Saturday, April 05, 2008

Editorial: Towards a UNESCO World Forum

UNESCO should begin program of international conferences, involving intellectual leaders from all over the world, under the title of The UNESCO World Forum. The World Economic Forum involves political and business leaders to focus on global issues. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) has expanded from its original focus on three fields, and can now be described as an annual event in which the world's leading thinkers gather to to find inspiration. The UNESCO World Forum would be an intellectual complement to these series.

This editorial suggests the creation of a forum that draws among the world's foremost intellectuals for discussions to determine the priority to be given by the global community of nations to the major issues of the day and of the century, and to address how those issues might best be addressed by the peoples of the world.

The major trends of our time are the increasing capacity of mankind to effect physical changes and the increasing intellectual capacity of mankind. Since the reconstruction after World War II, when priorities were clearly to prevent future world wars and to reconstruct the damage that had been inflicted by the first and second world wars, the agenda of the community of nations has expanded to include the protection of human rights, nation building, the reduction of poverty in all of its aspects, culturally sensitive management of the ever-more-rapid process of social change and the safeguarding of cultural heritage and diversity, and the protection of the environment. Unfortunately, mankind has failed to develop the wisdom with which to apply its increasing capacities to deal effectively with this agenda.

The UNESCO World Forum would draw on educational, scientific and cultural leaders of the world to meet together and to discuss and debate. It would encompass some of the functions of UNESCO's World Philosophy Forum, and of the Dialog Among Civilizations, being more inclusive than the former in its participants, and more inclusive than the latter in expanding beyond the focus on peace. Educators would be included, not only because of the intellectual power of academia, but because they bring a special understanding of how to build the solutions to global problems starting in the minds of men. Leaders from science and technology would be needed because of their in depth knowledge of mankind's problems and resources, and the technologies that can be brought to bear to apply those resources to the resolution of those problems. Cultural leaders, especially from the arts and humanities, would be included for their broad and integrating perspectives.

Historical Antecedents

The League of Nations system, having failed to prevent World War II, was replaced by the United Nations System, with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an independent organization tapping into the intellectual communities in its member nations.

One of the key antecedent organizations was the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation, which formed a secretariat for the International Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, which had enlisted such luminaries as Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Béla Bartók, Thomas Mann, Gilbert Murray and Paul Valery. Some 40 national committees on intellectual cooperation were created linking to the International Committee, including an active one in the United States. "Numerous conferences and symposia were held under the auspices of the International Institute in Paris. Among the topics taken up by these conferences as the world situation became more menacing were the psychological causes of war and methods of promoting peaceful change as a substitute for war."

Vincenzo Pavone points out that there has been a long term tension between a global model of UNESCO which emphasized its role in the long term solution of global problems and an intergovernmental model that focused on intergovernmental cooperation in the attack of relatively immediate problems. That tension was present at the creation of UNESCO, when the model of the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation was counterposed with the proposals of the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME) for a massive effort to rebuild the educational infrastructure of Europe and to deal with the massive physical and mental impact of World War II on Europe's children. It reflects, to some degree, the tension between the pragmatism of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian cultures versus the Latin Cultures of France and Latin America.

The greatest successes of UNESCO have probably been in programs that exemplify the intergovernmental cooperation model, such as UNESCO's leadership in Education for All, the World Heritage Program, the Intergovernmental Scientific Programs, and the development of the legal instruments which establish an intergovernmental system for the protection of cultural heritage and diversity. Yet the impact of UNESCO in its sixty years seeking to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men should not be underestimated.

Yet the balance has swung heavily to the intergovernmental model. The Executive Board, which once included members chosen for their intellectual star quality, now consists of representatives of governments elected by the General Conference (and of course the permanent delegates to UNESCO are diplomats named by the governments they represent.)

UNESCO was created at the time that the atom bombs were dropped by the United States on Japan; the world had been given a vivid illustration of the power to move from scientific abstraction to terrifyingly powerful technology. It is not surprising that the founders of UNESCO saw the need to leaven science with humanism. As science has become more powerful in the six decades of UNESCO's existence, the need for a consilience of knowledge, a synthesis of the knowledge of man's different communities. Unfortunately, UNESCO in accommodating its bureaucratic realities, still tends to stovepipe its educational, scientific and cultural programs. The proposed UNESCO Global Forum would be a giant step away from reductionism towards consilience.

The proposed UNESCO World Forum would seek not to draw representatives uniformly from the member nations, but from UNESCO's constituent educational, scientific and cultural communities. It would seek rather representation from different cultures and civilizations rather than from nation states.

The proposed UNESCO World Forum is not intended to detract from UNESCO's critically important efforts to promote intergovernmental cooperation in priority educational, scientific and cultural areas. Indeed, it would be best accomplished by an increase in UNESCO's already severely strained budget and staff capabilities.


The UNESCO World Forum is proposed to complement the pragmatic intergovernmental efforts of UNESCO by drawing on the world's intellectual leaders to address the world's agenda of long term issues, drawing on UNESCO's experience as a laboratory and clearinghouse of ideas.

John Daly
The ideas expressed in this posting are mine alone, and do not represent those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.

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