Unesco believes learning can build peace. Sagarika Dutt looks at how this vision can be realised.
Former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan acknowledged the contribution of outgoing Unesco director-general Federico Mayor when he said he had transformed the organisation into "the world's conscience".
Mr Mayor's term of office formally ends on Sunday and his successor's appointment comes as the international community is renewing and reaffirming its commitment to education and science and to using them to promote development and peace.
Last year's World Conference on Higher Education declared that "on the eve of a new century, there is an unprecedented demand for and a great diversification in higher education, as well as an increased awareness of its vital importance for sociocultural and economic development, and for building the future".
The UN has also launched the Unesco-inspired "International Year for the Culture of Peace" for the year 2000. At an international round table on the culture of peace held recently in Baden-Baden, Mr Mayor said that education "must be seen ... as a tool providing everybody with the ability to make a choice in favour of peace".
In contrast, the politics surrounding the election of Mr Mayor's successor were reminiscent of the 1980s when Unesco was charged with "politicisation". It is common knowledge that the Saudi Arabian candidate, Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, who came second to Koichuro Matsuura, had campaigned long and hard. It is perhaps not surprising that the Japanese candidate won.
The Japanese are the largest contributors to Unesco's budget, contributing about 20-25 per cent of it. Japan is committed to supporting fully the countries of sub-Saharan African that are a priority for Unesco. Mr Matsuura himself played a major role in the first Tokyo international conference on African development.
However, Japan also wants world influence and has made this very clear. One way of achieving this objective is by securing the appointment of Japanese candidates to the top posts of international organisations.
Although some countries may tacitly accept the politicisation of international organisations, this is not how Unesco is meant to be run. For example, Julian Huxley, Unesco's first director-general, was appointed because he was an eminent scientist, not because of the United Kingdom's political clout or contribution to the budget.
Perhaps one should be more realistic about world politics. After all, Japan has replaced the United States, which left Unesco in 1984, as the largest contributor and is only indulging in a similar kind of politicisation that the Americans indulged in, albeit in the name of world peace.
But Unesco's image has been adversely affected by newspaper reports alleging corruption at
the highest levels and this leads people to question whether the
UK should have returned to the organisation.
There is no doubt that Unesco still needs reform. But if the UK wishes to play a role in this process, it has to be as a member state and not as an outsider. British universities, scientific communities and other organisations can ill afford to be left out. The new director-general has reiterated his commitment to the aims and purposes of Unesco and to its reform. This will require the cooperation of all member states, especially insofar as it relates to problems of cronyism, nepotism and corruption at the highest levels.
Last year Baroness Blackstone, minister for higher education, reminded the World Conference on Higher Education that rejoining Unesco was one of the first acts of the new government, adding: "Higher education is not simply a national issue, but increasingly international".
Last month, George Foulkes, head of the UK delegation to Unesco's general conference and junior minister at the Department for International Development stated: "Unesco has a vital role to play in helping to meet the international development targets. The British government is committed to helping it to do so." However, he too emphasised the need for Unesco reform.
Unesco's aims and objectives are compatible with those of the UK government and especially with those of the DFID. While the government favours participation it has made clearthat it intends to "control" Britain's relations with the organisation despite Mr Foulkes's assurances to the conference that "we are establishing a new national commission to deepen the involvement of civil society in the UK".
DFID's policy embodies the idea of a degree of government control that runs counter to the ideals of Unseco from the perspective of the British academic community. Sagarika Dutt is a lecturer in international relations at Nottingham Trent University.
'Unesco's image has been adversely affected by newspaper reports alleging corruption at the highest levels'