Kaiping in southern China (with environs dotted with amazing fortified mansions built in the early 20th century), the Sydney Opera House, the French city of Bordeaux and the Greek island of Corfu have been proposed for recognition as “world heritage sites” by UNESCO.
Almost any location—a building, an entire city or a slice of nature can be considered for this status, which implies world acknowledgment that it is important to humanity and worth looking after. For host governments and locals, recognition brings prestige, tourism and technical aid.While 80 people work at UNESCO's World Heritage Center, its annual budget is only $9m. In practice, the Paris Center receives another $20m-25m per year in what it calls extra-budgetary funds, to which the biggest private donor is the United Nations Foundation, set up by Ted Turner, an American tycoon.
But there are already 830 such sites, and the currency will be debased if the number rises too fast. In theory, any government in the world can make up to two nominations—one a man-made site, the other a natural one—per year. In practice, new recognitions per year are held at an average of 20 to 25.
Then there are some private agencies that try to do the same job as UNESCO on a smaller scale. One is the New York-based World Monuments Fund, which shames the planet's vandals by listing sites threatened by neglect or conflict. (UNESCO also publishes lists of endangered sites, but denouncing bad behaviour by states will always be easier for a private body than for an inter-governmental agency.) Another aspiring mini-UNESCO is the California-based Global Heritage Fund, which has worked at historic sites to devise plans that allow for economic development as well as conservation. Without such a plan, a UNESCO listing risks leading to an unmanageable influx of tourists.
Francesco Bandarin, an Italian who runs the World Heritage Centre, says it is not jealous: it would like lots of imitators. Whatever 2007 brings for Corfu or China, it might be better still if more rich philanthropists took up the UN's challenge and gave it some competition.