• UNESCO – A Missed Opportunity

    The decision this week by the UNESCO General Conference to admit Palestine to full membership has cast an unaccustomed light on an organisation that usually flies pretty much under the radar.

    The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation was the first UN agency to be established. It was set up immediately after the Second World War to strengthen the international bonds of mind and spirit in the hope that this would help to create a world that would be free from hatred and war.

    New Zealand was just the second country to step forward and put its signature to the UNESCO constitution. In the early years of the organisation, our country played a leading role; luminaries such as Doctor Clarence Beeby were rightly regarded as among the most significant of its founding fathers.

    Sadly, over recent years, New Zealand’s commitment to UNESCO has faded – and this at a time when, in the light of the global financial crisis and the consequent recession, UNESCO’s message that there is more to international relations than trade and the bottom line, and that international peace and progress depend on better mutual understanding, was surely needed more than ever.

    We have, however, turned our backs on our distinguished heritage as a consistent and valued member of this important agency. It is a process which I have observed with increasing dismay as the departing Chair of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO. As my three-year term ends, I can only regret and deplore the neglect (I wish I could say it was benign) shown by our government towards this important aspect of our international relationships.

    Our formal commitment to UNESCO and its Paris headquarters has now been downgraded to just 5% of the time of a single diplomat in our Paris Embassy. Our own NZ National Commission (a body comprising experts in their fields who give much of their time on a voluntary basis) has been allowed to languish, with the terms of four of its five members lapsing and no replacements being appointed – thereby negating one of the greatest assets of UNESCO, its ability to use experts across the globe to extend its message far beyond what would normally be possible with its own meagre resources.

    The small secretariat which has for decades been the executive arm of the National Commission has been merged into the Ministry of Education and required to undertake further duties. The result? Our capacity to draw on UNESCO’s expertise to improve our performance in the fields of education, science and culture, not only in New Zealand but throughout the Pacific, has been sadly diminished.

    New Zealand’s National Commission has been regarded for decades as a model of its kind, providing leadership to smaller Pacific states which have the will but lack the resource and expertise to play a full part.

    The puzzle is that the government continues to pay our (modest) membership subscription to UNESCO but seems determined to extract only the minimum value from our membership. This is seen at its most inexplicable in the refusal to take up a seat on UNESCO’s Executive Board.

    Membership of the Executive Board would give us a voice in establishing the direction the organisation should take. Members are elected to the Board, and New Zealand – historically – has been keen to fulfil the responsibilities that go with membership and has been seen as a valued member of the Board. Despite the fact that a seat is virtually guaranteed to us, so that there would be no need to go to the expense of running a campaign for support, we have declined the opportunity – much to the disappointment of many friendly countries who insist that they would value our contribution to the Board’s business.

    As Chair, I found this so inexplicable that I wrote to the Prime Minister with a detailed proposal, showing that we could – by utilising the possibilities of modern electronic communication – meet our responsibilities in this regard at no additional cost; we might even have saved some money since the cost of any travel to Paris as Executive Board members would be met by UNESCO. The proposal was dismissed out of hand.

    To be fair to the Prime Minister, he was no doubt acting on advice. That advice would have come from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, who has often demonstrated his lack of interest in international engagement.

    The decision was, however, all the more paradoxical given the Prime Minister’s declared intention to seek a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2014. One might have thought that uppermost in the minds of those voting on candidates for that seat would be the question of which of the contenders had shown itself to be the best UN citizen. Our cavalier disregard of both the opportunities and responsibilities of UNESCO membership cannot be expected to improve our chances.

    As I leave the National Commission, I am proud of what has been achieved, but disappointed at missed opportunities. I can only wish my successor as Chair, my friend Neil Walter, better luck than I have had. The National Commission, and UNESCO itself, deserve it.

    Bryan Gould

    1 November 2011