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Debate: UNESCO, USA leaving

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Should the USA leave the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alex Deane. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was founded on the 16th of November, 1945 and is based in Paris, France. Its stated goal is ‘to build peace in the minds of men.’ UNESCO has a humanitarian agenda – it pledges to work towards particular Millennium Development Goals, in particular, it wishes to * halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries by 2015 * achieve universal primary education in all countries by 2015 * eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005 * help countries implement a national strategy for sustainable development by 2005 * to reverse current trends in the loss of environmental resources by 2015. However, the organisation is allegedly misused to promote particular political aims. The Reagan administration said that UNESCO “politicized virtually every subject it deals with, has exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.” The USA withdrew from the organisation in 1983 and only rejoined in 2002 - a decision which surprised many both at home and abroad, and which remains controversial.

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Argument #1

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Yes

UNESCO espouses an ideal of ‘one-worldism’ that is close to the Communist school of thought. Its influence is used to undermine nation states, America included, in favour of a trendy ‘humankind’ agenda that acts as a mask for redistribution of wealth from America to other countries. It is therefore against both America’s interests and America’s principles to remain a member of UNESCO.

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No

Opponents of UNESCO have been peddling these myths since its creation. It is true that the organisation has a humanitarian agenda – but the idea that it or its staff want to overthrow the world order is the stuff of fantasy. America is a huge donor to UNESCO – it shares its worthwhile goals – its departure would make the tremendously important mission of the organisation so much harder to achieve.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The USA only rejoined in 2002 because President Bush wanted international support during the Iraq conflict, and saw this as a handy way of getting it. There’s no principle of support involved.

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No

Presumably international support is still wanted, and therefore this is not necessarily an argument for the proposition – it works for the opposition too. In any case, there were good reasons for believing that rejoining would be diplomatically valuable - UNESCO's aims are shared and admired by many countries around the world. That is a reason to stay in, not to leave.

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Argument #3

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Yes

A large number of things UNESCO does are a total waste of time. More are things that achieve ends the majority of US citizens would disagree with – making support of them a misuse of their tax dollars. And it is a large misuse indeed – the ‘unrestrained budgetary expansion’ identified by Reagan has continued in the 20 years since he spoke, to create an organisation with a budget of US $397 million (in 2000, the last year it disclosed this information).

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No

These are the accusations typically thrown at any large non-profit organisation. But beyond the occasional headline example, is there really any truth in the idea that this happens very much? The vast majority of things UNESCO does are in fact very worthwhile. The global literacy program, for example, is one that nobody could disagree with. Yes it costs – but it is worth it. And in the scheme of things, USD $400 million is not that much.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Of course an organisation as bloated and gigantic as UNESCO has managed to absorb some functions that are in some way worthwhile. The World Heritage Site scheme, literacy promotion and the exchange of scientific ideas are all good – and indeed, when UNESCO stuck to just doing these things, the USA supported it. But these could be continued by small, efficient, dedicated bodies under the UN umbrella – and these bodies would not have the platform or agenda UNESCO does. All the other worthwhile things UNESCO does could be done directly by the USA, or though USA-donor country bilateral aid. This would avoid the inefficiency and occasional corruption of the UN.

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No

Splitting some activities off from UNESCO would just be inefficient – it is much more effective to do these things under one umbrella, rather than drawing up artificial boundaries between different departments of the UN. Leaving UNESCO and then trying to run US versions of some of its programs would also be pointless - UNESCO has a unique global expertise. No agency in the USA has the capability to match it, and to build one would be needless duplication since one already exists. Furthermore, American dollars gain bulk-buying power when combined with the donations of so many other countries. On the other hand, if bilateral schemes were drawn up instead the process of aid-giving would be incredibly inefficient – the USA would have to check with all other countries as to their aid intentions, to avoid double-gifting (which countries might deliberately accept and conceal). Instead, UNESCO knows exactly who is getting what – avoiding all that. Of course corruption is bad, and it should be stamped out – the fact that it has sometimes existed is not an argument against UNESCO's existence.

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Argument #5

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Yes

UNESCO has been used for overtly political purposes that involve opposition to the USA and its policies, and may well do so again. Directors-General such as past DG Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow use UNESCO as a vehicle for the promotion of anti-Western rhetoric. M’Bow was openly and militantly a spokesman for the Marxist Third World, viewing UNESCO as an instrument to achieve the redistribution of power and wealth away from the West. To stop ‘cultural imperialism’ – for which, read the movement of businesses into markets, or the influence of films, music and books amongst people that presumably buy or watch because they want to – those like him advocate vast state controls and moves away from the free market, a great step backwards. Worst of all, they use the money of those they attack to do it! Reform has indeed occurred – but it is only superficial and does nothing to prevent relapse.

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No

Most of the reasons that spurred the USA’s departure from UNESCO no longer exist. Its Cold War position is neither relevant nor still in place. Its aggressive promotion of partisan policies has been abandoned. Of course it might return to that – but it’s not any more likely than any other international organisation doing so – why single out UNESCO for what is possible in the future of any organisation?

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Argument #6

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Yes

Corruption is an endemic UN problem. It is especially bad in UNESCO. Directors-General wield enormous patronage in the form of well-paid jobs, and grants to governments and agencies, and the prospect of glamorous travel for those who support them. They use these powers fully. In the last days of his administration, Frederico Mayor Zaragoza approved 71 promotions and 27 new appointments – promoting an astonishing 36 people to director-level positions. Relatives of senior officials are hired at alarming rates. Whilst it is true that some of this has been stopped by the current regime, the fact that workers went on hunger strike(!) over any attempt at rigour in fiscal rules just goes to show that the culture of corruption runs very, very deep. Furthermore, claims that things have got better at UNESCO are greatly exaggerated. An independent Canadian review in 1998 found that UNESCO failed to evaluate the relevance or cost-effectiveness of its programmes, did not require performance evaluation on its projects, and that many projects lacked concrete objectives. It also revealed that corruption was still ‘all but endemic,’ with 40% of appointments failing to meet UNESCO’s own appointment criteria, being based on personal connections rather than qualifications, and that the head of UNESCO’s auditing department lacked any accounting experience. It also showed that an estimated 2000 ‘consultants’ were being paid but didn’t appear on any budget.

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No

Current Director-General Koichiro Matsuura has restored good fiscal practice to UNESCO. He suspended all Mayor’s last minute promotions and appointments, and fired many hangers-on. The administration of UNESCO is now in good hands – don’t punish the present team for the sins of the old. The perceptions of the organisation amongst its opponents are terribly old-fashioned. When examples of the problems of UNESCO are produced, they are normally from the M’Bow regime, which finished in 1987! The truth is that UNESCO is hugely improved. The Canadian report was much more positive than is normally claimed and the lessons from it have been learned in the eight years since its production.

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Argument #7

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Yes

UNESCO has consistently taken an anti-Israel line in its work, excluding the state from working groups and persistently criticising it. Israel is a good and loyal ally to the USA; American membership implies agreement with this criticism and therefore membership is wrong.

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No

Criticism of Israel was strongest in UNESCO in the 1970’s – it is long over now. In any case, no nation, including Israel, should be above criticism and Israel is far from being the only country to have its policies commented upon by UNESCO. The USA has to recognise that every other country in the world criticises Israel from time to time, and it needs to be within the organisation to ensure a more balanced viewpoint is presented.

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Argument #8

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Yes

UNESCO has attempted to establish itself as the international co-ordinator of bio-ethic discussion. This is an incredibly sensitive area and in attempting to establish a universal code on bio-ethics UNESCO goes beyond its authority. This field involves issues such as abortion, cloning, the right to refuse treatment and so forth – the arbiters of authority in this area must be sovereign nations, which are answerable to their citizens, rather than unaccountable organisations like UNESCO. Until it drops its pretensions towards authority in this field, the USA should not be a member of UNESCO.

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No

UNESCO facilitates discussion of important issues and tries to build a consensus that will permit scientific research that will benefit mankind’s future. It does not see itself as a global government or as a rival to nation states, and it does not have any power to make the USA change its own rules in this area. This is simply scaremongering. Its work in bio-ethics and other fields is useful, by stimulating debate of these moral issues, establishing good practice, and allowing countries to learn from and improve upon the experiences of others.

Motions

  • This House calls for the US should leave UNESCO
  • This House believes rejoining UNESCO was a mistake for the USA
  • This House opposes UNESCO

This debate in legislation, policy, and elsewhere in the world

See also

External links and resources:

Books

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