Bush Decision To Rejoin UNESCO Applauded

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 25, 2002 4 min read
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President Bush’s announcement this month that the United States is rejoining UNESCO, after withdrawing 18 years ago, is generally drawing praise from experts in education and international affairs.

American membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, they say, will lead to richer collaborations between education researchers in the United States and other countries, more straightforward participation of the United States in UNESCO’s agenda, and more opportunities for American educators to land jobs with the international organization.

“This is a very smart decision,” Fernando Reimers, the director of the international-policy program at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said last week. “It’s wonderful news for the field of education, the practice of education in America, and the discipline of education worldwide.”

It was a mistake for the United States to leave the Paris-based UNESCO in the first place, Mr. Reimers said. The United States helped found the organization in 1945.

But others say the United States made the right decision when it pulled out of the organization in 1984.

UNESCO was then “a deeply corrupt and wasteful organization,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served as a UNESCO delegate in the early 1980s and is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, based in Washington.

“It was Third World countries getting manipulated by the Soviet bloc,” continued Mr. Finn, who was an assistant secretary of education under President Reagan. “The United States was constantly on the defensive and losing.”

When the United States withdrew under Mr. Reagan, critics in his administration said UNESCO was mismanaging its budget and had an anti-democratic agenda. Britain also pulled out of UNESCO in the 1980s, but returned in 1998.

Mr. Finn said last week that the organization seems to have remedied its failings, and that it’s probably a good idea for the United States to rejoin. One important benefit of participating in UNESCO, he said, is to make more use of comparative educational data among nations.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige played a role in Mr. Bush’s decision to have the United States rejoin, said Richard La Pointe, the Department of Education’s director of high school, postsecondary, and technical education. Mr. Paige met twice with UNESCO’S director-general, Koïchiro Matsuura, in Washington within the past year. Last September, the secretary sent a delegation, led by Mr. La Pointe, to a UNESCO meeting in Geneva about international education.

Rejoining UNESCO gives the United States the chance to share its vision of education, Mr. La Pointe said. “We have much to share with the rest of the world about democracy, civil rights, the rights of women, the rights of the handicapped,” he said. “The United States is a leader in the world on these issues.”

Leadership Roles

Muriel de Pierrebourg, a spokeswoman for UNESCO’S director-general, said last week in a telephone interview from Paris that U.S. membership would make UNESCO more relevant and dynamic.

She confirmed that the organization would likely fill more staff positions with Americans, once the United States officially rejoins. Currently, 23 Americans work for UNESCO, most of whom were employed there before the 1984 withdrawal, she said.

One of UNESCO’s top priorities in education is its Education for All initiative, which aims to ensure that every child around the world receives a basic education. (“U.N. Report: No School for 156 Million Children,” Nov. 7, 2001.)

The annual cost of membership for the United States, at least initially, is $60 million, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget for fiscal 2003.

Even after the United States withdrew from UNESCO, the international agency maintained an office in Washington until 2000, said Frank Method, the former director of that office, who was retained until six weeks ago as a consultant for UNESCO.

After its withdrawal, the United States continued to participate in UNESCO in less visible ways, according to Mr. Method. The National Center for Education Statistics, for instance, has been a leading source of expertise for the creation of a UNESCO center for educational statistics in Montreal, he noted.

President Bush announced his decision that the United States would rejoin UNESCO in a Sept. 12 speech before the United Nations General Assembly that drew attention worldwide for its call for a strong international stand against Iraq. Mr. Bush’s UNESCO news, coming early in the speech, was seen as a conciliatory move toward the listening countries, many of whose representatives had entered the chamber unhappy about what they see as Mr. Bush’s tendency to go it alone on international issues.

“As a symbol of our commitment to human dignity, the United States will return to UNESCO,” Mr. Bush said. “The organization has been reformed, and America will participate fully in its mission to advance human rights and tolerance and learning.”

Brett D. Schaefer, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that is a longtime critic of UNESCO, said the Bush administration’s decision to rejoin the organization might have been the right move politically to gain support for protecting U.S. national-security interests in Iraq, but doesn’t stand on its own merits.

“The United States can get as much out of the organization by participating selectively as it can by being a member,” he said.


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