Thursday, August 23, 2012

Understanding UNESCO's Evolution

While many of UNESCO's founders and some of its Directors General have seen the Organization as embodying a philosophy of humanism, its portfolio, Secretariat and extended networks of partners can best be understood as having evolved through legislative and social processes, yet it has significantly achieved the hopes of its founders.

Students beginning the study of UNESCO are surprised by the diversity of its activities. For example, UNESCO has a key role in the Education for All program and the Millennium Development Goals for education, and also works in literacy and lifelong learning, but it also plays a key role in the development of a global tsunami warning system, supports a global network of bioreserves, is responsible for the international convention against the illicit market in historical artifacts and the international convention against doping in sports, and supports international work in support of libraries and protection of reporters.

Other decentralized agencies of the UN system such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Postal Union or the International Telecommunications Union have charters which more obviously impart coherence to their programs; in comparison, UNESCO seems to lack a central organizing philosophy.

UNESCO was founded in the aftermath of World War II and it was seen as the complement of the United Nations. The UN and its Security Council were seen as a political means for the prevention (or amelioration) of armed conflicts in the future. UNESCO was seen as focusing on changes in societies that would in turn change the way in which people thought, changes that would make war less and less likely.

There clearly was no charter for UNESCO to favor one world religion over another, nor was there a charter for UNESCO to favor Capitalism, Communism nor Socialism as an economic system. The preamble to the UNESCO Constitution states:
That the great and terrible war which has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races;

That the wide diffusion of culture, and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern;
While UNESCO could focus on "democratic principles", no agreement could have been presumed that UNESCO would militate against the political system of the USSR, nor that of the United States, nor against the constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom, nor indeed against the empires then held by Great Britain, France, and Portugal.

How then was UNESCO to accomplish its fundamental purpose? It was
to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.
Various people have seen an implied philosophical position that would serve as a basis for more specific actions such as the proposal of initiatives for UNESCO that would be strongly related to its purpose or to the exclusions of less relevant initiatives. Thus Julian Huxley, UNESCO's first Director General, proposed that UNESCO promote "Scientific Humanism" while Irina Bokova, the current Director General, has proposed a "New Humanism for the 21st Century":
The major challenge is to turn the crisis into an opportunity and create a more democratic and humane world where the values of human dignity and human rights, of equal access to education and culture, will underpin all economic and political considerations.
Such a fundamental philosophical position is no doubt useful for the Director General of UNESCO, occupying a position with considerable power and authority over the program of the Organization.

However, it is also important to recognize that UNESCO operates on a charter that was a compromise developed by the representatives of very different countries with very different histories and interests. Moreover, it has been subject over almost seven decades to the instructions of its governing bodies composed of the representatives of its member states.

These instructions have reflected changes in global understanding of culture and society, and the political winds of the Cold War , decolonization and globalization as well as of smaller wars, economic crises. Not only has the number of member states changed, but the balance has away from imperial powers to new states that have emerged from political or economic imperialism, and so the interests of the majority of representatives to the General Conference and Executive Board also have changed.

UNESCO's portfolio has evolved over time reflecting the interests of its leadership and Secretariat, the initiatives of key outsiders (who have championed specific initiatives -- see this for a list of some of the American influentials), the interests of the governments member states and their representatives to UNESCO bodies, the adhesion and expansion of networks that associated with UNESCO's programs, and the interests of international and national educational, scientific, cultural and communications communities.

That evolution has been marked by a continuity as the Organization continued programs, activities and networking that had once been started, but also by change as from time to time new initiative have been added to the mix and less often as older efforts have been stopped -- either spun off as successful and able to stand alone or as unsuccessful and not competitive with other demands for limited resources. While not perfect, that evolution has been focused both by adherence to the UNESCO Constitution and by the guidance of Directors General who often shared key elements of a vision for UNESCO.

The result of this politicized program evolution is not a bureaucrat's dream but all in all it must been seen as having significantly realizing the hopes of UNESCO's founding fathers. The very modest resources assigned to UNESCO have been used to promote education, science and culture, focusing often on societies that have in fact been especially receptive to increasing humanism in their philosophical basis, and resulting in a more peaceful world with better understanding among peoples and more dialog among cultures.

It is time for the United States to recognize this reality and modify its foreign policy as it relates to support for UNESCO.

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