UNESCO is playing spoil-sport again…this time about the new Seven Wonders of the world.
The crusty, officious UN agency — not my favourite, as regular readers know — is sadly trapped in its own ideological rhetoric of the 1980s. Somebody should kick them hard to enter the 21st century!
The new Seven Wonders of the World is an attempt to create a modern-day alternative to historical lists of the Seven Wonders of the World. Based on a worldwide online poll organised by the private, Swiss-based, non-profit New Open World Corporation (NOWC), the final list was announced on 7 July 2007 in Lisbon, Portugal.
The winners were selected from among dozens of initial nominations. The new Seven Wonders of the world are: The Great Wall of China; Petra of Jordan; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Machu Piccu ruins of Peru; Chichen Itza archaeological site in Mexico; The Colosseum of Rome, Italy; and the Taj Mahal of India.
This campaign was launched in 2000 as a private initiative by the Swiss philanthropist, adventurer and film-maker Bernard Weber – his idea was to encourage citizens around the world to select seven new wonders of the world by popular vote.
And he turned to the Internet as a mass medium for people to express their preferences.
This is what seems to have irked UNESCO the most — allowing ordinary people to have their say about the common heritage of humankind.
After the new Seven Wonders were announced on 7 July 2007, two UNESCO spokespersons ridiculed the whole idea. Their contempt for the (rival?) process was palpable. This is not how any media spokespersons should behave. Read a widely reproduced media report: UNESCO slams new seven wonders
Earlier, in an official statement full of pomposity and self-importance, UNESCO had distanced itself from the initiative (even if the former UNESCO director general, Frederico Mayor of Spain, is heading the expert panel advising the new Seven Wonders selection process). Here’s an extract:
“There is no comparison between Mr Weber’s mediatised campaign and the scientific and educational work resulting from the inscription of sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The list of the ‘7 New Wonders of the World’ will be the result of a private undertaking, reflecting only the opinions of those with access to the internet and not the entire world. This initiative cannot, in any significant and sustainable manner, contribute to the preservation of sites elected by this public.”
Note the word ‘mediatised’ — which I suppose means media-based and web-driven. This piques me the most. What is wrong in using the mass media, including the web, to generate new levels of interest and enthusiasm about cultural heritage, as the New Seven Wonders initiative has succeeded in doing.
Ironically, UNESCO has an entire division on Communication and Information, which says it promotes the use of media in socio-cultural development. They claim to work with both the conventional media (TV, radio, print) as well as the new media (web, mobile devices and other ICTs).
Is it that UNESCO is such a multi-headed, mixed-up creature that its World Heritage division can publicly condemn the use of media in the public interest while another division upholds it?
Or, could it be that when UNESCO talks about media in development and democracy, it expects the poor, suffering people in the Majority World to just stick to the issues of bread and butter, livestock and water? Does UNESCO expect the ordinary people and private citizens to stay away from the lofty issues of cultural heritage? Are those only discussed by diplomats and experts, many of them as crusty and officious as UNESCO itself?
And can somebody please explain to me how a process involving 100 million online votes is less valid than the ‘scientific and educational work’ of UNESCO in selecting World Heritage sites — involving no more than a few hundred persons at the most (all government officials and academics)?
The grand old lady of Paris should realise that she can’t have it both ways. If UNESCO sincerely advocates the free flow of information, media freedom and the promotion of ICTs in development, then it must be prepared for the resulting public engagement of issues in the media — ranging from the frivolous to lofty, and everything in between. It cannot and must not set the agenda, or expect certain issues to be left aside to boffins who claim to know more than the rest of us.
Whether UNESCO likes or not, the web has truly let the genie out of the bottle. Gone — hopefully forever, and not a moment too soon! — are the days when a handful of men in suits (it’s usually graying men, with very few women involved) could decide matters of global public interest behind closed doors.
By its aloofness, UNESCO made itself irrelevant in the seven wonders selection process. The smarter option would have been to stay engaged and use the massive popular interest to draw attention to the need to invest more time, effort and resources to conserve cultural heritage everywhere. A great opportunity was missed.
But thankfully, other arms of the UN were a bit more pragmatic. For example, the United Nations Office for Partnerships recognised the value of new Seven Wonders.
The stark choice for UNESCO is to rethink its intellectual arrogance, or risk being sidelined — and seen as the biggest hypocrite in the entire UN family.
At a minimum, UNESCO must heed the timeless advice of Rabindranath Tagore:
If you can lead, lead.
If you cannot, then follow.
If you cannot lead or follow, get out of the way!
Now, nominate your natural Seven Wonders of the world — new online poll now underway! Never mind what UNESCO has to say about it!