Jorijn Neyrinck
Coordinator, UNESCO-accredited NGO Tapis Plein and the Centre of Expertise for Intangible Cultural Heritage & Participation


In the context of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, a wide field of NGOs is active in between governments and communities to translate concepts, facilitate and support safeguarding programs, advocate bearers’ perspectives and interests, etc. In doing so, they often turn out to be key actors for successful heritage processes engaging communities.

The types of NGOs affiliated with the Convention seem to be as diverse as their working contexts. Just like ICH itself, defined to be dynamic and contextual in nature,1 NGOs differ strongly in focus and working methods, depending on geographical, political, historical , sociological , and ethnological contexts in which they develop and operate.  In the following article, I introduce the case of the Flemish (Belgian) policy framework for ICH and the roles, methods, and network-models of NGOs therein. Afterwards, we’ll travel outwards to see how national NGOs and NGO-networks are connecting within regional and even global contexts.

Situating the Flemish ICH Policy

Belgium is a federal state. Three communities—the Flemish-, French-, and German-speaking communities—are responsible for the cultural policy in their respective regions. They have to reach consensus on national items and on specific international questions, as is the case for UNESCO Conventions. The communities are responsible for the way they apply the Convention.  The vision paper “A Policy for Intangible Cultural Heritage in Flanders” was presented in 2010. This vision paper indicates the direction in which the Flemish policy should evolve and how the objectives can remain in accordance with the UNESCO 2003 Convention. Crucial to the realization of this policy is the framework of facilitation and networking. We give more insight into the way this facilitation and networking is operated in the following section.

A Two-Dimensional Network for ICH

Central to the Flemish Cultural Heritage Act (2008, 2012) is the concept of “heritage communities.” This notion is inspired by the FARO Framework Convention of the European Council from 2005 on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society. According to the Cultural Heritage Act, a heritage community is “a community that consists of organizations and/or individuals who value specific aspects of cultural heritage that they wish, within the framework of public action, to sustain and transmit to future generations.” This is an interesting definition to interpret and to grasp the concept of “communities, groups and individuals concerned” used in the 2003 Convention.

The basic philosophy of the Flemish ICH policy is to give heritage communities opportunities to transmit ICH. It means the heritage community takes the initiative and the Flemish government organizes a framework of support and guarantees. Key instruments in this framework are the methods of mediation/cultural brokerage and the operation in a two-dimensional network.

On the one hand, there is a cluster of organizations working on cultural heritage themes or methods having a relevancy for the whole of Flanders. Often these are NGOs, such as museums, centers of expertise, and cultural archives institutions.

Next to these Flemish heritage organizations, the government subsidizes local and provincial authorities for implementing a local/provincial heritage policy. These local heritage workers are embedded in local communities and networks. They have a good view of the needs and requirements of local heritage communities and organizations.

As such, a two-dimensional network for supporting heritage communities is being formed. The involved organizations work as brokers, collaborating within the network and exchanging knowledge and expertise on a national (Flemish) level. Organizations point out problems and needs as well as best practices. The two-dimensional network works well and offers added value for integral strategic cooperation as well as for many local heritage communities.

In practice, this ICH network is organized in thematic sub-networks, following the five ICH domains mentioned in the Convention. Moreover, for the starting years of this policy, one NGO has been attributed a central network role: tapis plein, a center of expertise working on heritage and participation. This NGO focuses particularly on strengthening overall cooperation and networking in the ICH field. The expertise of tapis plein is situated in the knowhow to work with community participation, education, transmission, and actualization of heritage, taking a methodological approach having relevance throughout all ICH domains, considering the central role of communities and the need for supporting transmission of traditions, practices, etc.

Online Database and Interactive Website Focusing on Safeguarding ICH

Another facilitating policy measure for the ICH sector has been the development of an interactive website with a database focusing on ICH safeguarding. This database makes the following possible:

  • Ÿ Making ICH in Flanders visible
  • Ÿ Linking elements of ICH with each other
  • Ÿ Linking elements of ICH with examples of best practices, experts, and nuclei of expertise
  • Ÿ Developing, showing, and reporting on safeguarding measures and measures for the transmission of ICH

In September 2012, the website with database was launched in the field. It is an ambitious networking and safeguarding instrument in which the following is possible:

  • Ÿ communities, groups, and individuals can register ICH, link the phenomenon to a heritage community and a set of safeguarding measures
  • Ÿ experts can register and highlight their programs for safeguarding ICH

Besides its inventorying function, the website has a platform on which knowledge and expertise can be exchanged and discussions carried out. It is a dynamic virtual world where tradition bearers, heritage organizations, and experts start discussions and bring together communities, groups, and individuals around shared paths and needs. All dimensions (local and Flemish, thematic and methodical, communities and professionals) become easily linked to each other by the website. The platform is moderated by tapis plein, organizing all ICH work in Flanders in one coherent logic and framework. One can follow the development of the website and database on It is based on open source technologies and wishes to serve as model or inspiration for others in the world of ICH.

NGOs in International Networks

The active role of NGOs in the Flemish ICH policy is rather exceptional in its extensive cooperation between the government and NGOs. The role of NGOs is rather limited in the 2003 Convention’s current framework. Not only the Convention’s text but also the Operational Directives do not elaborate much on the (potential) roles of NGOs in the international and national organization of ICH processes. Moreover, from the recent audit of the methods of the Cultural Conventions,2 we learn that “a further challenge relates to the consultation and involvement of communities and NGOs in developing policies, legislation, sustainable development plans, etc.”

Nevertheless a lot is happening and evolving on the ground. In the past few years, the number of demands for accreditation is growing at the same high speed as the ratification number by States Parties. Participation of NGOs in the Convention’s meetings is growing. For several years, accredited NGOs have also been starting to organize themselves in the ICH NGO Forum ( a plat form for communication, networking, exchange, and cooperation for NGOs accredited by UNESCO. The NGO Forum organizes meetings and symposia on shared international challenges in the safeguarding policies and practices of ICH, and it is particularly committed to follow the implementation and the evolution of the 2003 Convention.

Also in these NGO Forum meetings, a growing commitment can be observed in recent years. It did not remain unnoticed by States Parties in the most recent 8COM IGC, with its vivid activities of working groups, meetings, and debriefings. This surely is an élan on which the involved NGOs should proceed and develop their contributions to the Convention’s work. Also on more regional scales, we identify important evolutions. Taking a look at the European region, we can see intensifying processes of NGOs, experts, and projects cooperation and exchange. Meetings on national and international scales elaborate on safeguarding questions, questions of participation, good practices and methodologies, etc., and European projects on ICH get to be established.

The number of ICH experts and NGOs in this regional scale remains accessible, and most of them master either English or French as a shared language, so an ever more solid network of reciprocal confidence and cooperation is developing. Some NGOs considerately invest time and efforts in these processes. Tapis plein has been very active in international networks, often in close cooperation with the Flemish NGO, FARO. Tapis plein invests a considerable amount of time and energy in international lectures, workshops and exchanges. But it cannot be denied how difficult it is for an often professionally small-scale and financially deprived ICH-NGO sector to bring up time and means for international networking.

We seem to be arriving at a critical point at this stage. Will NGOs be able to structure their cooperation and make it sustainable? Can NGOs invest, for example, in cooperating for developing and sharing (lighter ways of) best practices in safeguarding? Will the Convention’s framework create the necessary tools and room to make a difference as national and international NGOs roll out of the Convention in the future? Will NGOs bring up means, tools, and languages to bridge many of the challenges faced?

NGOs will need to invent and organize widely interconnected models of NGO international networking. Maybe the Flemish model can serve as inspiration with its integrating thematic and geographical networks.

Indeed, there are many opportunities for NGOs to cooperate in networks on safeguarding ICH. NGOs have a duty to do so, in this era of globalization. To respond (better) to shared challenges. I hope NGOs are on the way, building creative intangible bridges above the often more tangible questions of language, finance, human resources, etc. to a co-productive future. Because realizing a sustainable future for safeguarding will have to be made in co-production. It’s not possible to have it made top-down by States Parties, neither bottom-up made solely by communities. A co-production of governments, communities, experts, and civil society is the way to go, with as many on-going roles for NGOs to fulfil therein, to translate, to advocate, to sensitize, to support, to accompany, etc.


1. Article 2, UNESCO ICH Convention
2. Final Report. Evaluation of UNESCO’s Standard-setting Work of the Culture Sector; Part I – 2003Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. IOS,