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Cash for work: promoting local employment through heritage conservation in historic cities (Yemen)

In the context of long-standing conflict, a cash-for-work scheme provides young people with employment opportunities while contributing to the conservation of urban heritage in four historic cities in Yemen. The initiative aims to meet the most urgent humanitarian needs of crisis while promoting local ownership over the safeguarding of World Heritage.

World Heritage in Yemen

Yemen, located in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, contains many historic sites and cities, such as the World Heritage sites of Old Walled City of Shibam, Old City of Sana'a, Historic Town of Zabid and Socotra Archipelago.

Old Walled City of Shibam

Surrounded by a fortified wall, the 16th-century city of Shibam is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Its impressive tower-like structures rise out of the cliff and have given the city the nickname of ‘the Manhattan of the desert’. 

Old Walled City of Shibam. Author: Jean-Jacques Gelbart. © Editions Gelbart© Editions Gelbart

Old City of Sana'a

Situated in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,200 m, Sana’a has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the city became a major centre for the propagation of Islam. This religious and political heritage can be seen in the 103 mosques, 14 hammams and over 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century. Sana’a’s many-storeyed tower-houses built of rammed earth (pisé) add to the beauty of the site.

Old City of Sana'a. Author: Jean-Jacques Gelbart © Editions Gelbart

Historic Town of Zabid

Zabid's domestic and military architecture and its urban plan make it an outstanding archaeological and historical site. Besides being the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century, the city played an important role in the Arab and Muslim world for many centuries because of its Islamic university.

Historic Town of Zabid. Author: Jean-Jacques Gelbart. Copyright: © Editions Gelbart
Historic Town of Zabid. Author: Jean-Jacques Gelbart. Copyright: © Editions Gelbart

Since 2014, the ongoing armed conflict in Yemen has posed significant threats to the country’s unique cultural heritage, which has suffered extensive damage. At the same time, the unrest has caused an economic decline, high unemployment, and a rise in poverty among Yemeni households. Due to short-term conflict-related factors as well as long-term lack of maintenance, Yemen has lacked the resources to coordinate the protection and promotion of cultural heritage. This situation was further affected by extreme weather conditions affecting several World Heritage Sites, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and severe risks for operations.

Cash for work: promoting local employment through heritage conservation

In this challenging context, the project “Cash for Work: Promoting Livelihood Opportunities for Urban Youth in Yemen” aims at employing 4,000 young men and women to safeguard cultural heritage in four different historic urban centres: Sana’a, Shibam, Zabid and Aden. Sana'a, Shibam and Zabid are home to the World Heritage sites of Old City of Sana'aOld Walled City of Shibam and Historic Town of Zabid, respectively. Aden is not inscribed on the World Heritage List.

The project is implemented by UNESCO and the Social Fund for Development and funded by the European Union, with an overall budget of €10 million. It started in September 2018 and is expected to continue until 2022. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, as of March 2021, the project has employed over 1,300 young men and women as part of the project’s contribution to the UN Strategic Framework for Immediate Socio-economic response to COVID-19 in Yemen.

The project includes extensive surveying and rehabilitation works, as well as education and capacity building activities. The reconstruction work is informed by evidence-based damage assessments and newly produced technical urban rehabilitation guidelines. As of March 2021, the project has carried out the following achievements:

  • surveyed over 8,000 historical buildings;
  • stabilised and/or rehabilitated 130 historical buildings, consisting mainly of private houses and public spaces;
  • enrolled over 1,300 young workers under 35 (including 10% females, representing around 6,000 household members), over 20,000 working days in urban rehabilitation works;
  • engaged over 500 youth in cash-based cultural programming and communication campaign on heritage;
  • organised 4 capacity building and consultative workshops for 50 culture operators; and
  • disbursed small grants to 8 cultural CSOs to boost income generation in the creative sector (performing arts, cinema, poetry, and music).
Field inspection and monitoring © UNESCO

The UNESCO-EU project in Yemen approaches livelihoods and culture needs for youth and local communities through contextualised methodologies for modern heritage rehabilitation and social protection. The project development team carried out community-based assessments of priorities and consultations with local government agencies and master builders’ associations.

The joint initiative is a pioneer project promoting participatory cash-for-work schemes in heritage restoration and urban regeneration in World Heritage Sites, implemented through cohesive community-led approaches. As a consequence, the rehabilitation works respond both to residents’ needs and heritage concerns. The activities have contributed to progress in meeting the most urgent humanitarian needs of crisis (providing access to livelihoods, strengthening economic resilience and restoring social cohesion) while promoting local ownership over the safeguarding of World Heritage. Furthermore, by complementing rehabilitation works with youth-led cultural programming and services, the project supports ownership and sustainability over preservation efforts of historical neighbourhoods as a place where youth communities can meet, live together and express themselves freely.

This unprecedented large-scale intervention reaffirms the importance of human-centred approaches to safeguarding cultural heritage and enhancing urban resilience, in a way that ensures community ownership over heritage. The project contributes to an environment for sustainable cultural development that allows communities to come together and maintain their connections with heritage and each other, while appreciating the diversity of cultural traditions and contributing to rebuilding dialogue and peace.

Rehabilitation works © UNESCO

Source: UNESCO Cluster Office for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen.

Contribution towards the implementation of the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape

The project might contribute towards the implementation of the Historic Urban Landscape approach thanks to its concerned efforts to safeguard and preserve urban heritage in a manner that enables community participation and ownership and takes into consideration the residents’ needs.

Historic Urban Landscape Tools

Civic engagement tools Financial tools

Contribution towards Sustainable Development

If fully implemented in accordance with the described plans, the initiative could contribute towards Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

  • Target 1.2: the initiative aims to reduce the proportion of men, women and children living in poverty.

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

  • Target 8.5: the initiative aims to contribute to full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people.
  • Target 8.6: the initiative aims to reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

  • Target 11.4: the initiative aims to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural heritage.

Note: the described potential impacts of the projects are only indicative and based on submitted and available information. UNESCO does not endorse the specific initiatives nor ratifies their positive impact.

To learn more


UNESCO Cluster Office for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen. unesco.org/fieldoffice/doha


© UNESCO, 2021. Project team: UNESCO Doha, Ahmed Zaouche, Jyoti Hosagrahar, Alba Zamarbide, Carlota Marijuán Rodríguez. 
Cover image © UNESCO

Note: The cases shared in this platform address heritage protection practices in World Heritage sites and beyond. Items being showcased in this website do not entail any type of recognition or inclusion in the World Heritage list or any of its thematic programmes. The practices shared are not assessed in any way by the World Heritage Centre or presented here as model practices nor do they represent complete solutions to heritage management problems. The views expressed by experts and site managers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Heritage Centre. The practices and views shared here are included as a way to provide insights and expand the dialogue on heritage conservation with a view to further urban heritage management practice in general.