July 31, 2002 | Commentary on International Organizations
Its supporters say we should. They claim that many of the
problems that led to our withdrawal in 1984 have been addressed if
not outright rectified under the leadership of Director-General
Koichiro Matsuura. The top-heavy organization has cut its
senior-level staff by half, they say. It has rejected the plan that
prompted both the United States and Great Britain to resign-a
Soviet Union-led effort, backed by third-world authoritarians, to
create a "new world information and communication order"-in other
words, U.N.-sanctioned censorship of the world's press.
Advocates say that since Sept. 11 UNESCO's policy goals have
come to resemble America's in UNESCO's areas of expertise. They say
the United States needs UNESCO and its educational outreach
programs to counteract the hatred of Western ideals that take root
where ignorance prevails. America can't rely on military might
alone to secure its future, they add: We also should focus on
shaping school curricula, working for tolerance and correcting
So these advocates have mounted a full-court press to persuade
Congress to approve the $60 million in dues the United States would
have to pay if it rejoins UNESCO.
But while the organization has made some progress, it has a long
way to go before it again becomes worthy of U.S. membership.
For one thing, UNESCO has trimmed senior-level staff, but hardly
by half. According to approved budgets for 1998-1999 and 2002-2003,
the number of director-level positions has fallen from 110 to 103.
It has trimmed just 40 of the 782 positions it had in 1998. And
even today, 60 percent of the $272 million annual budget-a figure
that has remained the same for at least six years-goes to personnel
and only 40 percent to programs.
And UNESCO still suffers from a lack of focus. Its educational
mission alone runs programs to promote early childhood/family
education, educational facilities, "e-learning," emergency
assistance, girls/women in Africa, higher education, inclusive
education, non-violence, poverty eradication, primary education,
secondary education, science and technology, street/working
children, studying abroad, sustainable development and
technical/vocational education. Much of this scattershot
programming overlaps that of other U.N. organizations and
And its stated ambition to set international ethical standards
for life sciences and biotechnology also should raise warning
flags. These are issues best debated among and enforced by national
governments accountable to their citizens, not by faceless
bureaucrats who may hold vastly different moral and ethical
principles than most Americans. Meanwhile, charges of financial
mismanagement continue to dog an organization that describes itself
as "the conscience of the United Nations."
And UNESCO officials can't exactly claim they run a tight
ship-not when televisions are set up during work hours to watch
soccer tournaments. When this made the papers, an employee of the
United States Association for UNESCO said this step actually
contributed to hard work since staffers would've sneaked out to
watch the matches anyway. Is it too much to ask that employees work
during work hours or that they be disciplined if they sneak out of
It's hard to imagine that rejoining UNESCO would do more to spur
needed management and programmatic reforms than the United States'
current posture. The United States has observer status in UNESCO
and can attend UNESCO meetings. Although the United States doesn't
have a vote in UNESCO, few UNESCO initiatives go far without U.S.
support. As things stand now, the United States can influence,
support and fund the programs it values and ignore those it
doesn't. Considering the price of re-upping and the plethora of
other budget priorities, it's hard to argue this is a critical and
efficient use of taxpayer resources.
That $60 million, incidentally, represents approximately 25
percent of the UNESCO budget. If the United States puts up one
quarter of the money, shouldn't it have one quarter of the vote on
how that money is spent, if only to ensure the organization doesn't
return to the past patterns of misuse? Then, and only then, UNESCO
might be worth rejoining.
Brett Schaeferis the Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.