Capacity degrading

There is a lot of public money being spent these days on capacity building projects designed to help protect cultural heritage in the Middle East. I am not too convinced personally that professional training of this type translates well into cultural heritage protection, but at least some people in the area are benefiting from opportunities that were not previously available, so I can’t complain too much. What I do want to complain about is the opposite of capacity building, what I propose to call ‘capacity degrading’. What is capacity degrading? I intend it to mean reducing a national fund of professional expertise or competence in such a way as to diminish the public good – the opposite of capacity building in fact.

Let us look at Hobby Lobby again. I came across a comment published in 2014 by someone in a position to know that the Hobby Lobby collection contains an ‘enormous collection’ of cuneiform tablets, an observation that chimes well with Hobby Lobby’s own claim to possess ‘One of the largest collections of cuneiform tablets in North America’. So even after the US Customs seizures and returns Hobby Lobby will still retain a large holding of cuneiform tablets that are destined to be studied and published by members of the Green Scholars Initiative. The Green Scholars Initiative comprises ‘Scholars from 60 participating colleges, universities and seminaries around the globe’, but there is no evidence that any of them are Iraqi scholars from Iraqi universities. Similarly, we can look at the Cuneiform Library at Cornell University that holds approximately 10,000 cuneiform tablets formerly in the possession of Jonathan and Jeanette Rosen. This material is being studied and published with commendable alacrity, but again without the visible participation of any Iraqi scholars or universities.

No satisfactory account has ever been offered as to the source of all these tablets. They are widely believed to have been moved illegally out of Iraq in the years following 1990, and are now unavailable to Iraqi scholarship. Furthermore, they are being used to further the careers in Europe and North America of the next generation of cuneiform specialists, none of whom are Iraqi. So Iraq has suffered a double loss, first of the tablets themselves, and then of the intellectual or cultural capital that the tablets engender. Hopefully the next generation of Iraqi specialists is being trained elsewhere. I don’t know. Otherwise, going forward, Iraqi universities might struggle to re-establish themselves as international centres of excellence in the field of cuneiform studies, which is after all the study of Iraq’s history. There will be a long-term loss to the cultural and intellectual life of Iraq, a diminishment of the same public good that capacity building projects are intended to enhance. Thus while projects such as the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme, run in collaboration with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, are busy building capacity, other institutions are just as busily degrading it. Governments and their taxpayers might be excused for asking why their capacity building efforts are being undermined in this way.