UNESCO Reforms Prompt The U.S. to Rejoin Organization

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 29, 2003 6 min read
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The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has made headway in promoting basic education for all children, equal schooling opportunities for girls, and the teaching of peace and tolerance.

Even so, more than 100 million children will never cross the threshold of a school this year, many girls throughout the developing world are still excluded from attending school, and schoolhouses are being reduced to rubble in the midst of war and other crises.

Now, though, the Paris-based UNESCO hopes to propel its mission further and faster with the help of its newest member: the United States. This country rejoined the organization this month after a nearly 20-year absence.

“Today a new nation joins forces with us, bringing vast intellectual and cultural resources. ... A great nation so diverse that each of us can see himself in it,” UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said at the organization’s general session two weeks ago in Paris. “This nation, a founding member of UNESCO, is now returning with energy, talent, and creativity to work with us towards our common goals: education for all, cultural preservation, sharing widely the benefits of scientific progress.”

American Impact

The move has won praise from experts in the United States for its potential to expand collaboration on projects overseas and to raise cultural awareness in American schools.

“The direct impact for American educators is a bit elusive, but we think there are a few things UNESCO can help with,” said Don Ernst, the director of government relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which represents more than 160,000 educators in more than 135 countries. “One is to help people understand that educational issues in particular are universal. Any way that UNESCO can attempt to bring the world’s resources together for improving education across all borders and cultures is important.”

The United States dropped out of UNESCO in 1984 amid allegations of mismanagement at the organization, complaints about its perceived anti-democratic agenda, and criticism of the agency’s plan to monitor the press corps around the world. Britain and Singapore also pulled out of UNESCO in the 1980s, and Britain returned in 1998.

UNESCO struggled without U.S. financial support, which amounted to about a third of the organization’s budget. Several proposals to renew U.S. membership during the previous Bush and Clinton administrations failed after federal officials concluded that efforts to reform the organization did not go far enough.

When Mr. Matsuura, of Japan, took UNESCO’s top post in 1999, he began an ambitious campaign to revitalize the organization. His reform initiative aimed to focus UNESCO’s mission, which has often been viewed as scattershot.

Citing his satisfaction with the changes, President Bush announced last year that the United States would renew its membership.

‘The Common Denominator’

UNESCO was created in 1946, with the United States as a founding member, to promote peace through knowledge and global understanding, as well as scientific exchange.

Education is the largest of the agency’s five sectors—which also include natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture, and communication and information—accounting for about 40 percent of its $610 million biennial budget. The division helps countries develop education policies, assists in the writing and revising of textbooks, promotes HIV/AIDS education, supports adult-literacy projects, and helps education efforts in war and emergency zones.

UNESCO is hoping the United States will help fuel its Education for All initiative, which is pushing for universal basic education for all children in more than 150 participating nations by 2015. In its latest report on the effort, UNESCO reported that while more than half the countries that have committed to the Education for All goals are on track to meet them, at least 70 impoverished nations have little chance of doing so under current fiscal and political conditions.

The United States will pay $134 million in membership dues over two years, or 22 percent of the organization’s budget, to help advance those causes. In addition, Americans will have a greater presence on the UNESCO staff. The organization expects to hire at least five additional U.S. employees to join the two dozen other Americans on the staff.

“There’s no question that the return of the United States is going to be very helpful,” John Daniel, the assistant director- general of education for UNESCO said in an interview. “America believes in education, and right now believes more strongly in the long term that if all the world’s people are well-educated, the chance of dictators and terrorists is lessened.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige joined education ministers from more than 130 countries in Paris Oct. 3 during the UNESCO general conference, when the United States officially rejoined the agency.

“Education is the common denominator of all people, the road to emancipation and liberty, the way we find our humanity and discover our soul,” Mr. Paige said. “There is no mission more important than providing an inclusive, quality education to all people.”

Continued Criticism

But the decision to rejoin the organization has sparked criticism from some quarters.

The Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that is a longtime critic of UNESCO, has argued against U.S. membership despite the reforms.

“UNESCO still suffers from a lack of focus,” Brett D. Schaefer, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, wrote in the American Enterprise magazine after President Bush’s 2002 announcement. “Its education mission alone has programs to: promote early- childhood/family education; educational facilities; “e-learning"; emergency assistance; girls/women in Africa; higher education; inclusive education; nonviolence; poverty eradication; primary education; secondary education; science and technology; street/working children; studying abroad; sustainable development; and technical/vocational education.”

Mr. Schaefer and other critics have also argued that the United States could continue its selective participation in UNESCO projects, as it has over the past two decades, without having to contribute the large membership fee. The International Literacy Institute sponsored by UNESCO, for example, was opened at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994.

Some members of Congress agree.

A resolution introduced in the House in January argued against UNESCO membership. The resolution, introduced by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, argued that UNESCO policies undermine U.S. sovereignty, and that the cost of membership was too high.

“UNESCO has a history of meddling in the education policies of its member countries and has sought to dictate school curriculum for United States primary and secondary schools,” states the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Jeff Miller of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona, also Republicans.

The resolution was voted down, but its sponsors later introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill calling for a halt to UNESCO funding. That amendment was rejected in July by a 279-145 vote in the House.

Observers speculated that the timing of President Bush’s announcement in September of last year that the United States would rejoin the organization was intended to garner support for the coming war in Iraq.

Supporters of the move, however, argue that rejoining UNESCO is one way to improve U.S. relations with countries around the world.

“UNESCO offers the United States a critical tool in our foreign affairs because it expands our ability to increase the number of people who are able to participate in a democratic society and a free-market economy,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del. “No nation can participate effectively in the world economy or become a stable democracy without a citizenry that is literate and free.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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