It is in the National Interest to Restore UNESCO’s Funding

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by Raymond E. Wanner

The United States’ withholding of its financial contribution to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization has begun to affect UNESCO as if it were the target of sanctions against a pariah State. In reality, UNESCO is a highly valuable strategic partner. And, as a democratic organization built on the principle of “one nation, one vote”, UNESCO leadership could no more prevent its membership from admitting Palestine than the State Department could ignore Congressional legislation on non-payment of contributions to the organization.

UNESCO and the US share many values and objectives. And, because of its positive image in large parts of the world, UNESCO can work to achieve common goals in ways the US cannot. As Chair of the independent Governing Board for UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) – founded by President Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary of State Philip Coombs – I have seen how important this work can be.

Major programs are being carried out, for example, in Angola, Brazil, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Haiti, and Mali. Concretely, in Afghanistan, UNESCO is providing literacy training to thousands of national security forces. If the Afghanis are to take over security responsibilities from US forces, they must know how to read and write – and 70 percent of them don’t. The whole education system is improving, with primary enrolment having increased sevenfold, and hundreds of education planners trained at both national and provincial levels.

Within six months of achieving statehood, South Sudan will have an education plan. UNESCO joined forces with UNICEF and other partners to assist the government in designing this plan, a significant first step for the young nation. In Iraq, UNESCO is playing a central role in the ongoing reform of public administration, as well as promoting civic values among Iraqi adolescents.

Economic and social development, particularly in Africa, is a high priority for UNESCO. Last October, 15 Southern and Eastern African Ministers met in Paris to discuss how to improve the quality of education in their countries and children’s ability to protect themselves from HIV and AIDS. Their discussions were based on hard statistical data on the impact of seven years of policy interventions to achieve Education for All that UNESCO and the concerned countries had gathered and analyzed. The results were not uniformly rosy. Nonetheless the Ministers released them, discussed strategies to improve learning outcomes and decided on concrete next steps.

UNESCO has been spearheading efforts to improve governance in the education sector. Several hundred education officers have been trained on ways to combat corruption. In 2012, for the first time, Transparency International will dedicate its Global Corruption Report to education. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has started integrity assessment in the education sector. Both are a direct result of UNESCO’s tireless advocacy in this area.

In the wake of the tragedies of World War II, UNESCO was created with the help of wise Americans such as Archibald MacLeish, J. William Fulbright, and Dean Acheson. They had a vision: education, science, and culture could help maintain peace. More than ever today, the world needs peace, stability, and sustainable growth for all. Given the current global context – with its geopolitical shifts, unprecedented changes in the Arab States, increasing pressure on natural resources, and growing inequities – the loss of 22 percent of UNESCO’s funding could hardly have come at a worse time for UNESCO and for the United States. It will weaken UNESCO’s ability to promote democratic values and global stability. And by continuing to withhold funds, the US risks seeing its influence in the organization decline.

Inaction now could lead to irreversible damage to an organization with which the US shares so many values and objectives. The Administration and Congress must find a strategy to release funding for the money we owe UNESCO for 2011 and the years to come.

Raymond E. Wanner is Governing Board Chair of the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning. 

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