Friday, December 03, 2004

UNESCO Trip Report

Informal and confidential report of visit to UNESCO Headquarters, October 26-30, 2004:

Irving A. Lerch



On a private trip to Paris I arranged courtesy visits with Walter Erdelen (ADG, Natural Sciences), Maciej Nalecz (Director Basic Science and Engineering), Mustafa El-Tayeb (Director Science Analysis and Policy), Anathea Brooks (Advisor to Mr. Erdelen) and Minella Alarcon (Program Officer Physical and Mathematical Sciences). In addition, I received a request from Nancy Cooper (Science Officer in the Office of the US Resident Representative to UNESCO) for discussion. While with Mr. El-Tayeb, I was introduced to the Iraqi Ambassador to UNESCO, Mr. El-Khateeb. Although many topics where touched upon during my visit, I was guided by four issues raised by some of my colleagues in the physical sciences: 1) The development of a regional program for the Central Asian and Caucasus nations to improve and extend university science education programs to benefit the new generation of scientists; 2) Initiatives to support scientists and engineers in Iraq and to invigorate and rehabilitate Iraqi universities, research programs and educational curricula; 3) Extended efforts to reach out to the Iranian scientific community; and 4) The examination of a multiplicity of emerging programs to develop synchrotron radiation sources in developing regions (SESAME, CANDLE, South Africa, etc). How can support be managed, programs implemented, resources coordinated? My brief discussion with Ms. Cooper appears to have been precipitated by worries that I would urge UNESCO to prematurely convene a consultative conference on Iraq before the way was cleared for the development of effective and coherent proposals (but I also sensed unease at the prospect of individual and NGO efforts undermining the evolving authority of the US delegation to deal with the UNESCO Secretariat).

Meeting with Walter Erdelen, Maciej Nalecz and Anathea Brooks on October 26

My first concern was to inquire about UNESCO interest in furthering the work of the newly established coordinating council for Central Asia and the Caucasus to invigorate science and engineering programs and to provide new opportunities for young scholars to study at centers of excellence around the world. The coordinating council was the fruit of a CRDF- and ONR-sponsored workshop held in Baku, Azerbaijan, this past spring (whose opening was addressed by the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan and to which UNESCO had assigned a member of the Secretariat). Mr. Erdelen pointed out that such a program fit into the capacity-building mission of the Science Sector and would be a welcome element. Mr. Nalecz went on to say that as the new program for International Basic Sciences evolves, a mechanism would be found to integrate the coordinating committee into its workings. However, funding will be required and the NGO sector should provide guidance on the availability of resources. This suggests that the coordinating committee will be expected to plan, implement and administer the program under the aegis of the UNESCO Basic Sciences Program. We continued this examination at a second meeting two days later.

There was some frustration expressed about the on-again, off-again efforts to hold a consultative meeting on Iraq (first scheduled for last April, then delayed to September, then October and now on indefinite hold) but a detailed examination of these issues was left for my discussions with Mr. El-Tayeb (he has been assigned the lead on this initiative). The current security environment certainly figured strongly in the Organization’s calculations but the implementation of workshops for students, faculty and university administrators at ICTP in Trieste was considered eminently doable. The requirement was for a proper assessment of needs, priorities and interests from the Iraqi side along with a listing of potential resources available to implement advantageous programs. At this juncture, assuming governance authority, the NGO community can be enlisted and canvassed to provide expertise and guidance. With respect to preliminary consultations, Mr. Erdelen foresaw a two-stage process whereby an informal meeting of Iraqi ministerial, academic and management personnel would meet with UNESCO staff and consultants to explore the general outlines of a program to be submitted to a larger consultative meeting—probably including donors—for consideration, modification and approval. This approach was dilated upon with Mr. El-Tayeb and Ms. Cooper.

With respect to contacts with the Iranian science community, these were ongoing, and the Director of the UNESCO Field Office in Tehran, Dr. Abdin Salih, is a distinguished hydrologist with broad knowledge of the region who conducts a vigorous outreach program. My concern was the maintenance of ties with the US community in the context of the embargo against Iran. However, it is clear that third party ties relying on UNESCO auspices can keep lines of communication open.

One concern that has arisen is the proliferation of proposals and projects to install advanced synchrotron radiation research facilities (“light sources”) in a number of developing countries. Among the earliest and most advanced organizationally is SESAME (based on a donated German machine to be upgraded and installed in Jordan) which enjoys a broad membership of countries throughout the Mediterranean region and the Middle East to include Israel (the project may be extended to include developing countries in Africa and other regions). UNESCO has endorsed SESAME and supported its institutional development. A second source is CANDLE, which is to be built in Armenia and has some conditional support in the US. And recently South Africa has embarked on the development of yet another facility. Others wait in the wings. But in view of the fact that such programs require large investments and ongoing operating costs (SESAME still requires about $15 million for minimal installation, upgrade and startup and has already cost the German and Jordanian governments a total of approximately $10 million, perhaps more) it will become necessary for some international authority to coordinate resources and provide for implementation schedules that will not interfere with the overall objectives of these facilities nor be the source of destructive competitions. Mr. Erdelen informed me that these issues are under discussion and that the Science Sector is looking at various ways to assure the engagement of a range of scientific communities. One possibility would be to organize research workshops and training programs and to coordinate users groups prior to moving forward with additional construction projects. It is generally recognized that these light sources are important for a large number of communities: physics, materials research, chemistry, structural biology, developmental pharmacology and other technical specialties.

Governance and changing relationships

In view of the fact that events were moving rapidly and that a US National Commission would soon be empanelled, I pointed out that the many NGOs and consultants with a long history of association with UNESCO (over the 18-year interregnum) will soon look to the Commission to represent its interests. Of course I recognize that UNESCO will wish to maintain its associations with NGOs and individual experts (in consonance with the general development of relations between UN institutions and international civil society), but that the propriety of governmental adherence will intervene on such issues as overall policy, formal appointments and official invitations. It appeared to me, that while the UNESCO senior management had met with Ambassador Oliver, Dr. Atkinson, and members of the US Resident Representative staff, there was confusion over how to develop and manage this new, more formal association with the US government. A few examples will illustrate the current metastability in US-UNESCO relations.

· A conference was approved by the Governing Board for a meeting to be convened in Cuba (for the Caribbean region). When the US delegation was apprized, Bruce Alberts (NAS) conferred with Mr. Erdelen and informed him that the US was convening a meeting on the same subject with the same invited US participants through OAS auspices on the same dates as the proposed Cuban meeting. This forced the UNESCO Secretariat to postpone the Cuban meeting and there was uncertainty that the US would permit US participation at any time. I pointed out to Mr. Erdelen that the laws and regulations governing the US embargo of Cuba provided for the organization of international meetings providing the participants were qualified scholars and could find the resources to attend the meeting (with certain limitations). However, the US government may eschew participation in the meeting by withdrawing official delegates or observers. This could have been avoided but by the same token, the US side must find a way to avoid being perceived as obstructing the consensus of the Board and other member states.

· When Mr. Nalecz received approval to organize the new International Basic Sciences Program, he sought a US observer to sit on the advisory council. Ultimately he turned to George Atkinson who was able to successfully relay the request through the congested channels of the government bureaucracy.

· In meetings between senior UNESCO management and Ambassador Oliver, there was concern that some of the proposals being urged on the resident representative were impractical owing to a lack of staff and resources. Thus an uncertainty arose as to the implications for the UNESCO program of these suggestions.

It is therefore urgent that the various friends of UNESCO in the US inform the Secretariat of the key people and procedures to pursue when governance issues arise. It is equally urgent that the resident representative’s staff develop a close working relationship with Secretariat staff so that the channels of communication will remain open and lubricated.

Meeting with Mustafa El-Tayeb and Ambassador El Khateeb, October 26

Concerning Iranian integration in the international community, an issue raised by an Iranian colleague currently residing as a visiting professor in the US is the apparent increase in the brain-drain of scientists and other scholars. This may be a consequence of anti-intellectual repression by the conservative political leadership in the country. Mr. El-Tayeb promised to relay this concern for study to appropriate experts.

The dominant topic of discussion was Iraq and the preparation of a program to rehabilitate science and engineering. [Mr. El-Tayeb had also borne responsibility (assigned by higher authority) for organizing the Cuban Caribbean meeting alluded to above.] In general, we agreed that something should be done as soon as it was feasible to implement a program for Iraq. The general outlines of such a course were mediated by the exigencies of the moment and dictated that it would be best to extract scholars, faculty and administrators and arrange activities outside of the country. Ultimately, he recognized that the institutional framework for such capacity building had to be installed inside Iraq. Thus UNESCO is faced with the unwieldy prospect of developing emergency short-term programs of indeterminate duration (awaiting the improvement of the security environment in Iraq) while remaining unable to plan for a long-term salvage operation within the country (rebuilding infrastructure and programs). Even arranging off-shore programs entailed risk and I was anxious to hear an authoritative assessment from the Iraqi interim government.

Mr. El-Tayeb brought me to the office of Ambassador El Khateeb, a scholar who had spent more than two decades in exile in the US. Ambassador El Khateeb acknowledged that the security issues were severe, recounting the deaths of numerous colleagues: senior ministry officials and professors caught in the cross hairs of the conflict. When I asked him about arranging workshops outside the country he affirmed this as the only reasonable course and expressed the need as urgent. I then asked him about Iraqi assessments, needs and priorities and he said that he was pursuing this information for UNESCO. I will not recount in this report the vast array of matters, disciplines, scholarly populations and logistics that must be catalogued preliminary to designing such a program, but both Mr. El-Tayeb and the Ambassador were of the opinion that something should be put in motion as soon as possible.

Despite the tragedy of the moment, the Ambassador expressed optimism that the intellectual capital of the country could be salvaged to form the base for the rebuilding to come. He seemed hopeful that the conflict now raging in the Sunni triangle and in and around the center of the country would die down in a year’s time. If this prediction is reasonable, then long-term planning might be undertaken.

Meeting with Maciej Nalecz and Minella Alarcon, October 28

While many of the topics recorded above were discussed in some additional detail, Mr. Nalecz focused on a number of issues that he believed would threaten the integrity of his restructured program. He was disturbed by the impasse that arose around the Cuban conference but was even more bothered by troublesome signs on the horizon:

· An important policy commitment for UNESCO is “decentralization,” the devolution of programs onto the regional field offices. This affects all programs and is especially hard to implement with the Division’s support of ICSU. Through a failure of communication, perhaps coupled by the strong wills and intentions of the protagonists, Mr. Nalecz’s insistence that ICSU comply with this policy has led ICSU management to complain that UNESCO is seeking to denigrate its support of the Council. This is due to the fact that Mr. Nalecz feels compelled to allocate only a percentage of the biennial assessment to ICSU headquarters operations with the remainder assessed for decentralized activities. But unless some formula is found to satisfy UNESCO policy (long-standing and set by the General Conference), relations between the Council and the UNESCO Secretariat may become strained.

· The policy of “0 nominal growth” in the UNESCO biennial budget has clearly squeezed programs and staff. Two consequences of this policy have been a continuing decline of funds to support existing programs and new initiatives, and a decline in staffing levels. This has produced enormous pressures on staff to report on programs underpinned with dwindling resources. In addition, the NGO communities and “recipient” states continue to demand an expansion of worthy programs. Where new programs can be implemented, they are usually “off the books” in the form of initiatives receiving voluntary subventions from “donor” states interested in pursuing such programs. The result is that more and more programs are no longer scrutinized by the governing board and General Conference. This makes a mockery of strategic long-term and mid-term planning and further diminishes the Organization’s effectiveness for its member states.

· The physical infrastructure of the Organization is in need of rehabilitation. The Fontenoy Headquarters building has not been renovated since its construction a half-century ago. And since there is no agreement binding the French government to provide infrastructure resources, UNESCO will be forced to use its own meager budget to finance needed repairs over the next biennium (2006-2008). Mr. Nalecz expressed alarm that this could divert a significant percentage of the Organization’s resources to infrastructure rehabilitation, necessitating a reduction in programs and personnel. Thus existing staff vacancies might have to be abandoned as attrition pulled down the workforce. Even then, the remaining staff would be relegated to unproductive low-level administrative tasks. Clearly this would endanger the newly restructured basic science program and would eliminate the much needed science education initiative.

Meeting with Nancy Cooper, October 29

Prior to my trip to Paris I had exchanged emails with Ms. Cooper, the Science Officer in Ambassador Oliver’s office. Since she was attending the Man in the Biosphere conference being held during the week of my visit, she did not think we would be able to meet. However, prior to my visit, she had received a call from Andrew Reynolds in the office of the Secretary of State’s S&T Advisor, expressing concern that I might try to rush UNESCO into an Iraq conference before the US was ready to participate. While I assured her that this was not my intention—and in fact was no longer my principal interest in visiting the UNESCO Secretariat—we agreed to meet during the luncheon break.

It became clear that Ms. Cooper was primarily concerned that NGOs and individuals visiting the UNESCO secretariat could undermine the office of the resident representative. And on the inception of the US National Commission, further damage could be done by blurring the lines of adherence. I don’t find these concerns surprising since, to some extent, there is a danger (although this is diminished when the resident representative’s staff maintains a close association with the UNESCO Secretariat, Commission members and principal NGOs). But over the last 18 years, the habit has been lost.

I did not assuage her fears by pointing out that the UN system has been moving to develop more NGO contacts and participation in the programs of the specialized agencies and that a constellation of associations already exists. Rather than accommodating this reality, it appears that many foreign service officers and attaches seem alarmed that such a system poses a threat to government objectives and policy.

I briefed her on the substance of my discussions and she went to great lengths to say that whereas my positions on certain issues might be most rational and admirable, it would be up to the Commission and Ambassador Oliver to present the official US position. It seemed gratuitous for her to say this since I had acknowledged as much in our introductions. But clearly we were talking past each other. I promised to send her, Ambassador Oliver and Andrew Reynolds a copy of my report on UNESCO meetings.

I am left with the impression the NGO community has failed to facilitate adequate communications between itself, the State Department, Ambassador Oliver’s office and the UNESCO Secretariat. And with the inception of the US National Commission to UNESCO, barriers might arise—despite NGO participation—to denigrate the communications between the larger NGO community in the US and both UNESCO and UNESCO programs. It is urgent, therefore, that the NGO community provide programmatic and procedural information, support and counsel to facilitate and inform the work of the Commission and Government officials responsible for US adherence to UNESCO.

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