Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Obiang Prize Controversy at UNESCO -- What does it mean for the organization's future?

The UNESCO Executive Board voted a couple of years ago to accept a donation of $3.5 million to establish a science prize in the name of President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. A significant portion of the money would go to UNESCO, which is strapped for money and does a lot of good things. If well administered, the prize might recognize important scientific achievements and thus stimulate people to engage in important scientific efforts.

The announcement of the prize raised a storm of criticism. Many non-governmental organizations protested that UNESCO should not honor the dictatorial and repressive Obiang government by attaching the Obiang name to an prestigious international prize. There have been petitions circulated in the intellectual communities of Africa and Latin America to oppose the prize, and these have been signed by many distinguished people, including a significant number of Nobel Prize winners from those continents.

UNESCO Director General Bokova, elected last year, postponed the process for the awarding of the first prize, referring the policy question back to the Executive Board, which is meeting now. I understand that a group of countries, including major donors to UNESCO are seeking to reverse the earlier Executive Board Decision, reject the donation, and return the funding; a second group of countries, led by African delegations, is seeking to reaffirm the earlier decision. A committee of members of the Executive Board is apparently working to draft a resolution that can be accepted by the whole by the end of the week.

I don't know enough about the pros and cons of the matter to have a serious opinion on the merits of the matter. My instincts are that UNESCO should not dignify Obiang by attaching his name to a UNESCO activity.

UNESCO was created in the aftermath of World War II to engage the intellectuals of the world in a global effort to promote peace through the promotion of education, cultural exchanges, communications and science. Certainly the allied powers that worked to create UNESCO and the countries that continue to provide most of its funding see the promotion of democracy and human rights as central to UNESCO's mission. The Obiang case may be seen as a marker as to whether UNESCO will continue to focus on peace, democracy and human rights or will increasingly accommodate to a more limited mission.

Last Year's Election of the Director General

Last year at the end of four ballots, Irina Bokova and Farouk Hosny were tied 29 to 29 in the Executive Board voting to choose the next Executive Director of UNESCO. The election was very contentious with several diplomats refusing to accept their government's instructions on voting and being replaced. In the final ballot, Ms. Bokova was elected by 31 votes to 27. By all reports she is proving to be an exceptionally able leader, who has selected a good executive team, is implementing important reforms in UNESCO's programs and methods of work, and whose diplomatic skills are improving the reputation of the organization. That improvement is much needed!

When he failed in his election bid, it is reported, Farouk Hosny charged that he had been the victim of an international Jewish conspiracy. He reneged on his commitment to resign his position of Egyptian Minister of Culture if he lost the UNESCO election and has continued in that position. He was recently again in the international news related to the theft of a Van Gogh painting from an Egyptian museum. Even though the painting had been previously stolen from the museum (and later recovered), it was concluded that the security measures of the museum were dismally inadequate. There are charges that the security problems were due to the inadequate funding from the Minister of Culture. Rather than take responsibility for a failure on his watch of his ministry, Minister Hosny saw the imprisonment of his Vice Minister and several other subordinates to be tried for dereliction of duty. He himself has been quoted as saying the theft was "no big deal".

The governance structure of UNESCO is such that Mr. Hosny was almost elected instead of Ms. Bokova. I do not feel confident that that governance structure will find the right solution to the current Obiang controversy. I suspect that if UNESCO is to regain the support it had among its member nations and the international community, the governance has to be improved. Not only is the current structure subject to pressures which produce poor decisions, it is expensive and cumbersome requiring major investments of time of the leadership team for the Organization.

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