United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

views updated Jun 11 2018


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was conceived within the United Nations (UN) Charter, which was ratified on October 24, 1945. In the view of its founders, it was to revive within the new UN system, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC), created, in 1924, by the League of Nations' International Committee on International Cooperation (ICIC). The institute had counted among its members such eminent world personalities as Albert Einstein, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Gabriela Mistral, Aldous Huxley, Miguel de Unamuno, Paul Valéry, and Rabindranath Tagore. The UNESCO Constitution was adopted on October 24, 1945, by thirty-seven countries, By October 2003, it was composed of 190 Member States and six Associate Members.

At the outset, some of its more influential members were of the opinion that UNESCO should be the world organization in which "intellect would be allowed to have more scope and real power in the things of this world" (an expression used by Valéry, a leading member of the first French delegation to the new organization, who had also represented France in the old IIIC). It was thought that this approach could better protect the institution from excessive dependence on changing political pressures. The same concerns could explain why, at the outset, the members of the Executive Board were conceived to be more than just representatives of their respective governments; they would be chosen by the General Conference (the highest organ of UNESCO) on the basis of their personal qualifications and independence of mind, as had been the case with the IIIC. But because of political considerations, the practice moved in a different if not opposite direction. Accordingly, the UNESCO Constitution was amended in 1992 to make it clear that the representatives on the Board would always follow the instructions of their respective governments.

UNESCO's five original fields of competence were placed under the headings of education, exact and natural sciences, social sciences, culture, and communication. To these were later added intersectoral activities that embrace both the sciences and culture as well as fundamentally multidisciplinary projects such as the Protection of the World and Cultural Heritage and collaboration with other organizations of the UN system and with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).


UNESCO's first publication was a report titled Fundamental Education: Common Ground for All Peoples (1946). Although, ten years later, a working party of the General Conference proposed a new definition of this concept ("to help people who have not obtained such help from established educational institutions to understand the problems of their environment and their rights and duties to acquire a body of knowledge and skills for the progressive improvement of their living conditions and to participate more effectively in the economic and social development of their community"), the term fundamental or basic education stopped being used, on the ground that it was liable to confer official status on a "cut-rate" educational goal that would run counter to the goal of universal primary education.

The pursuit of a world model of schooling based on the experience of industrially developed countries had often exacerbated the difficulties of the poorer populations in developing their vernacular modes of learning. Therefore, at the World Education Forum (held in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000), UNESCO adopted a new approach under the name Education for All. This program was designed to reach six goals by the year 2015: (1) expand early childhood care and education, (2) improve access to and complete free schooling of good quality for all children of primary school age, (3) greatly increase learning opportunities for youth and adults, (4) improve adult literacy rates by 50 percent, (5) eliminate gender disparities in schooling, and (6) improve all aspects of educational quality (UNESCO, "World Education Forum").

Since 1964 UNESCO has taken a similar approach in working toward its goal of eradicating literacy in the world. At the 1965 World Conference of Ministers of Education in Tehran, the organization introduced the notion of "functional literacy," a conception in which learning to read and write was no longer regarded as an end in itself, but was more closely linked to the exercise of rights, responsibilities, and aptitudes in the professional, social, civic, and cultural fields. Despite some technically impressive results, these massive interventions did not succeed in absorbing the residual number of some 900 million "illiterate" persons who live in the world. Even the UN Literacy Decade Program, launched in 2003, seems to have accepted that despite the intensification of the efforts aimed at accelerating the literacy campaigns, the number of the illiterate will still be of the order of 820 million by 2010.

Natural Sciences

The International Hydrological Programme and the Man and the Biosphere Programme are two of the most important UNESCO programs in the field of natural sciences.

INTERNATIONAL HYDROLOGICAL PROGRAMME (IHP). IHP aims to provide technical training and policy advice required to manage water resources efficiently, fairly, and in an environmentally sound manner. The program is also involved in developing tools and strategies to prevent water conflicts from erupting between and within states.

UNESCO hosts the secretariat of twenty-three UN partners, which constitute the World Water Assessment Programme. The U.N. World Water Development Report (WWDR) provides a comprehensive, up-to-date overview of this resource. The first edition of the report, Water for People, Water for Life was launched on World Water Day, May 22, 2003, at the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan.

MAN AND THE BIOSPHERE (MAB) PROGRAMME. MAB is a most innovative program. In 1968, four years before the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, UNESCO held the Conference on the Biosphere in Paris with a view to reconciling the environment and "development." The term biosphere was used to designate all living systems covering Earth and the processes allowing them to function. MAB got underway in 1971 as an intergovernmental interdisciplinary activity aimed at developing scientific knowledge about the rational management of natural resources and their conservation in the light of the different types of human activity and the world's different land systems. More than 10,000 researchers from some 110 countries participated in this worldwide effort. More than 400 "biosphere reserves" have also been created that work as "living laboratories," each testing ways of managing natural resources while fostering economic development.

OTHER MAJOR ACTIVITIES IN THE NATURAL SCIENCES. The list of UNESCO's other activities in the natural sciences includes the following:

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC): This coordinating body of UN agencies and institutes monitors ocean conditions to improve weather forecasts, predict the onset of El Nin˜o, and provide early warnings of tsunamis and storm surges. IOC also helps build the Global Ocean Observing System, which weaves together data from special buoys, ships, and satellites to better understand the links between ocean currents and climate.

International Geoscience Programme: Formerly called the International Geological Correlation Programme (IGCP), this joint endeavor of UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) was launched in 1972. It maintains active interfaces with disciplines such as water, ecological, marine, atmospheric and biological sciences. As an international forum for multi-disciplinary geo-environmental research, it is designed to help scientists in more than 150 countries assess energy and mineral resources, while expanding the knowledge base of Earth's geological processes and reducing the risks of natural disasters in less-equipped countries.

Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and Small Islands (CSI): The CSI platform for intersectoral action was initiated in 1996 to contribute to environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, culturally respectful and economically viable development in small islands and coastal regions. The program is based upon three complementary and mutually reinforcing approaches: field-based projects on the ground; UNESCO chairs and University Twinning (UNITWIN) arrangements; and a multi-lingual, Internet-based forum on "wise coastal practices for sustainable human development."

The CSI platform has generated two cross-cutting projects: the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) project and the Small Islands Voice (SIV) project. The LINKS project focuses on this interface between local and indigenous knowledge and the Millennium Development Goals of poverty eradication and environmental sustainability. It addresses the different ways that indigenous knowledge, practices and world-views are drawn into development and resource management processes.

Social and Human Sciences

Often perceived as the conscience of the United Nations, UNESCO is further mandated to develop ethical guidelines, standards, and legal instruments in the field of science and technology—specifically bioethics. The ongoing revolution in science and technology has indeed given rise to some fears that unbridled scientific progress poses a threat to the culturally established ethics of world societies in dealing with their life and their human and natural environment. UNESCO's Programme on the Ethics of Science and Technology was designed to place such progress in the framework of ethical reflection rooted in the cultural, legal, philosophical, and religious heritage of the various human communities. This program includes the Bioethics Programme, the International Bioethics Committee (IBC), the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC), and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology.

BIOETHICS PROGRAMME. Created in 1993, this program has been a principal priority of UNESCO since 2002. With its standard-setting work and the multicultural and multidisciplinary forums it has helped to organize, the program has played a leading institutional role at the international level. The Bioethics Programme oversees the activities of the IBC and the IGBC.

UNIVERSAL DECLARATION ON THE HUMAN GENOME AND HUMAN RIGHTS. The first major success of the Bioethics Programme came in 1997, when the General Conference adopted the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. The only international instrument in the fields of bioethics, this landmark declaration was also endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1998. Adopted unanimously and by acclamation by the twenty-ninth session of the General Conference, the declaration serves as a legal reference and a basis for reflection on such critical issues as human cloning. In the early twenty-first century, work was underway to evaluate the impact of the declaration worldwide, in accordance with the Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration (1999), and to develop a new international declaration on human genetic data.

INTERNATIONAL BIOETHICS COMMITTEE. Created in 1993, this body, composed of thirty-six independent experts named by UNESCO's Director General, follows progress in the life sciences and its applications in order to ensure respect for human dignity and freedom. As the only internationally recognized global body for in-depth bioethical reflection, the IBC acts as a unique forum for exposing the issues at stake. It does not pass judgment on one position or another. Instead, it invites each country, and particularly the lawmakers therein, to decide between the different positions and to legislate accordingly.

INTERGOVERNMENTAL BIOETHICS COMMITTEE. The IGBC, created in 1998, comprises thirty-six member states whose representatives meet at least once every two years to examine the advice and recommendations of IBC. It informs the IBC of its opinions and submits these opinions along with proposals for follow-up of the IBC's work to the Director General for transmission to member states, the Executive Board, and the General Conference.

WORLD COMMISSION ON THE ETHICS OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE AND TECHNOLOGY (COMEST). Also created in 1998, this commission formulates the ethical principles that provide noneconomic criteria for decision makers concerning sensitive areas such as sustainable development; freshwater use and management; energy production, distribution, and use; outer space exploration and technology; and issues of rights, regulations, and equity related to the rapid growth of the information society.

From the 1999 World Conference on Science, COMEST also received a mandate to pursue research and come up with recommendations on instilling ethics and responsibility into science education. As a first step toward fulfillment of this mandate, COMEST organized a Working Group on the Teaching of Ethics. This group was asked to give the necessary advice on how to integrate awareness and competence in the field of ethics and responsibility of scientific education and research in the training of every young scientist. The report of the group, endorsed in December 2003, includes a survey of existing programs, an analysis of their structure and content, and detailed curriculum advice on how to integrate into scientific education both ethics and training in the history, philosophy, and cultural impact of science.

MANAGEMENT OF SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION (MOST) PROGRAMME. The list of the programs started by UNESCO with a view to setting ethical frameworks for the advancement of scientific discoveries cannot be completed without mentioning MOST, a program aimed at extending UNESCO's new ethical approach to the larger social transformations linked to globalization. Through this program, which was created in 1993, UNESCO seeks to conduct studies on issues such as urban development and governance through a range of grassroots projects, consultations, and academic networks. MOST increasingly focuses on research to help national and local governments develop appropriate governance policies and structures in multicultural societies, even addressing such issues as social inclusion and the eradication of poverty.

A Critical Assessment of UNESCO's Activities

UNESCO has often been criticized for having failed to act as "the conscience" of the people composing the United Nations and, in the particular field of science and technology, to fully implement its mandate to contain their unbridled development within internationally accepted ethical principles. Such criticisms need to be assessed against philosophical, structural, and institutional limits to UNESCO actions.

A first limit is the fact that the "conscience" attributed to UNESCO is nothing but a metaphor. It represents, at best, the hopes placed by the world populations in the performance of its organizational mandate. In practice, however, an insurmountable gap exists between these populations and the politicians, experts, and economists who often act in their name in the way that each side perceives how science, technology, education, and communication affect their lives. For the latter side, composed of the dominant groups of power and knowledge, ethics have seldom had the same meanings as have been conferred to it by the overwhelming number of humans suffering from the so-called fallouts of modern economic and technological development.

A second serious limit to attempts by UNESCO—or any other similar organization—to humanize science and technology or to curtail their unbridled advancement, stems from the very nature of these institutions. Ethics, by definition, poses questions of morality and of adherence to a set of humanly and socially defined moral values, whereas the advancement of science and technology remains solely defined by the state of the art in knowledge and performance. As Jacques Ellul (1954) has argued, technology, in particular, is not neutral. It tends to colonize the very behavior and worldview of the subjects it serves. The same way that an unbridled economy tends to "dis-embed" itself from the society that needs it, technologies such as human cloning or genetic engineering create for themselves an autonomous or transcending "ethics" that tends to defy that of a historically defined culture.

The twin set of reasons mentioned above have been quite detrimental to the hopes raised by UNESCO in the implementation of its "grand design" to act as the "conscience of the world." In their greatest majority, the delegates composing its General Conference and its Executive Board were led, more or less, to defend the passing interests of their respective governments rather than uphold the spirit of its constitution. Some of the more politically or financially powerful members of the organization did not even hesitate to openly impose on it their particular views, regardless of their obligations. On the other hand, the power of experts and specialists defending the dominant discourse in the fields of governance, development, market economy, science, and technology have had a steady repressive effect on the growth of different forms of resistance to that power. The result has been that, despite the fact that UNESCO can be credited with some important technical and legal achievements in its fields of competence, these have fallen far short of fulfilling the hopes that the people of the world had placed in its potentialities.


SEE ALSO Education;Human Rights;International Relations;United Nations Environmental Program.


Bose, Frédéric. (2002). Tell Me About: UNESCO. Paris: UNESCO/Nouvelle Arche de Noé Editions.

Conil-Lacoste, Michel. (1994). The Story of a Grand Design: UNESCO 1946–1993: People, Events, and Achievements. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

Dutt, Sagarika. (2002). UNESCO and a Just World Order. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Ellul, Jacques. (1964). The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf, 1964. Revised edition, New York: Knopf/Vintage, 1967.

Stenou, Katérina. (2000). UNESCO and the Issue of Cultural Diversity: Review and Strategy, 1946–2000: A Study Based on Official Documents. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.


United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "World Education Forum." Available from http://www.unesco.org/education/efa/wef_2000.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

views updated Jun 11 2018

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intergovernmental organization, agency of the United Nations (UN). Founded in 1945, it aims to promote peace by improving the world's standard of education, and by bringing together nations in cultural and scientific projects. It also gives aid to developing countries.


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United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization