Unesco needs more than lukewarm UK support

June 25, 1999

As the World Science Conference opens in Budapest, Sagarika Dutt says

Britain's half-hearted backing of Unesco could hamper the organisation's work In July 1997, Britain returned to Unesco, from which it had withdrawn in 1985. But almost two years later, the United Kingdom has still to establish a national commission as required by Unesco's constitution as a channel for cooperation between member states and the organisation.

The UK Unesco Forum, set up in August 1997 to advise the government on Unesco-related issues and on the establishment of a UK commission, is extremely concerned at this failure.

In a letter earlier this year to Clare Short, secretary of state for international development, it pointed out that the UK's official participation in Unesco-organised higher education and science conferences would have benefited from wider prior consultation with the members of the professional and academic community.

Further, speedier establishment of a national commission would have enabled the forum to learn of the outcomes of these events and to build upon them.

The forum has submitted its own proposals for a national commission to the Department for International Development. The three main principles the forum has emphasised are that the national commission should be independent, should reflect and be highly responsive to what is happening in society and should be adequately funded by the government.

Unfortunately, Ms Short has not responded very positively. At a meeting with the forum she made her intentions clear: she was interested only in those aspects of Unesco's work that were in accordance with DFID's priorities. The British ambassador to Paris has been instructed to concentrate on these activities. Ms Short is also adamant that she will not give more than Pounds 50,000 towards setting up a national commission.

The forum has proposed that the commission should have an initial budget of about Pounds 500,000, so her response was a serious disappointment. It has also angered some of its members, such as Richard Hoggart, who feel that the British government should be fully committed to participating in all of Unesco's activities.

The lack of a national commission could have implications for the follow-up to last October's world conference on higher education. Federico Mayor, director general of Unesco, has emphasised that the resulting declaration and the associated framework for priority action for change and development in higher education indicate the main lines of action that must be taken to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Since the declaration is based on a consensus, it must be implemented universally, although individual countries must decide how they will implement it. In a note to members of the secretariat, the director general said that the follow-up to the conference will constitute one of Unesco's main fields of activity in the sphere of education for several years to come.

The forum could either stand on the point of principle that it could work with government only if it was prepared to provide adequate financial support for the national commission; or accept the government's current proposals, put together a tender for the secretariat and then work over time to involve government more fully with the work and funding of the commission.

Britain is the only European member state without a national commission. It is therefore essential that UK universities and higher education associations should take an interest in the issue, as the decision the government takes could affect their interests and their participation in international cooperation in the field of higher education.

At a meeting organised by the forum shortly after the world higher education conference, Robert Mace of the Department for Education and Employment said that the UK delegation had been "closely involved in the detailed drafting of the declaration". A UK exhibition costing Pounds 30,000 and jointly funded by the DFEE, DFID and the British Council had proved very popular.

The organisers of the world conference had hoped that a new coalition of the higher education community and its major partners would emerge. This would ensure more concerted and effective cooperation to meet the challenges of sustainable human development where the enhanced creation and dissemination of knowledge and know-how are determining factors. This is an ambitious programme and will succeed provided all partners of Unesco actively cooperate and resources and funding are available to implement the plans of action. Sagarika Dutt is lecturer in international relations, Nottingham Trent


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