Friday, January 26, 2007

"U.S. Civil Society Views of UNESCO"

Read the full report of the meeting.

The Board on International Scientific Organizations of the National Academies in 2002 held a meeting of experts from U.S. civil society organizations to discuss the United States’ re-entry into UNESCO. The meeting was held at the request of the Bureau of International Organizations of the U.S. Department of State, and took place at the facilities of the National Academies on November 22, 2002. The report of the meeting represents the opinions of individuals who attended, and does not represent the formal recommendations of the National Research Council (nor does it appear to have been subjected to the Academies' peer review process required for more formal recommendations.) Still the material is of sufficient interest and importance to be quoted extensively.

General comments reported from the meeting were:
* Given that there is a significant overlap between U.S. civil society’s priorities and those of UNESCO, a mechanism is needed to better integrate U.S. and UNESCO programs and thereby multiply their effectiveness.
* Several people pointed out that in the United States there is a general lack of awareness and understanding of UNESCO programs. Civil society organizations can help inform the U.S. public about UNESCO and its programs. For example, the media can play an important role in promoting and increasing awareness of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
* UNESCO programs tend to be too compartmentalized; there is a need for more collaboration across the different UNESCO sectors.
* It would be useful to strengthen partnerships between UNESCO and other international organizations.
* UNESCO’s main role is as an advocate and convener, not as a funder.
* In addition to discussing how the United States can influence the programs funded through UNESCO’s appropriated budget, it is also important to look at how to impact extra-budgetary programs.
* In support of technical cooperation and international assistance objectives, the United States should encourage more partnerships, particularly with the UNESCO regional offices and institutes.
* In looking at UNESCO’s priorities and draft program, participants expressed concern about going to UNESCO with many specific changes to the program and budget without a good understanding of the overarching strategy and priorities. It was suggested that it might be helpful to reexamine UNESCO’s mandate since it has not changed significantly since 1946 when the organization was first established.
* As the United States looks at which UNESCO program areas are most important to U.S. goals, it should especially consider activities that engage large segments of different communities and activities where UNESCO would bring some unique added value that cannot be acquired anywhere else.
* As a member of UNESCO, the U.S. may have some new opportunities. These include: the ability to work globally and benefit from the capacity of each of the members of this global organization, and the formation of partnerships between government and non-government organizations.
Science Education
* Science education is fragmented within UNESCO – higher education in the science sector and K-12 in education. The sectors are beginning to collaborate and hold joint meetings in an effort to develop a common direction.
* The United States is in a leadership role on the issues of gender in science and technology for development and science education.
* In higher education, UNESCO could play a key role on issues of mutual recognition of degrees, credentials, quality assurance mechanisms, and accreditation. It will be difficult for UNESCO to achieve international accreditation standards without U.S. involvement.
Natural Sciences
* Although the engineering community has been involved in international programs similar to the UNESCO priorities, it has not been heavily engaged at the policy level.
* The U.S. engineering community could contribute to UNESCO programs in the following areas:
1) engineering education and capacity building; 2) communication and dissemination; 3) disaster reduction; 4) megacities, 5) commitments made at the World Summit for Sustainable Development.
* Several of the UNESCO strategic objectives for other sectors are important to science. These include promoting experimentation (under Education), encouraging dialogue (Culture), and enhancing linkages between culture and development (Culture).
Social Sciences
* To achieve the principal priority of the social sciences sector, ethics in science in technology, UNESCO should strengthen existing partnerships and collaborations with other international organizations. For example, the International Council for Science (ICSU) Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science (SCRES) has collaborated with the UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). SCRES conducted an empirical study of existing standards for science, which could serve as a basis for developing an international set of guidelines that could be used by ICSU, UNESCO and others.
* The U.S. behavioral and social science communities need to be made aware of UNESCO programs and the need for their expertise, especially in the role of empiricism in social science research. U.S. scientists can help strengthen the role of evidence and data in UNESCO’s activities and management.
* The behavioral and social sciences could take a lead role in the following areas: the science of learning, peace diplomacy and negotiation, methods for assessment, and the ethical issues regarding the use of human subjects in research.
Communication and Information
* UNESCO is a strong ally for press freedom. At the top, Director General Matsuura appears to be a strong advocate for press freedom. However, at lower levels and in the UNESCO program and medium-term strategy, proposals that threaten press freedom seem to be returning. As a member, the United States can work to prevent this setback.
* The UNESCO priority of universal access to information is particularly important to the scientific community, since many scientists need access to electronic scientific databases. With most of the world’s scientific databases and technical material now being produced electronically, access for developing country scientists must be ensured.
* The Electronic Privacy Information Center has worked closely with UNESCO to promote principles of freedom of expression, access to information, bridging the digital divide and information exchange on the Internet.
The role of U.S. civil society in advising the U.S. government on UNESCO

The UNESCO constitution requires each member state to have a national commission. U.S. legislation from 1946 allows for a commission of up to 100 people: 15 from federal government, 15 from state and local government, 40 from non-governmental organizations, and 30 other at-large groups. Several participants commented that it is important to look at new possible formations. Other countries, such as Canada, Germany and Brazil, are using their national commissions to help inform their domestic policies and programs, not just as the representative body for UNESCO. Participants discussed the idea of ad hoc committees or subgroups on specific issues. Linkages between such groups and good communication among the staff of the commission, the State Department’s IO Bureau, and civil society groups are key to a successful national commission.

There was a discussion on how to reach out to and include civil society – and the private sector – in the national commission. It was suggested that perhaps a few key organizations could have a permanent slot on the commission, with some sort of rotating mechanism so that all of the different professional societies are represented at some stage. The State Department could use the national commission as the head of a civil society network.

In order to facilitate its work and to reach out to the public, the commission could take advantage of information technology. A Web site and a regular online newsletter could be useful in engaging the public in activities of the commission and promoting greater U.S. participation in UNESCO.

The U.S. national commission could use the help of U.S. civil society in recruitment for jobs at the UNESCO Secretariat. Civil society groups could 1) inform the commission of any upcoming vacancies at the UNESCO Secretariat that they hear about through their networks; 2) identify which positions at the UNESCO Secretariat are of primary interest to the United States; and 3) help identify candidates for these positions.

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