Geoparks Africa
World Heritage Sites

Why there are more heritage sites in the tiny Europe than the large African Continent?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recently added 42 new sites to the World Heritage List, bringing the total number nearly 1,200 worldwide.

However on closer look, there is an uneven distribution of where these sites are located, particularly in terms of the ‘cultural heritage’ selection, with UNESCO having historically inscribed by far the largest number of this group in Europe.

This is according to the observation of Anna Fleck of ‘Statista.’

Statista is the German online platform which specializes in data gathering and visualization.

Europe has nearly nine-times more world and cultural heritage sites than Africa.

Now this is despite the fact that Europe is small, about three times smaller than the African Continent.

But so far a total of 472 cultural sites have been selected in Europe compared to the only 56 currently designated in Africa.

Is UNESCO Biased?

Asia and the Pacific region have the second highest number of sites at 286, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 149.

In order to appear on the list, countries must put forward a site as a nomination.

A UNESCO representative then visits the site and makes a recommendation to the organization, which informs the final decision.

There are many reasons a government may seek a UNESCO World Heritage badge, from the fact it can bring global awareness to a location and enhance tourism there, to how it can potentially impact the allocation of future funding.

But at the same time, communities may be wary of putting forward a nomination due to risks such as over tourism and the costs of maintaining a World Heritage property. Or else it may simply be a lower priority in a given country.

For years, experts have criticized the award for being too Eurocentric. That is the UNESCO choices are biased towards European countries

For example, The Conversation contributor Victoria Reyes commented on the topic in a 2019 article, citing how research shows that UNESCO “disproportionately reveres the cultural legacies of former European empires.”

Reyes highlights how, whether intentional or not, even in a practical sense the long and bureaucratic nomination process favours governments that are able and willing to divert resources towards applications.

The gap may start to narrow in the coming years, however, as UNESCO says it is introducing measures such as trying to “improve the number of African heritage sites on the World Heritage List, through providing better support for African states carrying out local conservation projects and preparing World Heritage nomination files.”