Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the election of the new UNESCO Director General

The 58 members of the Executive Board are to choose a new Director General for UNESCO tomorrow. I want to take the occasion to think about the election.

The State Department of the United States, like the foreign ministries of the other member nations of the Executive Board, faces a complex set of issues which I as an outsider can not hope to understand. It is involved in complex negotiations on a huge variety of issues, and must balance its preference for the leader of UNESCO with the possibility of trading its vote for support of another nation on another, possibly more important issue. It would seem from that which I have read, that the Russian candidate may be at a disadvantage due to issues of global politics, and that the Egyptian candidate may have an advantage and to a lesser degree the candidates from Lithuania and Bulgaria.

I can only provide an opinion on UNESCO. I think UNESCO is an important international organization. I think that its founders were correct in that intellectual exchanges and intellectual development are critical for the long term building of the defenses of peace, as well as for the social and economic development of the less developed nations. While the impact of UNESCO's efforts may be long term, I think they are exceptionally important. Consequently, I think it quite important that the Executive Board choose the best Director General that it available among its candidates.

It seems obvious that an international organization with a half-billion dollar annual budget requires strong administrator at its help, capable of assuring an efficient and transparent operation. I would suggest however that UNESCO is most influential through its outreach through National Commissions, partners, UNESCO clubs, associated schools, UNESCO chairs, World Heritage sites, bioreserves, geoparks, scientific networks, etc. Moreover, the Director General should speak for human rights to freedom of expression, to education, to knowledge, and to culture, and his/her direct speech to the public is frequently the visible face of UNESCO. The Director General should be especially important as a leader and spokesperson, energizing and motivating people supporting UNESCO's objectives through these means. The ability to lead by charisma, example, logic and rhetoric may be even more important than that to administer the formal UNESCO organization; properly understood, the two abilities are complementary and synergistic. These abilities are best judged by those who have direct contact with the candidates. However, I find the opposition expressed by Reporters Without Borders to the candidacy of Farouk Hosny as quite troubling in terms of his likely defense of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

The ability of the new Director General to attract resources for UNESCO, or at least not to endanger resource flows should not be ignored. UNESCO's budget is pitifully small when compared with the challenges if faces or the good it could do. Two thirds of the regular budget of the organization comes from six countries. If these countries militate against UNESCO's budgets, or if as is the case with the United States they allow their arrears to accumulate, they can cause grave problems for UNESCO. In the United States, where contributions to UNESCO are proposed by the Executive Branch of government, the decisions come from the Legislative Branch. It may be that Benita Ferrero-Waldner would have more positive influence with funding agencies than other candidates; Farouk Hosny, having the opposition of Reporters Without Borders, the Anti-Defamation League and others might have difficulties with funding that other candidates would not face.

I have taught a graduate seminar now for three semesters on UNESCO, and my students agree that it is a very complicated organization with a very complex program. The UNESCO governance structure is also extremely complex and cumbersome. Candidates who already understand the organization well have a significant advantage assuming its direction in a timely fashion. Candidates who already have the respect of the members of the governing bodies also have a significant advantage. It appears that the best qualified in this respect may be Ina Marciulionyte and, perhaps slightly less so, Irina Bokova and Noureini Tidjani-Sepros.

The Director General of UNESCO is a peer of the leaders of other international organizations, and meets with chiefs of state and chiefs of government as well as government ministers and leaders of the global intellectual community. UNESCO's Chief must have the personal gravitas to meet as an equal with these persons, and indeed should ideally have had high level positions prior to assuming the direction of UNESCO. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, as a European Commissioner appears to be well qualified in this respect. I would suggest that Alexander Yakovenko, the Vice Minister of Foreign Relations of Russia might be regarded as better known internationally than a full government minister of a smaller, less influential country.

As Director General Matsuura has demonstrated, the job of the Director General is very demanding. The travel schedule must be extensive. The Director General is the key interface between Executive Board and General Conference and the staff and programs of UNESCO, and as such must participate in long and exhausting meetings several times a year. The simple responsibility of keeping up on the many complex programs and activities of the organization is demanding. The new Director General must be up to the tasks, and must be completely dedicated to the task of leading UNESCO.

In my view, the most important function of UNESCO is promoting intellectual exchanges that lead to better understanding among peoples and thus to a relaxation of conflict. In the current election, two candidates - Ivonne Baki and Benita Ferrero-Waldner - seem especially well qualified to lead in this function. Farouk Hosny has maintained for decades in his role of Minister of Culture of Egypt that the conflict between Israel and Palestine must be resolved before he would support intellectual exchanges between Egypt and Israel. That position mirrors that of the larger intellectual community of Egypt, and Hosny has stated that he would have quite a different position as leader of UNESCO, but the history counts against him.

Over its history, UNESCO has gone from a cultural focus on the sharing of the very best products of cultures, adding an emphasis on dialog among culture, protection of cultural diversity, and recognition culture as determining the objectives of development as well as the means to achieve those objectives. Farouk Hosny, long term Minister of Culture of Egypt is by far the most qualified of the candidates to lead in the original concept of protection and sharing tangible aspects of cultural heritage. On the other hand, many Egyptian minorities protest against his record in supporting their rights to express their own cultural values, leading me to question his commitment to dialog among cultures and cultural diversity. Ivonne Baki, also an artist, may well have more intuitive understanding of cultural diversity than other candidates. Marciulionyte and Bokova have had the experience of radical cultural change as their countries emerged from Communism.

UNESCO is a global organization. While its governing bodies have given priority to Africa, it can not neglect any people. Its 193 member states represent the vast majority of the world's population. It seems to me that three candidates -- Ferrero-Waldner, Baki and Yakovenko -- have the experience that would suggest the broadest understanding of global issues.

I would have liked to see a distinguished scientist-educator with administrative experience in the post. Only Sospeter Muhongo among the candidates has strong scientific credentials among the candidates, and he too would appear to have the best educational qualifications.

The World Summit on the Information Society was an important United Nations event recognizing the emergence of new social and economic reality as a result of the Information Revolution. UNESCO played an important role in emphasizing that we seek not just a society in which their is more information availability, but one in which there is more knowledge and that knowledge is effectively utilized to promote human welfare. I would have liked to see an intellectual leader who could stress the importance of education, science, culture and communications in moving toward knowledge societies. None of the candidates seems to have shown international leadership in this area in the past, but perhaps those interviewing them may have formed opinions on the breadth of their intellectual ability to provide that leadership.

Considering all of these factors, I think that the leading candidates for the post should be Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Ivonne Baki, while Ina Marciulionyte and Irina Bokova may also be good candidates. On the other hand, I think Farouk Hosny is a relatively weak candidate. The overall decision will dependon the impact that the candidates have on the electors in person and on the support that the candidates receive from their governments.

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