Global-Literacy Work at UNESCO Undergoes Shake-Up

Activities and jobs cut; resources shifted from Paris to regional offices.

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The primary international organization supporting global literacy is reorganizing its education sector and decentralizing its extensive literacy operation, with the aim of strengthening that work in the world’s neediest countries.

But while the attempt to improve the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s education division has earned widespread support among member nations and experts in the field, a recent shakeup in its leadership, dissatisfaction over the restructuring process, and uncertainty about how the changes will play out have generated worries over UNESCO’s capacity for advancing the cause of universal literacy.

“The first point all [international-development and -literacy experts] agree on is that there was a need for change, and the whole notion of devolving much more responsibility for action to the regional centers is not at all a bad idea,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “The basic concept of reform was fairly reasonable,” he added, but “the reform process was handled in what I would call a very awkward [way] at best.”

The United States rejoined UNESCO in 2003 after a nearly 20-year absence because of the promise of straightening out the organization, which had long drawn complaints of mismanagement and of an anti-democratic agenda. ("UNESCO Reforms Prompt The U.S. to Rejoin Organization," Oct. 29, 2003.)

Since then, the education sector has halved the number of activities it supports, to 750, reduced high-level positions, and honed its focus on countries with the highest illiteracy rates to accelerate their progress toward universal basic education.

The organization’s historic push for improving literacy has undergone some of the most visible changes. UNESCO is responsible for overseeing the U.N. Literacy Decade, which began in 2003, and the ambitious Education for All initiative, which aims to provide basic education for all the world’s people by 2015. Through its new Literacy Initiative for Empowerment, or LIFE, the organization is pressing for country-led education policies and a greater focus on nonformal educational programs targeting children, youths, and adults who are not in school.

Where’s the Expertise?

Under the leadership of Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, UNESCO has been carrying out a plan for coordinating more of its ventures with governing bodies, aid organizations, and advocacy groups within the 35 neediest countries, most of them in Africa.

“Priorities have been more clearly defined, programs made more coherent, and structures reinforced—especially in the field and in those countries facing the greatest education challenges,” UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams wrote in an e-mail this month. “The aim has been to increase the impact of our work by: improving coordination; … reducing duplication; and making better use of the limited human and financial resources at our disposal.”

Those shifts, however, have raised questions about the level of expertise on international-literacy issues that remains at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, said Mr. Farstrup, who attended meetings there this month about the reform effort. There is also a question, he added, about whether the regional offices are adequately staffed to handle the additional duties.

The reorganization was rolled out in 2003, and accelerated when Peter P. Smith, a former Republican congressman from Vermont and the founding president of California State University-Monterey Bay, was appointed to head the education sector and its $110 million budget in 2005.

Because of his heavy-handed style, some observers say, the changes ran into resistance and resentment at headquarters. Mr. Smith also became embroiled in a contracting scandal over his award of funding to an American firm without going through the proper procedures. He resigned last month after an audit outlined his role in the contracts. Mr. Smith reported that he had received a death threat related to the scandal.

“There is a small group who have worked steadily since the unveiling of the reform recommendations to kill the reforms by discrediting me, attacking you, and demonizing America,” Mr. Smith wrote in a letter to Mr. Matsuura, offering his resignation. “I see the latter of these efforts as tactics to achieve the first: Kill the reform.”

Mrs. Bush’s Role

Some longtime UNESCO staff members who lost their positions in the reorganization have been highly critical of the shuffling.

Leslie Limage, a California native who was a veteran staff member in the education division at the UNESCO headquarters until she retired last fall, said the changes were viewed as politically motivated. For example, she said, when first lady Laura Bush was appointed the honorary ambassador for the U.N. Literacy Decade, Ms. Limage and her colleagues questioned the shifting of staff and resources away from some worthwhile projects to the ones supported by the Bush administration.

Mrs. Bush partnered with UNESCO to hold a global-literacy conference last fall, although the White House picked up the cost of the New York City event. ("President, First Lady Back Global Literacy to Fight ‘Hopelessness’," Sept. 27, 2006.) She has also participated in several regional conferences as part of the life program, the most recent held last month in Qatar. Those conferences bring government and education leaders of developing countries together to share ideas and resources for improving literacy in their homelands.

Some experts and observers, however, have expressed optimism about the potential for UNESCO’s programs, particularly in light of the support and high-level advocacy they are attracting.

“UNESCO has always had literacy on the agenda, even in times perhaps when literacy wasn’t so high on the agenda of the rest of the international community,” said Mary J. Pigozzi, a former UNESCO official who directs the global-learning group at the Academy for Educational Development, a Washington-based organization that helps run projects for the disadvantaged in the United States and abroad. “In the last [UNESCO] budget process, … I didn’t see any watering down at all. What I saw was a lot more energy going into literacy.”

Ms. Pigozzi and others said that having someone like Mrs. Bush advocating the United Nations’ education goals has brought a higher profile to the need for eradicating illiteracy around the world.

“The moment UNESCO does something with pizzazz, they get whacked,” Ms. Pigozzi said in describing the criticism of the White House conference and Mrs. Bush’s focus on LIFE. “But as an institution, you don’t take on a high-profile ambassador like Mrs. Bush if you are not serious about carrying out your goals.”

PHOTO: Afghan students attend school in a refugee camp last fall. A reorganized global-literacy effort at UNESCO targets children in the world's neediest countries, though some experts worry whether the capacity exists to carry out the plan.
—File photo by K M Chaudhry/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 33, Pages 10-11

Published in Print: April 18, 2007, as Global-Literacy Work at UNESCO Undergoes Shake-Up
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An earlier version of this story misidentified Leslie Limage. She is a California native who was a veteran staff member in the education division at the UNESCO headquarters until she retired last fall.

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