Wednesday, September 12, 2012

About the future of Americans for UNESCO (AU)

This post is intended to bring you up-to-date on the history of US-UNESCO relations since the departure of the USA from UNESCO in December 1983. So, relax and bear with me because this is a long story.

The Past

During the two decades that the United States was out of UNESCO, the organization survived the financial crisis that the withdrawals had caused, and reformed many of the bureaucratic processes that had been noted in the decision to withdraw. The State Department continued a small effort to monitor the organization. The number of U.S. citizens on the UNESCO staff was reduced. U.S. educators, scientists, and cultural leaders continued involvement in the Organization, but at a lower level than in the Organization's early years.

As is explained in a background paper on AU, the organization is an outgrowth of Americans for the Universality of UNESCO (AUU) - a not for profit powerhouse organization headed up by the late and former Deputy Director General of UNESCO (John E. Fobes). AAU was the only domestic source of information about UNESCO during the 19 years of U.S. absence from the Organization at a time when the US National Commission for UNESCO existed only on paper, having been forced into deep hibernation, and there were only a smattering of individuals at the State Department and the US Mission in Paris in charge of UNESCO affairs.

To assess the centrality of AUU's involvement in UNESCO's activities and to gain an appreciation of what it sought to accomplish, one need only go to the library of the State Department to read the bound production of AUU's numerous and voluminous newsletters. Not only did they serve to keep the executive and legislative branches of the US Government and the American public informed about UNESCO's activities, but, more importantly, they kept the spirit of UNESCO alive in the United States/

The Present Crisis

Last year the UNESCO General Conference, on the recommendation of the UNESCO Executive Board, voted to admit Palestine as a member state of the Organization. The admission was strongly opposed by the U.S. Delegation to the General Conference (as the recommendation had been in the Executive Board). Two decades before that vote, the U.S. Congress had enacted legislation requiring that the U.S. Government withhold funding from the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations that admitted Palestine to membership, legislation that does not provide the executive branch with waiver authority. Thus the United States is withholding its contributions -- some 22 percent of the UNESCO regular budget. UNESCO as a result is dealing with a financial crisis. UNESCO programs of importance to the United States are being threatened.

The upper graph shows the frequency that UNESCO was used as a search term on Google in 2011. It suggests a tripling of searches at the time of the meeting of the General Conference. The lower graph shows the frequency of news stories indexed by Google during the same year that dealt with UNESCO. It too showed a very large spike at the time of the General Conference. While Google generally shows a long term decrease in relative interest in UNESCO, the experience in October 2011 was quite different.

There are groups in the United States that oppose the United Nations family of organizations, and UNESCO has been a favorite target of these groups. There are also many people in the United States that support UNESCO, but they are generally not vocal in that support. Nor are they organized collectively to create wider public support for UNESCO. Supporters and opponents of U.S. involvement in UNESCO have published articles expressing their views during the past year.

Governmental Effort with Respect to UNESCO

In the years since the United States rejoined UNESCO in September 2003, the Department of State appointed competent civil and foreign service staff at the Office of UNESCO Policy, the US National Commission for UNESCO, and the US Permanent Mission to UNESCO. All told, there are now 15 full time professionals.These staffs include three education officers (two Washington-based,one Paris-based) ; three science officers (two Washington-based, one Paris based); and three culture/communications officers (two Washington-based, one Paris- based). The UNESCO Policy Office has a director and a deputy director. The US National Commission has a full time Executive Director. The US Mission to UNESCO has, in addition to the aforementioned officers, a highly active Ambassador, a Deputy Chief of Mission, as well  as a secretarial staff and an experienced  local hire available for general duty.

Our unofficial estimate of the cost to the Department of State for this staff is somewhere between $ 2.5 and 3.5 million taking into account salaries, travel, office rentals, and leased telephone and internet lines. That is probably on the low side. This figure does not take into account the part-time contributions of personnel from the legal and environmental science bureaus of the State Department ,USAID, the Department of Education, NASA, NOAA, and the National Science Foundation to name only a few. $ 4.0 milliion plus strikes us as a more accurate figure.

In addition, it should be noted that the Washington-based staff travels frequently to Paris, has instant on-line contact with members of the UNESCO Secretariat staff and U.S. Mission, and is thus well informed on UNESCO matters. Moreover, the Secretary of State for International Organizations and her deputies are favorably disposed towards UNESCO and also travel to Paris on occasion. The Secretary of State visited UNESCO in May 2011, the first such visit ever by an occupant of this position.  The Deputy Secretary of State for Management visited UNESCO in December 2011, and the Secretary of Education addressed UNESCO staff earlier in the year.

Americans for UNESCO

AU is not a membership organization but it has a mailing list of more than 2,500 people interested in UNESCO -- many of whom have contributed funds to AU. The AU Board of Directors, with a nominal 21 Directors, is currently recruiting ten new members, signifying an opportunity for a considerable rethinking of AU's purposes and activities. The new President of AU is a distinguished educator and educational administrator with long experience with UNESCO. Each of the Board's current members has decades experience with UNESCO and broad knowledge of the history of U.S.-UNESCO relationships.

One consequence of the stepped-up governmental backstopping of UNESCO is that AU's once perceived core mission -- of advising the State Department on UNESCO -- is no longer much needed. Indeed, AU can bring little, if any, information or expertise to the UNESCO policy debate that cannot be provided by the State Department's professional staff. With, on the one hand, AU having a limited budget, no staff,  and an ageing Board of Directors and, on the other hand, with the US Government supporting full time staff officers in Washington and Paris as well as the recent establishment of a Washington-based UNESCO liaison office in the quarters of AU, new members are being sought for the Board. It will be up to them to redefine the raison d'etre for AU -- what more should it do beyond continuing its useful role of safeguarding the ideal of constructive U.S. engagement with UNESCO.

The Future

Despite this changed situation, we believe that AU can play a useful role in helping intellectual communities and civil society become more involved in UNESCO's activities. It can do so in two ways by :
  • building new American institutional ties with UNESCO (e.g. on-going exploration of establishing a UNESCO Chair at George Washington University to advance inter-university research, training, and program development in certain fields of UNESCO competence through the transfer of knowledge across borders) ; and 
  • serving as a ready source of information (e.g. hosting a symposium to inform the American public about the status of congressional funding to UNESCO and strategies to restore them - now in progress). 
Indeed, one of the historical oddities about US-UNESCO cooperation is that over the years so much energy has gone into the formulation and planning of UNESCO programs and so little (with few exceptions) into the implementation of them in the United States, even though the U.S. Government has been the major contributor to UNESCO's regular budget.

Upon the return of the USA to UNESCO, AU has been seeking to change the focus of US-UNESCO relations from that of benefactor to beneficiary ( a change welcomed by many program officers of UNESCO) as has the U.S. National Commission under the direction of Eric Woodard (who left his post September 11 to assume his new duties as Director of the Smithsonian's Internship and Fellowship Programs) by encouraging private sector involvement in such UNESCO programs as World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Associated Schools, Creative Cities, and UNESCO Clubs. Under the present circumstances, this is the way to go and the key to success for AU in this regard is to be selective, do things that are important and that are not being done elsewhere, and stick with it until there is no longer a useful role to play.

All of which brings us back to the question about AU's central mission for the immediate future. Recent experience would seem to suggest there is a greater public appreciation among the American people for the many useful and complex tasks that UNESCO performs often under trying and dangerous conditions. AU might work in that context, as described above, to enhance the linkages between UNESCO's programs and supporters in other nations and their counterparts in the USA.

However, there is a real risk that the Congress will insist that the United States will continue to withhold funds from UNESCO; if it does so, UNESCO by its laws will no longer allow the United States to vote in UNESCO's governing bodies. If worse comes to worse, AU might well consider returning to a role more like that of AAU in the past.

Richard Nobbe (Vice President and Treasurer of Americans for UNESCO)
and John Daly (former member of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO)
This article represents the opinions of the authors and does not necessarily represent that of Americans for UNESCO.

1 comment:

Peter DuMont said...

Thank you for posting this review of important history, purpose, and direction.

Peter DuMont
Berkeley, California