only to result in a report which was not, and is not, acted upon. The project ended in 2007, and by 2013 little was done. The inclusion of local people was minimal. A new path was laid in the castle compound and local weavers were employed to set up a workshop in the compound. But this was not an outcome commensurate with the sums of money spent on the project.

This type of project, according to the speaker, was static and could not achieve much. To protect historic and scenic assets is a wonderful duty of any country, but for whom, with whom, and how? If it only caters for the tourist trade, if there is no transfer of international experience to local experience, if it ends in heritage tourism solely, then it is a very expensive and narrow bit of development aid. Ultimately, the speaker came to the conclusion that the project failed because nobody had ownership of it. A sobering thought and result. Could it have to do with being too ambitious in the first place and not taking into account the many 'little' projects happening in and around Gondar? The lecture was a very timely reminder of how fraught 'development aid' is and how careful it needs to be thought through before another report is commissioned - only to land in the drawer of a minister.

First Published in News File Winter 2013

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