SCARCELY two years after being elected, the new director general of UNESCO, Dr. Federico Mayor Zaragosa of Spain, finds himself far out on a limb. Critics from left and right who feel that his reforms of the troubled agency have gone too far or not far enough are busy chipping away at his support. With a critical month-long general conference to decide UNESCO's course now under way, the United States has a much deeper stake than is commonly realized in giving a boost to Dr. Mayor and his reform program. Five years ago, the US marched out of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), followed by Great Britain and Singapore, citing poor management, budgetary excess, and political controversy under former director general Amadou Mahtar M'Bow of Senegal.
Despite substantial opposition from some nonaligned and developing countries, Dr. Mayor was chosen over Mr. M'Bow to chart a new path for UNESCO. From the sidelines, Americans were buoyed by the prospect that UNESCO might regain its long-lost stature as a leading forum for the sharing and dissemination of knowledge in the fields of science, education, culture, and communications.
Though Mayor has not produced any overnight miracles, he has begun to put UNESCO on the right track. He has replaced M'Bow's feudal, highly-centralized management style with a more open, professional system that properly delegates authority to his program managers. Following deep cuts forced by the loss of US and British support and four years of zero budget growth, Mayor is now requesting a modest 2.5 percent real growth in spending. So he has hardly been a spendthrift.
The tide of political controversy has also ebbed markedly in UNESCO, as it has throughout the United Nations system. In an effort to avoid further politicization of the agency, Mayor recently gained the unanimous decision of his governing body to defer until 1991 the Palestine Liberation Organization's application for full membership status in UNESCO.
The issue at the center of the UNESCO debate today, as it was five years ago, involves media and communications. In the late '70s and early '80s, a combination of third-world and socialist states advocated in UNESCO a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO).
UNESCO has quite properly, and initially with US encouragement, endeavored to help develop a more adequate communications network in the third world. But some states had urged UNESCO to go further - to ``balance'' the news, suggesting licensing and codes of conduct for journalists. No press restrictions were ever endorsed or acted upon by UNESCO, but the debate itself provoked a great outcry.
The ominous notion of a new information order has died; it was a relic of an earlier era of North-South acrimony. In his statements and program, Mayor has laid to rest any idea of a new information order, even while seeking to meet the legitimate communications needs of the developing countries. The only thing in dispute is the wording of the eulogy. For with the coming of glasnost in the east and pragmatism in the south, the concept of a ``new order'' has taken on an entirely different meaning.
So what should the US do? First, the president should act quickly to send a balanced monitoring group drawn from leading professionals in science, education, culture, and communications to Paris to report on the UNESCO general conference, which runs from mid-October to mid-November. This step would give Mayor added leverage by demonstrating the seriousness of American interest in UNESCO reform, while permitting a fuller and higher-level review process.
Second, if Mayor's five-year reform package is substantially adopted by the general conference and if the US monitoring group submits a favorable report, then the US should announce its intention to reenter UNESCO. This would give the US a voice in the implementation of the reforms while protecting its many interests in the agency. Similar recommendations have been made by a bipartisan panel headed by retired Sen. Robert Stafford (R) of Vermont and organized by the United Nations Association of the USA.
By walking out of UNESCO, the US helped spark a far-reaching reform process and a much-needed leadership change. But by remaining outside, we may doom both the prospects for further reform and the man entrusted with the tough and delicate task of transforming the agency without destroying it. To turn our backs on the progress made would be to undermine our interests, our credibility, and our stature as a world leader in science, education, culture, and communications.