Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thoughts about UNESCO's history

My UNESCO seminar last night was privileged to hear Dick Arndt and Ray Wanner talk about the history of UNESCO. They focused on the organizational precursors of UNESCO and the process by which the organization was created in the aftermath of the World Wars. Remember that an estimated 55 million people died in World War II and 15 million in World War I. The founders of the United Nations and UNESCO were deeply concerned that something had to be done to make World War III less likely.

The deep divides in the United States about internationalism were discussed, especially in terms of the decision of the Reagan administration's decision to leave UNESCO and the George W. Bush administration's decision to return.

Ray said that there was much for Americans to be proud about in the creation of UNESCO and of some of its flagship programs, which it true. It also seems true that Americans sought to be involved in UNESCO to keep it from playing a more important role in the reconstruction of the educational and scientific plant of Europe after the wars due to key members of the government preferring bilateral to multilateral approaches. The weakness of UNESCO to adequately confront the challenges in education, science, culture and communications can be traced in part to that decision of the U.S. government and to our withdrawal from UNESCO for a couple of decades.

The discussion focused on a number of people who played key roles in UNESCO, emphasizing the Americans as was appropriate for this class with a number of students from the Elliott School of foreign affairs. That is quite a reasonable approach, but in this posting I want to think some about the great trends in world history over the past six decades to which UNESCO had to respond.

Some of the trends and their effects are widely understood. The Cold War affected UNESCO significantly, with the USSR refusing to join the Organisation for its first nine years, and the free-market democracies seeking to use UNESCO to disseminate their institutions.

Decolonization resulted in a rapid expansion of the number of member nations of UNESCO, which in turn resulted in the dilution of power of the founding countries in the one-nation one-vote governing bodies of the Organization. Of course the reconstruction of European nations and Japan after the War reduced the need for collaborative reconstruction efforts. Not coincidentally the focus of UNESCO shifted from rebuilding the allies after World War II to preparing former colonies for self-governance and then toward the alleviation of the poverty that was so prevalent in the newly independent nations. UNESCO's flagship program in the social sciences is now "the Management of Social Transitions", responsive to the need of developing nations to better manage the social transitions in progress.

The Israeli-Arab conflict, and the broader cultural clash between Islamic and Western cultures have similarly had a continuing effect on UNESCO governance and programs.

Some of the trends and impacts are less widely recognized.

The demographic transition -- much reduced infant and childhood mortality leading to reduced fertility -- has resulted in families willing to invest much more per child in education and to support longer periods of school attendance. Thus the education program of UNESCO has been faced by developing countries undergoing rapid demographic transition which wanted rapid expansion of schools systems.

Obviously the footprint of mankind has grown hugely in the last six decades. World population has grown, per capita product has grown, and so too the demand for resources and the potential degradation of the environment has grown. In the same period scientists have learned much more on about the the environment. Thus satellite remote sensing has allowed scientists to measure changes in average global temperatures, rates of deforestation and rates of desertification. The rudimentary computers of the War years have been replaced by massively powerful supercomputers that allow scientists to explore convincing models of climate change. More impact and more understanding of that impact on the environment have resulted in pressures on the UNESCO natural science program to support more effective efforts to map geological and water resources and to understand environmental change.

The evolution of transportation and communications technology and infrastructure over six decades has made the world a much smaller place. Those developments have resulted in a globalization of commerce, the growth of multinational corporations and of international civil society, which in turn resulted in a proliferation of intergovernmental organizations to help manage the global web of relations. UNESCO has thus to adjust its operations to work within a changing web of international systems.

Globalization has many other impacts on UNESCO. Cultures that were once relatively isolated are now supplied by universal access to radio, movies, television, telephones, and the Internet; UNESCO is a refuge where they seek the protection to manage their own cultural evolution. There are now three million students enrolled in institutions of higher learning outside of their own countries, and those students represent an important investment in the future for their nations, leading to demands on UNESCO. UNESCO's program of communications and information is largely concerned with the dissemination of information and communications technologies. Indeed, the entire program of UNESCO has been described as focusing on the transition to information societies and the further translation to knowledge societies.

I could go on and on, but the point should be clear that the world has changed in and UNESCO has changed with it. Indeed, leaders have helped make the organizational changes over the years, but they often were responding to new global needs and it was the emergence of those needs that permitted the accumulation of support needed to change UNESCO.

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