Does the US Need UNESCO?

Yes, but. For its part, Washington should pay closer attention to changes under way at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

The agency long has been viewed as harboring strong anti-American and anti-Western biases, as well as being wasteful, nepotistic, and corrupt. The US rightly withdrew from UNESCO in 1984. So did Britain, though it rejoined in 1997.

UNESCO's part is to continue needed reform. Over the past year, Director-General Koichiro Matsuura's capable leadership has done much to change the wayward organization.

By Mr. Matsuura's own admission, personnel was in a "shambles." He has been conducting a serious housecleaning, streamlining a top-heavy management from 300 to 25, and working toward other programmatic changes he hopes the US will find useful. And he says he is not finished yet.

Matsuura has been lobbying the US, hoping to regain not only US dollars and the prestige of US membership, but America's voice at the deliberating table. Right now, the US cannot actively participate in negotiations. The cost of membership for the US would be roughly $68 million annually, about 22 percent of UNESCO's total budget.

While the Clinton administration supports rejoining, Congress remains a big obstacle. Many lawmakers are strongly averse to funding the UN, let alone UNESCO. Their concerns over bloated and ineffective international organizations are not unjustified, but they often hide the good such bodies can do.

UNESCO's usefulness is perhaps strongest in the area of basic education. The recent World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal helped bring together, in one place, major countries responsible for basic education around the world. They committed themselves to a goal of universal access to quality basic education by 2015. UNESCO was given the mandate to carry both the quantitative and qualitative goals from that meeting forward.

The numbers on the subject are troubling indeed. For every American child in a school, there are 2 to 3 children in the world who never see a classroom or a teacher in their lives. Matsuura points to another 800 million adults in the world who cannot read or write. Clearly, UNESCO has a vital role to play.

If it were active in UNESCO, the US could be playing a key legitimizing role especially when it comes to the education of girls - which in many countries, is still not considered a priority, if important at all.

The UN agency also produces valuable education-related research. Its experts are helping revise textbooks and standards in such fields as civics and democracy for Eastern Europe and are heavily involved in programs to strengthen education in Africa, especially science programs in Nigeria. UNESCO offers a neutral forum for countries in this ever more interdependent world to negotiate and make progress. Still, UNESCO needs to be mindful of both size and overlap with other international organizations. It must prove its effectiveness for the 21st century.

Then the US would be well advised to exercise its powerful influence, not from the sidelines, but as a full-fledged member.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.