• Step Forward Unesco

    April in Paris is guaranteed to put a spring in the step of those fortunate enough to be here. Some may think, however, that attending the 181st session of Unesco’s Executive Board is not the best way to take advantage of the world’s most beautiful city.

    But, while it is true that Unesco meetings are afflicted by the endless wrangling over procedure and drafting changes that characterise most international organisations, springtime may well be just round the corner – for Unesco, as well as for Paris. While the air is thick with warnings about the impact of the global economic crisis on Unesco projects, particularly in the developing world, there is good reason to think that that same crisis might propel Unesco – representing a quite different view of what is now needed – to the forefront of the global response.

    We have, after all, witnessed the sudden demise of a set of beliefs which had placed huge emphasis on man as a purely economic being. For thirty years, we have increasingly handed control of our societies and economies over to those who insisted that all that really mattered was the bottom line, market forces, the profit motive. Economic man was, it was argued, all there was. The only way to extract maximum benefit for and from economic man was to entrust his future and wellbeing to the high priests of economic science – those lords of creation who alone understood the arcane secrets of what made economies tick and who required a heavy tribute, as bankers, financiers, and market manipulators, to reward them for their scarce and valuable skills.

    We now know the outcomes produced by the exercise of those skills. The world’s economies have been laid waste by the global crisis – so much for that famed and hugely rewarded expertise – but the crisis itself was preceded by a growing recognition of the price to be paid for letting markets rip. Global warming, pollution, the threat to natural resources, a growing gap between rich and poor, have all been forerunners and storm signals of what is now revealed as the collapse of the era of economic man.

    The time has come, surely, to recognise that our future as a species – perhaps even the future of our planet – now depends on more than the narrow, market-driven measurement of GDP. Economic recovery is certainly a priority, but it is a necessary rather than sufficient condition for a better future. We must now pay attention to wider questions – what is important to us as individuals and in our communities, what makes us who we are, what it means to be human. We need a new and more respectful relationship with the natural world in which we live and a greater hunger to understand and live harmoniously with our neighbours.

    Step forward Unesco. The oldest UN agency, during the era of economic man, has been pushed to the sidelines. Its emphasis on education, on the physical, human and social sciences, on culture and language, on the sustainable use of natural resources, as the mainsprings of human development and wellbeing, has seemed quaintly old-fashioned in an era of aggressive profit-seeking. But a re-statement of those goals and values is now overdue. We can now assert, amidst the wreckage created by economic man, that we are more than economic agents, and that Unesco’s preoccupations point the way to a more complete and empowering sense of where our future lies.

    It is after all the world’s billions who will pay for the current mess with their jobs, their homes, their taxes, perhaps even their lives. It is their interests – not those of banks and financial institutions – that should take centre stage. The focus of governments around the world on shoring up those institutions with taxpayers’ money may well be necessary in the short term, but an agenda based on the integrated wellbeing of people and societies will be needed if we are to restore the life chances of those ravaged by economic crisis.

    There are, in other words, better ways of spending our money. If we want a decisive break with the mistakes of the immediate past, we should be investing for more than a short-term financial return. Our focus should be on strategically planned programmes for education in countries where schooling is still at a premium, in the strengthening of cultural identities to give people confidence to understand who they are and how they can play a constructive role in the world, in projects to protect and develop sustainable supplies of fresh water.

    An agency like Unesco has never been funded to undertake these activities itself. Its current budget is pathetically small, and – in the current crisis – likely to get smaller. But, with proper financing, Unesco can provide the intellectual leadership and strategic direction to ensure that skills and capabilities that are at present scattered and fragmented across the globe can be linked and coordinated, so that we get the maximum benefit from what we already have. Unesco’s role is to help us to do better than merely learn what not to do. Agencies like Unesco can help us move forward by providing outcomes that are greater than the sum of their parts.

    If these efforts are not made, we will be slower out of crisis and less confident of our future than we should be. With all the talk of trillions being spent on the economic agenda, a tiny fraction of that sum spent on the human agenda would pay rich dividends. That should be the real lesson learned from the demise of economic man.

    Bryan Gould

    26 April 2009

    Bryan Gould chairs the New Zealand National Commission for Unesco.

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 28 April.

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