UNESCO has a golden opportunity to boost its image, which both critics and supporters say badly needs shoring up. The controversial Amadou Mahtar M'Bow is bowing out as director general of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Regardless of how they may feel about Mr. M'Bow personally, many UNESCO diplomats and officials say his departure is in the organization's best interest.
``It gives UNESCO a much more unemotional opportunity to be examined,'' a spokesman for the Paris-based organization says.
For years the United States has charged that UNESCO, under M'Bow, has been mismanaged, politicized, and hostile to freedom of the press and the rights of individuals. When the US withdrew from UNESCO in December 1984, it acknowledged some of the organization's efforts to reform, but said they were not enough.
The US position stands. When M'Bow announced recently that he would not seek a third six-year term, the US reaffirmed that its problems with UNESCO are not personalized and that it still awaits evidence of significant reform.
One major problem, a US official says, is that UNESCO's powerful third-world bloc, which dominates UNESCO membership, ``has accentuated the trends already in place'' and is resisting change.
Britain also appears to be sticking to its decision last year to pull out of UNESCO. (Singapore withdrew last year as well, but only because it felt it wasn't getting its money's worth.)
Together, the three withdrawals cost UNESCO 30 percent of its budget, sparking a financial crisis and leading to cuts in personnel and programs. Critics of UNESCO see these cuts as having been made only out of necessity and not a desire to reform.
According to a UNESCO spokesman at the UN, UNESCO has adopted some one hundred reforms over the past couple of years. The measures include: a budget process that is more open to the scrutiny of member states; new systems to evaluate programs and ensure proper funding; and greater accountability on hiring procedures.
The US official acknowledges UNESCO's efforts to be more efficient and less political, but says the changes so far have been ``only cosmetic.''
Some Western UNESCO diplomats contacted in Paris agree with this assessment. Others say it's too soon to judge UNESCO's reforms.
In Paris, diplomats and other informed observers are looking ahead to a post-M'Bow UNESCO. In interviews, these sources, who generally have been critical of UNESCO's management, suggested the same rough outline for what UNESCO needs to do:
First, elect a strong new leader who can mobilize a consensus among all the political groupings -- the Soviet bloc and the powerful third-world bloc (together, M'Bow's traditional base of support), as well as the West -- on what the organization should be doing.
The key now is for nations to agree on a strong candidate by next May, when UNESCO's executive board will elect a candidate who then must be approved by the general membership the following November. Reportedly, the search is on for this consensus candidate.
Some of M'Bow's opponents are concerned that if there are too many candidates for the May election, each with only a few votes, M'Bow will come in with a solid bloc of votes and win reelection -- in spite of his recent announcement.
Second, the diplomats and observers say, the new leader needs to steer UNESCO on a less ambitious course and convince the organization to take on only noncontroversial projects it can fund properly. And, they say, it needs to take advantage of the size and diversity of its membership by selecting projects that are best handled by an international organization. Some examples where UNESCO has already claimed success: its statistical yearbook on education, science, and culture; the preservation of cultural landmarks, such as Abu Simbel in Sudan and the Acropolis in Greece; literacy programs for children and adults.
After steps one and two are completed, then the new leader can go out and tell the world that UNESCO is back. This would also be the time to try to woo back the US, the observers say, with personal visits to the White House and Capitol Hill.
Speculation continues over why M'Bow announced he was not seeking reelection. Some feel it was a political tactic, designed to cool criticism so he could jump in at the last minute and accept a draft to run again. Others take his statement at face value. They view it as an indication that M'Bow felt he would not have received the necessary simple majority of votes and so he withdrew now to save face.
Observers cite an accumulation of pressures on M'Bow: recent statements by Japan, West Germany, and the Netherlands that cast doubt on their continued membership (and therefore their continued funding); M'Bow's trip last month to the nonaligned movement's summit in Zimbabwe, where he reportedly did not receive support; reported private statements by even the Soviets that it was time for a better manager.
While the Organization of African Unity and the Arab League both endorsed M'Bow's candidacy recently, individual members of those groups reportedly opposed it. Observers also point to tension between the French-speaking M'Bow, former education minister of Senegal, and some of the Anglophone African nations.
In the end, many of UNESCO's longtime servants hope the organization can become once again a world think tank with truly global support. Dragoljub Najman of Yugoslavia is a strong believer in UNESCO. He served the organization for 30 years -- including a period as M'Bow's adviser on foreign affairs -- until M'Bow fired him last May in a personal dispute.
``UNESCO is not just an organization dealing with education, culture, and science,'' Mr. Najman says. ``Its purpose is international cooperation. Read UNESCO's mandate. The word cooperation is repeated over and over.''
Najman points out that UNESCO has more potential for divisive politicization than other UN agencies because its stock in trade is ideas, not things, such as food or financial aid.
But Najman also believes the US and third world can find common ground even in one of UNESCO's most controversy-ridden aims: to develop a better balanced dissemination of information in the world.
The third world, backed by the Soviets, complains that the West dominates coverage there, and that the coverage focuses only on disasters and revolutions. The West is concerned that the third world's alternative, the so-called New World Information and Communication Order, is a veiled attempt to impose international controls on the news media.
Mr. Najman's solution is for UNESCO to set up programs in which members of private Western news organizations help train the media of developing countries. Not all developing countries would allow this but certainly some would, Najman says. It is collaboration such as this, he says, that fulfills UNESCO's ultimate goal -- promoting world peace.