Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Spirit of UNESCO

Students have a hell of time grasping the spirit of UNESCO, the vital principle animating not only the formal organization but also the huge community of people and organizations that choose to affiliate with UNESCO in order to advance its mission. UNESCO’s founders told us in the UNESCO Constitution that UNESCO was about building structures in the minds of men, about changing the zeitgeist that had led to two world wars and the holocaust. UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova restates that objective, writing that UNESCO must work towards “a new humanism for the 21st century” – that is a vision shared by many peoples, drawing strength from their diversity, forming their common intentions and their mutual will to pursue peace and understanding. The mindset that UNESCO seeks is one that values objective truth, that is informed by the best of human culture, that understands peace not only an end to be desired but as something that must be worked for, that values communication as an end in itself. And thus the problem. How are we to understand such a shared vision; how is the zeitgeist to be changed? 

Given the unique spirit of UNESCO, it is not surprising that that it is a unique enterprise, perhaps more a movement than an organization. At one level UNESCO is, of course, a decentralized intergovernmental organization within the United Nations system, the repository of a collection of international declarations, resolutions and conventions. It is historically the descendant of the Bureau for International Education and the Intellectual Bureau of the League of Nations. Uniquely, UNESCO’s constitution calls for member states to create national commissions for UNESCO involving the intellectual communities (educators, scientists, cultural leaders and knowledge workers) both to advise their governments on UNESCO and to link their national communities with the work of UNESCO and with the intellectual communities of other nations. Finally, the UNESCO spirit has imbued schools, clubs, cultural and natural sites of world importance, bioreserves, geoparks, university chairs and many others to affiliate with UNESCO and independently work to carry out its mission.
(S)ince wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed;…. 
(I)gnorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war;… 
(T)he 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;…….. 
For these reasons, the States Parties to this Constitution, believing in full and equal opportunities for education for all, in the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge, are agreed and determined to develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives; 
In consequence whereof they do hereby create the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for the purpose of advancing, through the educational and scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and of the common welfare of mankind for which the United Nations Organization was established and which its Charter proclaims. 
From the Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO
UNESCO can be, and often is seen as a bureaucratic organization with a couple of thousand international civil servants, mostly located in the Organization’s Paris headquarters, with a budget of some $600 million per year.

There is another, complementary way of understanding UNESCO, and that is as a place where ideas are generated and elaborated to be widely disseminated by the networks that affiliate with UNESCO. Perhaps the most important phrase in the Preamble to the UNESCO Constitution, quoted above, is that “it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Those defenses are built idea by idea, as a rampart is built brick by brick.

UNESCO, of course, is identified as a place for ideas about peace. It emphasizes intercultural dialog and interreligious dialog. As directed in its Constitution, UNESCO focuses on education, natural, social and human sciences, culture and communications as vehicles for the  promotion of peace and the common welfare of mankind.

The obvious way in which UNESCO disseminates ideas is through publications. There have been more than 10,000 UNESCO publications since it was founded and the Organization adds perhaps another 100 per year. It publishes journals and newsletters. Among its important recent publications were Towards knowledge societies: UNESCO world report, The World Social Science Report 2010, UNESCO Science Report and the first UNESCO international engineering report, “Engineering: Issues and Challenges for Development”. In the last decade UNESCO has also been increasingly effective disseminating information via the Internet.

In the following sections I will show some samples of how the spirit of UNESCO is embodied in action.

UNESCO Conventions

Consider the role of UNESCO in promulgating international conventions.

International Conventions are subject to ratification, acceptance or accession by States. They define rules with which the States undertake to comply.

UNESCO provides a venue in which representatives of its member states may negotiate the terms of these international treaties. However, it has no power to enforce the terms of conventions. Rather, nations that choose to ratify a UNESCO convention also undertake to establish the laws and regulations to assure that their obligations under that convention are met. Examples of UNESCO conventions are:
·       Education: Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region. This convention is the basis for the harmonization of higher education in Europe, a process which is helping bridge historic differences among the peoples of Europe.
·       Natural Science: Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat. The so called RAMSAR network established under this convention includes 1951 wetlands in 160 countries.
·       Social and Human Sciences: International Convention against Doping in Sport, which went into effect just before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
·       Culture: Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (under which a network of 938 World Heritage sites has evolved) and the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (which has enabled ratifying states to regulate the illicit traffic in art and archaeological artifacts).
·       Communications: Convention relating to the Distribution of Program-Carrying Signals Transmitted by Satellite.
·       Other: Convention concerning the International Exchange of Publications which encourages and facilitates the exchange of publications between both governmental bodies and non profit, non-governmental institutions of an educational, scientific and technical, or cultural nature.

25 conventions have been negotiated in UNESCO’s venue and placed in its repository. Perhaps surprisingly, in some cases the secretariats developed in support of the convention are not located within UNESCO.

An important aspect of these conventions is that UNESCO does not police them. Rather member states negotiate them in the belief that they are in the common interest and it is the member states that create their own laws and regulations to implement the conventions. Thus, the ideas are elaborated by representatives of the member states in the venue provided by UNESCO, with the assistance of the UNESCO Secretariat, expanding and illuminating a fundamental proposition of international cooperation. The member nations then are responsible for deciding whether or not to ratify each convention and for implementing the conventions which they do ratify. Thus it is the governments of the member nations embody the spirit of UNESCO in this case, helping to achieve its mission through their actions.

Education for All

The Birth of the Education for All movement can be traced to the World Conference on Education for All held in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, and to the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal in 2000. The declarations from these meetings, in which UNESCO was a sponsor, together with the Millennium Development Goals for education set the agenda for a global effort to expand schooling and increase the numbers of children in school.

In addition to helping the global educational community to define a set of EFA educational objectives, UNESCO
  • has provided tools for educators and governments to plan their educational programs,
  •  has helped to establish internationally accepted standards for educational statistics which allow progress to be measured (and to be compared among nations),
  •  has provided venues and support for Ministers of Education and senior educational officials from groups of countries to meet to discuss successes and problems in their efforts to achieve the EFA and MDG educational goals, and
  • has published an annual EFA Monitoring Report.
Again, it has been the global educational community that has elaborated the ideas of education for all and which has implemented programs in countries all over the world to create the institutions to achieve the EFA goals. The role of UNESCO in the process has been catalytic, helping member states to articulate their objectives and to measure progress in their achievement.

Other Networks

Consider also the many networks of organizations which have chosen to affiliate with UNESCO, thereby joining in the effort to disseminate the messages promoted by UNESCO. Among those networks are:
      National Commissions or comparable organizations in the 193 member states
      66 Category II Centers and Institutes supported separately by member states
      The Associated Schools Network, more than 9,000 educational institutions in 180 countries
      University Twinning and UNITWIN Networks including 715 UNESCO Chairs and 69 UNITWIN Networks 
      The UNEVOC Network -- 282 specialized TVET institutions in 167 UNESCO Member States
      ALADIN, the Adult Learning Documentation and Information Network,  with 95 documentation centers in 47 countries
      Community of Practice in Curriculum Development has co-organised and/or participated in a total of 98 workshops, seminars, conferences and symposiums
      University-Industry Partnerships (UNISPAR) – S&T parks in such areas as biotechnology and ICTs, international training workshops and regional networks.
      SESAME (Synchrotron-light for ExperimentalScience and Applications in the MiddleEast) which is supported by a numbe of governments and which involves scientists from those countries in scientific networks
      Microbial Resources Centers (MIRCEN) for international scientific co-operation, microbiological research and biotechnological applications
      5  Biotechnology Education and Training Centres (BETCENs), one in each region, which provide research and training opportunities in plant and marine biotechnology
      The UNESCO’s water family which operates as a global network that works to implement the organization’s strategic goals.
      World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR), 580 sites in 114 countries
      The Great Apes Survival  Partnership
      The Group on Earth Observations (GEO) with 61 participating organizations
      The Oceans Observatory System
      The Tsunami Warning Networks
      International Network of Women Philosophers
      The Management of Social Transitions (MOST) program network of national committees
      The Creative Cities Network, 28 cities
      Goodwill Ambassadors, Honorary Ambassador, Special Envoys, Champions and Artists for Peace
      The World Heritage List includes 936 properties
      The Organization of World Heritage Cities, 238 cities in which are located sites included on the UNESCO World Heritage List
      UNAL- UNESCO Network of Associated Libraries, over 500 libraries are members of the Network.
      The Power of Peace Network (PPN)
      348 international NGOs and 20 foundations and similar institutions
      3.800 associations, centers and UNESCO clubs in more than 80 countries
      Private sector partnerships with NHK, L’OREAL, HP, Microsoft, Danone, etc.

Huge numbers of people are involved in these networks voluntarily. Indeed, there are many more people are included in these networks than there are international civil servants in the UNESCO bureaucracy. Some of the international NGOs affiliated with UNESCO represent millions of people, such as the international umbrella organizations for scientific and engineering societies and associations of teachers.

These networks consist of organizations and people affiliated with UNESCO by their own choice, both helping to define UNESCO’s agenda and advancing it through their voluntary efforts. They are self governed with little or no supervisory, financial nor management input from UNESCO. They are completely decentralized, collaborating with UNESCO only to the degree that they are inspired and motivated by UNESCO’s mission and its leadership. Yet they are an essential means of accomplishing UNESCO’s objectives. They too embody the spirit of UNESCO.


UNESCO often acts in partnership with other organizations. It does so both with other United Nations organizations and programs (e.g. WHO, FAO and the UNDP) and with intergovernmental programs that are not part of the United Nations system (e.g. the European Union and the multilateral development banks). 

It works with many non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Especially important in this respect are the international NGOs in education, natural and social science, engineering, culture, and communications. In many cases UNESCO was instrumental in the creation and/or development of these NGO. (See more on this subject.)

In recent years, partnerships with for-profit organizations in the private sector have also become important. These include 
  • Giants of the computer industry, such as HP and Microsoft, working in education
  • Organizations such as NHK Nokia, Panasonic, Google, the History Network and Google working with the World Heritage Center to spread interest and concern about would heritage sites
  • L'Oreal working to encourage women in science and to provide health education in Africa to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Concluding Remarks

UNESCO’s mission is to promote “full and equal opportunities for education for all”, “the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth”, and “the free exchange of ideas and knowledge”. It is “to increase the means of communication between….peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives.” It would be an error either to assume that this mission is carried out primarily by the UNESCO bureaucracy or to underestimate the critical role of those who chose to affiliate with UNESCO without incentives other than enthusiasm for its mission.

Of course, not all the people in organizations in UNESCO networks spend all of their time advancing UNESCO’s agenda, although many may well do so. But even a small amount of effort per person when aggregated over very large numbers of people can add up to a large total. Moreover, many people spend a lot of their time helping to achieve UNESCO's mission.

A problem with this view of UNESCO is that one can not see ideas nor easily track their diffusion. Moreover, it is hard to understand the impact of UNESCO’s staff and budget on the creation of ideas and their diffusion. It is impossible to measure the impact that 100 publications per year has on the world, and more so the impact of 10,000 publications over more than half a century. The countries implementing UNESCO conventions don’t report on the impact of the conventions on their nations, nor do the countries implementing Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals report on the impact that UNESCO has had on their schools and school children. Indeed, the decentralized networks ascribed to UNESCO don’t report on resources, activities nor accomplishments to UNESCO.

To the bureaucratic mentality, the lack of quantitative indicators and formal monitoring systems is an almost insuperable burden. To that mentality, the lack of quantitative indicators of the changes in the minds of men and of the impact of UNESCO on those changes is tantamount to proof that no such changes or impact exists. Clearly that is a false view, and not everything that is important can be measured. The founders of UNESCO were right in their vision that there was a real need to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men, to encourage the unrestricted search for objective truth and to promote the free exchange of ideas and knowledge.

Equally, however, there is a continuing need to encourage the governments of member states and the extended networks attached to UNESCO to devote their serious efforts to helping achieve UNESCO’s mission. Moreover, in the absence of objective measures it is imperative to obtain the judgment of our wisest observers of society to consider the success of UNESCO in safeguarding is spirit and sharing it with others, to consider where and how best to motivate UNESCO’s partners and networks, and how best to allocate UNESCO’s scarce resources to achieve its mission.

Changing ideas in the minds of seven billion people is a big job, and it is a job that does not lend itself to bureaucratic approaches. It is through the efforts of large networks of people devoted to UNESCO’s spirit that progress is being made.

So many new ideas are at first strange and horrible, though ultimately valuable that a very heavy responsibility rests upon those who would prevent their dissemination.
J. B. S. Haldane

Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

The key to every man is his thought.... He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Frequency of Words Linked to Key UNESCO Concept in Books Since 1900

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