UNESCO chief defends himself and his agency against charges

Amadou Mahtar M'Bow occasionally corrected his translator. Though the controversial Senegalese director general of UNESCO prefers to speak in French, he understands English well.

Charged by the United States, the United Kingdom, and some other Western industrial states with mismanagement of the United Nations organization, he refuses to resign - even if his resignation might encourage the US and UK to maintain their membership.

''There is no question of me leaving my post,'' he said during an interview here. ''It would be the end of international cooperation if any one member state , because of its contribution, could impose the person who must lead the organization.''

Though some delegates are talking about it, no nation has actually asked for the resignation of Mr. M'Bow. Western nations figure they would be charged with racism, with wanting M'Bow's ouster because he is black. ''It would be seen as Western bullies pushing out an African,'' a UNESCO delegate noted.

The industrial countries also fear stirring up new antagonism between North and South, between the well-to-do countries, which are mostly critical of UNESCO , and the developing nations, which tend to support M'Bow.

Indeed, one story told by several sources is that during a discussion of US withdrawal with Jean Gerard, US ambassador to UNESCO, and Gregory J. Newell, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, an annoyed M'Bow said the US could not treat him like it treated its blacks for 200 years.

Quizzed about this, Mr. Newell said: ''Ask Mr. M'Bow. It was his meeting and his office.''

The Nigerian ambassador to UNESCO, M. M. Musa, wondered whether there was a ''personal vendetta'' between Newell and M'Bow. But both men proclaim a personal friendship. US concerns with UNESCO ''deal with significant problems in programs - not with personalities,'' Newell said.

No one charges M'Bow with personal corruption. UNESCO is audited by the UK auditor-general and there has been no finding of graft. But in background conversations informed sources do allege that M'Bow has feathered his own nest in an inappropriate way.

For example, several years ago he said his wife was concerned about the personal security of the M'Bow family. He asked whether UNESCO could provide an ''official residence'' for his family on the top floor of a UNESCO building. M'Bow reportedly said he would withdraw his request if there was any opposition and would, of course, pay rent.

When the proposal was put to UNESCO's executive board, there was opposition from some industrial nations. But M'Bow, having won approval from a majority, had the apartment built anyway. He also got it rent free. And the apartment was constructed not on a top floor, but on a lower floor, closer to his office, where security, according to one national delegate, is less strong.

But third-world representatives defend M'Bow. ''He is a man of honesty and integrity, and he has the interest of the organization at heart,'' said the delegate for India, Inam Rehman.

M'Bow correctly states that his personal role has never been an official issue. Thus during the interview he centered his comments on the various criticisms the US has made of UNESCO.

For example, to the charge that UNESCO's program is mismanaged, he replied that the program is approved by the governing body, the General Conference. ''I am not the one who imposes the general program,'' he said. ''It is a program of international cooperation - a program right across the whole world. It is managed from Paris.''

He spoke about UNESCO's work in restoring and preserving historic monuments and of promoting the sharing of scientific work among nations. But some representatives of industrial nations maintain that it has proved difficult to make any changes in UNESCO programs once they are proposed by the director general.

Owen Harries, who served as Australian ambassador to UNESCO in 1982-83 and is now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said: ''The shaping, emphasis, focus, and priorities of the program are decided by him, and he has a docile majority to approve it.''

As to the allegation that the Paris offices of UNESCO are overstaffed and too bureaucratic, M'Bow said: ''It is all right to make such statements. But it is necessary to offer proof.'' He said growth in UNESCO's budget, compared to other UN agencies, has not been excessive.

(This fall, under pressure from the US and other industrial nations, the executive board approved a zero-growth budget in real terms. ''It was our biggest victory,'' said a European delegate.)

''You can only judge management by the results compared to what was aimed at, '' M'Bow said. The programs have been carried out. And his reports to the executive board and General Conference have been approved.

M'Bow admitted that ''no human endeavor is perfect.'' Thus, he noted, in July 1984 he convened five working groups made up of secretariat staff and outside experts to recommend management improvements. Among other things, these groups have recommended changes in UNESCO's staff recruiting procedures, program evaluation, and budget presentation. M'Bow released four of the reports to the executive board. But he held the fifth, which deals with duplication in programs , saying it is of an internal nature.

Also, last May the executive board of 51 national representatives established a temporary committee of 13 board members ''to present to the board recommendations and concrete measures designed to improve the functioning of the organization.'' It recommended management improvements similar to those suggested by the working groups and called for strengthening the governing bodies' oversight of secretariat activities. The board adopted the committee's report in October.

Newell maintains that UNESCO has not made even ''major first steps in terms of concrete reforms. The changes which we have noted and which we have appreciated seem to be attitudinal and behavioral, which experience tells us are probably tactical and transitory.''

The Heritage Foundation's Mr. Harries says: ''All you have is some promises without guarantees of implementation or deadlines for implementation. The whole question of programs has to be tackled.''

He sees a possibility the executive board will make management reforms, ending up with UNESCO doing the same ideologically ''bad'' programs more efficiently.

Although they agree basically with many US charges, some European delegates say those complaints are often fuzzy and exaggerated.

M'Bow says: ''Slogans can never replace reality. Certain things are stated. . . . These are repeated and amplified to the point where they begin to be seen as truth. It is very tragic for the world. . . . But no proof is given. I don't consider this attitude or behavior either honest or serious.''

M'Bow denies US charges that UNESCO encourages statism (centralized economic planning) and a communications program that would encourage putting the press under government control or license journalists under the guise of protecting them from harm.

Such accusations are ''unbelievable,'' he said. ''Where did they dig them out?'' M'Bow says that when people make such accusations, he asks for proof of the charges in UNESCO texts or activities. He says he has never been given any. ''My hope is that the truth as far as UNESCO is concerned will emerge in the end.''

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