UNESCO cleans house to invite the US back

One year into his term as head of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Koichiro Matsuura has begun to turn the deficit- and corruption-ridden agency around, but he is moving more slowly than his supporters would like, according to diplomatic sources here.

His reforms, aimed largely at persuading the United States to rejoin the troubled UN body, "are not moving far enough fast enough," according to one Western diplomat. "It is frustrating to watch this process move forward in fits and starts."

Mr. Matsuura, a Japanese career diplomat, has taken a cautious approach to overhauling UNESCO, which Washington left in 1984 complaining that it had become a mismanaged vehicle for anti-Western ideologists. And his agency faces strong opposition in the US Congress, which appears to make US membership unlikely in the near future.

Over the course of what Matsuura calls "a very difficult year," he has taken a knife to UNESCO's top-heavy bureaucracy, halving the number of top-level posts and streamlining the agency's organizational structure.

The cuts were essential, he says, in light of an external auditor's report indicating that his predecessor, Spaniard Federico Mayor, ignored hiring rules in filling 40 percent of UNESCO jobs and ran up a $17.5 million deficit in the staff budget by hiring scores of informal advisers. That deficit has now been eliminated, and new accounting procedures have been introduced, monitored by an internal oversight body.

As Matsuura continues his staff changes, "we are guardedly optimistic about where he is going," says one European diplomat. "The message going out to the organization is 'stop playing as you were playing, the game is different now.' "

But the UNESCO boss is hampered by opposition to reform from powerful third- world nations on the agency's executive board, diplomats say. Many developing countries fear that budget cuts will mean cuts in UNESCO programs that they favor.

They are said to be especially strongly opposed to Matsuura's plan to scale back the number of field offices around the world - some of which spend four times as much on overhead as they do on projects - which is key to his reform vision.

Matsuura also plans to concentrate UNESCO funds on five areas where he believes the organization and its legions of experts can make a real difference: spreading basic education, promoting freshwater resources, exploring the ethics of science and technology, protecting cultural diversity, and ensuring the free flow of information.

These goals, he says, fit UNESCO's new mission of "making globalization human."

They are also, he adds, "global issues that would require the participation of such an important power as the United States. "My hope is that the United States will soon come back to the new UNESCO I am establishing."

When Washington pulled out of UNESCO 16 years ago, along with Britain and Singapore, US officials were incensed by what they saw as poor management and anti-Western rhetoric. They were especially angered by a UNESCO-sponsored campaign for a "new international information order," which they feared would favor state control of international news. "Today the cold war is history, UNESCO is championing freedom of the press, and we've made a lot of progress in streamlining management," Matsuura said at a recent press conference. "The three reasons for [the US] departure have all simply vanished."

Britain and Singapore have rejoined the organization, and President Clinton said five years ago his administration favored re-entering the fold. But the question has become entangled with Washington's broader, and still unresolved, squabble with the UN over how and when it will pay the $1.5 billion in arrears that it owes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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