multidimensional poverty and the illicit antiquities trade

Some of the world’s most impoverished countries may eradicate acute poverty within a generation. As well as being good news in and of itself, the reduction in poverty may lead to a reduction in looting, because some of the poorest places are also some of the world’s most vulnerable and most plundered places.

Eradication of acute poverty

According to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), some of the world’s most impoverished countries ‘could see acute poverty eradicated within 20 years’ (via one of OPHI’s researchers, Jose Manuel Roche (@jomroche)). (OPHI’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) resources page has the data.)

(Still, others might not be so lucky: Ethiopia might need forty-five years to “achieve” Nigeria’s current level of multidimensional poverty.)

As OPHI’s director Sabina Alkire said (paraphrasing people in poverty),

poverty is more than money – it is ill health, it is food insecurity, it is not having work, or experiencing violence and humiliation, or not having health care, electricity, or good housing.

Tess Davis, an archaeologist-lawyer who works to reduce the theft and smuggling of Cambodian cultural property, has tied together looting and smuggling with poverty and corruption.

Eradication of subsistence digging?

If they can continue reducing poverty, if they can consolidate economic and health security, and if they can avoid consolidating corruption and impunity, then the alleviation of these communities’ poverty may consequently alleviate the pressure on their cultural resources. The increase in well-being and security may reduce antiquities looting. That’s particularly significant for the world’s archaeological resources, because the countries that are making the greatest improvements are amongst the countries that are suffering the worst looting.

OPHI hopes that (unlike others’ unconvincing claims) their convincing evidence will ‘incentivise international donors and governments to help the poorest‘. And that’s particularly promising for cultural heritage, arts and craft economies, like the projects of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, because they are holistic (culturally, financially and ecologically sustainable) forms of development.

Multidimensional poverty and subsistence digging in OPHI’s star performers

The ‘star performer[s]’ in multidimensional poverty reduction include (in order of success) Rwanda, Nepal and Bangladesh; and Ghana, Tanzania, Cambodia and Bolivia.


Thankfully, there does not appear to be significant looting of antiquities in Rwanda.


While there are illegal excavations in Tanzania, they’re ‘not a very serious problem’.


Terracotta art from Ghana is on the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) Red List (of the cultural property that’s at the greatest risk of being looted).


The United States have had (repeatedly renewed and extended) emergency import restrictions on Bolivian cultural property since 1989. In some parts of Bolivia, the illicit antiquities trade remains a booming business (though in others, like in Peru, they have begun to develop more sustainable uses of cultural property).

Multidimensional poverty, subsistence digging and organised crime


During Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence, ‘military action accounted for very little of the destruction of cultural properties; most of the damage was the result of deliberate plunder’, for which ‘[p]overty and desperation [were] extenuating factors’.

No longer: the elimination of deprivation may not significantly affect looting, because Islamists, politicians and businessmen, and looting gangs and international antiquities smuggling gangs, conduct violent, communalist plunder.


Nepal has ‘lost more than half of its religious sculpture‘, and ‘most’ of its bronze images; but again, this is a very ‘well-organised’ trade that has in some way infiltrated the state and achieved impunity.


Cambodian antiquities looting continues to constitute a ‘crisis‘; South-East Asian prehistorian Prof. Charles Higham noted that it was a ‘highly professional, organised trade’.

Indeed, the Authority for Protection of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA) stated that elements within the Cambodian army had been active in theft and transfer of illicit cultural property; and archaeologist-lawyer Tess Davis noted the convictions of senior government and military officials for combined drugs, arms and antiquities smuggling.

Affirming Davis’s (optimistic) observation on the links between development, anti-corruption and cultural property protection, Higham noted that looting was worst in ‘rural poverty-stricken‘ areas; and the Washington Oriental Ceramic Group’s president, David Rehfuss, observed that the ‘Cambodian antique trade [would] continue as long as the unfortunate poor of Cambodia remain[ed] without appropriate developmental and economic opportunities’.

Almost perversely, this offers some hope for Cambodia (and Nepal and Bangladesh), because it suggests that, despite the organised criminal and extremist political takeovers of the illicit trades in their antiquities, a reduction in poverty would still lead to a reduction in subsistence digging and/or looting.

The illicit antiquities trade in the UNDP’s star performers

A few other places were mentioned in the Guardian article, because they made the fastest improvements according to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI). The UNDP’s star performers – Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone – cover the same range of problems and experiences as the OPHI’s leading countries. Reassuringly, they affirm the other examples.

Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, there does not appear to be a significant illicit trade in antiquities.


In Ethiopia, ‘local people are still forced by poverty to sell heritage’.


Afghanistan is one of the most well-known victims of looting, a ‘grave robbers’ paradise’ where warlords and mafias collaborate in plundering the country with impunity, and Pakistani antiquities dealers and military officers collaborate in smuggling and trading (and collecting).

Still there, the illicit excavation is done by ‘[p]oor villagers lacking other sources of income‘, who ‘use shovels and wheelbarrows to cart off precious objects from historic spots around the country’. So, still there, a reduction in poverty offers the promise of a consequent (if not proportionate) reduction in subsistence digging.

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