UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization – is a specialized UN agency, founded in 1945, and composed of 192 member states. Its headquarters are in Paris, where member states maintain delegations headed by a person with diplomatic status, typically with the rank of ambassador. UNESCO also has more than 50 field offices around the world. The preamble to the UNESCO constitution emphasizes the importance of the organization’s mission of peace through intellectual and cultural development and exchange, stating that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed” (UNESCO 1945). The UNESCO constitution further states that the organization’s purpose is “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.” For the 2006–2007 biennium, UNESCO had a budget appropriation of US$610 million, with an additional US$409 million in “extra-budgetary resources” (additional funds from sources other than member states’ assessed contributions), for a total budget of US$1.02 billion for the two-year period.
Relevance For Communication
The main program sectors of UNESCO are Education, Natural Sciences, Social and Human Sciences, Culture, and Communication and Information. As well, UNESCO has a variety of “mainstreaming” themes, which promote particular goals, including gender equality, youth action and integration, meeting special needs in Africa, dialogue among civilizations, and a worldwide culture of peace; and it also has “cross-cutting” themes, namely the eradication of extreme poverty, and the uses of information and communication technologies for the advancement of education, science, culture, and communication. UNESCO has programs that focus on promoting universal education and literacy, exploring the long-term impact of global climate change and ways to mitigate negative impacts on the world’s water resources, promoting sustainable global resource development, addressing ethical issues in scientific research and technological development, and working to promote and sustain worldwide cultural diversity.
UNESCO has special significance for communication scholars, particularly through the Culture sector and that on Communication and Information. In 2005, under the leadership of the Culture sector, the organization adopted a “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions,” which had been ratified by 52 countries and the European Union by March 2007, when it entered into force. The convention aims “to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions,” and it emphasizes the unique nature of cultural goods and services as “vehicles of identity, values and meaning” (UNESCO 2005). Another function of the Culture sector is to identify “cultural and natural properties,” both tangible (specific sites and artifacts) and intangible (e.g., languages, oral histories, “living human treasures”), that are “of outstanding universal value,” place them on the “World Heritage List,” monitor their conservation, and respond to requests for assistance. The Culture sector also works to promote cultural exchange through modern “culture industries,” including publishing, music, audiovisual technology, electronics, video games and the Internet, focusing particularly on freedom of expression, cultural diversity, and economic development. UNESCO emphasizes the significant imbalances between cultural exports from the global north and south, and seeks to assist the latter by aiding in the development of local capacities and access to global markets. The Culture sector also emphasizes indigenous art and design, literature and poetry, art education, museum preservation and exhibition, and cultural tourism that is respectful of the physical environment and the cultures of others.
The current structure of the Communication and Information (CI) sector, consisting of the Communication and Development Division, the Division for Freedom of Expression, Democracy and Peace, and the Information Society Division, was established in 1990. The CI sector’s strategic objectives are to promote the free flow of ideas and universal access to information, promote pluralism and cultural diversity through the means of communication, and promote universal access to information and communication technologies. Through extra-budgetary funding, the CI sector pursues interregional, regional, and national projects in Africa, the Arab states, Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
The CI sector collaborates with other UN and bilateral agencies and with various nongovernmental organizations, and it provides secretariats for the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and the Information for All Programme (IFAP). Included among the general initiatives led by the CI sector are efforts to remove barriers to women’s access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and explore ways in which ICTs can be used to address gender issues, the promotion of linguistic diversity on the Internet, projects to preserve cultural memory and heritage, support for libraries and archives, support for programs aimed at HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, projects that encourage uses of ICTs for the production of cultural content by indigenous groups, and various other programs aimed at capacity building, advancing literacy, and working to eradicate a north–south digital divide.
In monitoring these activities and many others that UNESCO does not directly influence, the CI sector hosts an “Observatory on the Information Society,” established in 1997. The Observatory provides reports, statistical data, and other resources in fulfillment of its mandate to operate a “permanent international monitoring mechanism” (UNESCO 2007) that focuses on ethical, legal, socio-cultural, and policy challenges in advancing a global information society. The CI sector also is active in promoting freedom of expression through its annual World Press Freedom Day and its annual Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize.
For many years, UNESCO was at the center of tense relations between the United States and the UN system. In the early 1980s, US-based critics of UNESCO, particularly members of such conservative US think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, advocated US withdrawal if UNESCO did not comply with US demands. Among the most significant criticisms were that UNESCO was mismanaged and top-heavy with a highly paid administrative staff. More importantly, the US critics of UNESCO considered the organization to be heavily “politicized,” i.e., anti-western and anti-American. Among the issues highlighted were the organization’s positions on US foreign policy. US-based critics took offense at UNESCO’s condemnation of Israeli archaeological excavations in occupied Palestinian territories, and of Israeli education and cultural policies in the occupied territories.
There also was significant criticism by several countries about the majority call by UNESCO members for a “new world information and communication order” (NWICO), which was articulated in Belgrade in 1980 at the twenty-first UNESCO general conference. In that same year, UNESCO’s International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems published a report, titled Many voices, one world (see MacBride Commission 2004), more commonly known as the MacBride Report after the commission’s president Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Sean MacBride. The postcolonial and Cold War context of these developments placed UNESCO in the awkward position of having to negotiate among ideological and material differences between east and west, and between north and south.
Both the NWICO resolution and the MacBride Report highlighted many issues that continue to define the north–south divide related to communication and information. The fact that the causes of some of the most serious media-related problems had been identified with practices by US transnational media institutions and policies led to a defensive posture by the US government and US media corporations. In December of 1983, Reagan administration secretary of state George Schultz explained in a letter to UNESCO director-general Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow the reasons for the US withdrawal. Equal emphasis was given to issues of mismanagement and “the injection of political goals beyond the scope of the cooperative enterprise” (Schultz 1984, 84).
The effects on UNESCO of the US withdrawal were significant, as the US was a major financial contributor to its budget. The withdrawal appeared to critics to send a message to the UN system as a whole regarding official US distaste for multilateralism as a way of resolving its disputed foreign policies. The US withdrawal was soon followed by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom and Singapore, which further eroded the budget.
In 1997, the UK rejoined UNESCO, and the organization underwent significant reforms under director-general Koïchiro Matsuura, whose term began in 1999. Administrative costs were cut by US$10 million, the number of high-level posts was halved, and an “Internal Oversight Service” was created to perform audits, investigations, program management, and evaluations of headquarters and field offices. In 2003, in response, the US rejoined UNESCO. However, there remained tensions, evident in the 2005 conflict over the adoption of the above-mentioned “Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.” The agreement obligated the states ratifying it “to give recognition to the distinctive nature of cultural activities, goods and services as vehicles of identity, values and meaning,” and “to reaffirm the sovereign rights of States to maintain, adopt and implement policies and measures that they deem appropriate for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions on their territory” (UNESCO 2005, Article 1).
This language, which upholds the idea of a “cultural exception”, ran counter to the US position, which favored placing the culture industries under the discipline of global trade agreements, like other goods and services. Critics of the US position noted that the US government once favored a cultural exception within UNESCO and pointed to the fact that the US is a signatory to the 1950 “Florence Agreement,” which explicitly enables contracting states “to prohibit or limit the importation, or the circulation after importation,” of cultural materials “on grounds relating directly to national security, public order or public morals” (UNESCO 1950, Article V). Of course, what constitutes “national security, public order or public morals” is subject to wide interpretation, but in fact the official rationale for establishing the US National Endowment for the Arts was expressed in terms of national interest.
UNESCO is not the only UN agency addressing communication and cultural issues. Some of UNESCO’s activities overlap with or complement the work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU, a UN agency that has mainly served to recommend technical standards, allocate broadcasting frequencies, and coordinate the geostationary positions for communications satellites, came into much higher prominence when it was resolved at the 2002 UN general assembly that the ITU would host the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The UN resolution emphasized “the urgent need to harness the potential of knowledge and technology for promoting the goals of the United Nations Millennium Declaration and to find effective and innovative ways to put this potential at the service of development for all” (UN 2001). The UN general assembly’s choice to assign this role to the ITU rather than UNESCO seemed inconsistent with the fact that a primary focus of the discourse at the summit was on social and cultural matters that fall more closely within the UNESCO sphere. Nevertheless, the summit proceeded and was convened in two phases, in Geneva in 2003 and in Tunis in 2005. UNESCO and other UN agencies became parties to the WSIS and led in implementing various “action lines” that resulted from the WSIS. Based on the Geneva “Plan of Action,” UNESCO’s WSIS follow-up responsibilities include developing programs and projects aimed at access to information and knowledge, “e-learning,” “e-science,” cultural and linguistic diversity, various goals related to mass media (in industries, policies, technologies, and content), reinforcing ethical dimensions of the information society, and participating in UN efforts to foster international and regional cooperation through the uses of ICTs.
- MacBride Commission (2004). Many voices, one world: Towards a new, more just and more efficient world information and communication order, 25th anniversary edn. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Padovani, C. (ed.) (2005). Special section of Global Media and Communication: From NWICO to WSIS, 1(3).
- Preston, W., Jr., Herman, E. S., & Schiller, H. I. (1989). Hope and folly: The United States and UNESCO, 1945–1985. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Schultz, G. (1984). Letter from U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz to UNESCO Director-General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, announcing the decision of the U.S. government to withdraw its membership from UNESCO (28 December 1983). Journal of Communication, 34(4), 82, 84.
- UN (2001). United Nations General Assembly. Resolution on the World Summit on the Information Society (Resolution A/RES/56/183). At www.itu.int/wsis/docs/background/resolutions/56_183_ unga_2002.pdf, accessed October 4, 2007.
- UNESCO (1945). Constitution. At http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=15244&URL_ DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html, accessed October 4, 2007.
- UNESCO (1950). Florence Agreement. At www.unesco.org/culture/laws/florence/documents/ florence_en.doc, accessed October 4, 2007.
- UNESCO (2005). Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. At http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001429/142919e.pdf, accessed October 4, 2007.
- UNESCO (2007). Observatory on the Information Society. November. At http://portal.unesco.org/ ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=7277&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html, accessed October 4, 2007.
- Vincent, R. C., Nordenstreng, K., & Traber, M. (eds.) (1999). Towards equity in global communication: MacBride update. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.