Unesco recognition as intangible heritage of humanity

Photograph of foster family and boarder


In 2023 Unesco decided to recognise the Geel Foster Family Care heritage as intangible heritage of humanity. “Safeguarding foster care heritage in the merciful city of Geel: a community-based care model” was considered a “programme, project or activity best reflecting the principles and objectives of the 2003 Convention”.


This 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage aims to pass on non-tangible customs to future generations. These include traditions, festivals, dances, rituals, stories, crafts and healing methods. The ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ helps safeguard this valuable heritage and make people aware of its importance.


The recognition for intangible heritage refers to a tradition with strong roots in the past, but which is kept alive, evolving with the time and being passed on to future generations. It is transmitted from generation to generation and it is important for a common identity. Special is that it has strong roots in history, but is not static. Foster Family Care still has the same fund as in past centuries – people with mental vulnerability live in an ordinary family and are a full part of the community – but is now strongly professionally supported from OPZ Geel.


Unesco decided to give Geel Foster Family Care this special recognition and safeguarding for the following reasons, between others:

  • The programme presents the model of foster care heritage, which combines a rich cultural tradition with innovative methods. The safeguarding programme aims to transmit the practice of Psychiatric Foster Family Care (PFC) within the context of intangible cultural heritage and to promote a caring culture and ecosystem.
  • The safeguarding programme has national support and local coordination. It has been under government authority since 1850. Medically and culturally, the programme is deeply rooted within Geel’s heritage covenant and the organization Stuifzand. At the same time, knowledge is built and shared through many international contacts and regional networks.
  • The Geel model demonstrates the importance of intangible cultural heritage in bringing people together, ensuring exchange and fostering understanding, as stated in the 2003 Convention’s preamble. The programme follows a community-based safeguarding approach, involving various stakeholders such as foster families, medical staff, cultural organizations, heritage workers and researchers, fully aligning with Article 15 of the Convention.
  • The Geel PFC model is based on an integrated approach with three pillars: research and reports, multiple benefits generated, and strong community participation and awareness. Extensive research and reports on the Geel PFC model span back to the nineteenth century. This highlights the effectiveness of the model and has led to international recognition of the practice. The safeguarding programme has generated multiple benefits for all actors involved, including mentally vulnerable people, foster families and the broader community.
  • Geel’s community-based care model has had a significant impact at the local, regional and subregional levels. This model of integrating mentally ill individuals into community life extends its community-based care approach to other marginalized groups (including poor, socially vulnerable and older people). Geel’s success in preserving and transmitting its tradition and values is based on the contemporary interpretation of the ‘Merciful City’ concept, which emphasizes compassion and inclusion.


The programme demonstrates a strong willingness to cooperate and disseminate its practices.