July 31, 2002 | Commentary on International Organizations

Not Yet Time to Rejoin UNESCO

Should the United States rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)?

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 cultural misperceptions.

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 private-sector initiatives.

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 work?

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 Schaefer
is the Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom