America’s UNESCO Blunder (and why it’s bad for everyone)

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March 19, 2012 by Nash Riggins

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) is without doubt one of the UN’s more unique bodies – that is to say, unlike other UN organisations, UNESCO actually accomplishes a select few of the goals printed out within its manifesto (ie housing the impoverished, feeding the hungry, educating the illiterate, etc).

Yet amidst the organisation’s announcement last week regarding ‘severe’ budget cuts, it has become evidently clear that nearly a third of UNESCO’s charitable work will be scrapped by year’s end. Are these tight budget constraints merely a sign of the international business community’s harsh economic climate? Not precisely.

Let’s backtrack about five months: as the state of Palestine continues its turbulent road toward statehood, UNESCO decides to extend membership to the struggling nation – why? One might assume that direct membership of the body could make it easier in order for the UN to offer much-needed relief to refugees of the region’s numerous conflicts – or indeed, perhaps the move was simply guided by the caring spirits in Palestine that yearn to give back to their international community – it’s hard to say. What can be agreed upon, however, is that not everyone was pleased by UNESCO’s decision.

Palestine’s campaign for international recognition of its independent statehood has hopelessly spanned generations, yet in recent months the movement is at long last gaining relative international momentum. In fact, over 100 member-states within the UN are fully prepared to vote in favour of the legitimacy of Palestine’s independence – however, just as the veto of a stubborn Russia was able to hamper the UN’s efforts to intervene in Syria, the US has vowed to veto any and every petition concerning Palestine.

Coincidentally, this vow is immortalised within American legislature via a 1994 law stipulating that absolutely no US funding can be given to “any affiliated organization … which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.” In this particular case, it’s most likely a fair assumption that the phrase “any organisation” is code for “only Palestine,” but that’s neither here nor there.

Yet it is for this reason that the US Congress voted to scrap the country’s funding toward UNESCO and its charitable endeavours – unfortunately, it just so happened that the US was also one of the organisation’s largest benefactors. As a result, UNESCO’s revised 2012/13 budget now stands at $435m, versus last year’s projection of $653m.

For the international community, these cuts spell unequivocal misfortune for all. As a direct result of America’s withdrawal of funding, a programme designed to provide 950,000 people with clean water has been completely abandoned, along with education programmes for children in South Sudan, a global Holocaust education project and a new early warning system for tsunami hot spots throughout Asia. Thanks to the misguided ignorance of American foreign policy, even UK and American military operations in Afghanistan are going to suffer.

As the world watches President Obama and David Cameron’s cheery court-side chats regarding the inevitable upcoming withdrawal of Anglo-American forces from Afghanistan, has anyone stopped to think about the fact that the country is about to be placed into the hands of a police force that boasts a 70% rate of illiteracy? UNESCO had designed a programme to educate these officers free of charge – yet budget restrictions have rendered this undertaking just out of the cards.

The phrase ‘shooting yourself in the foot’ is thrown around a lot these days, yet it’s never been more prevalent than in the case of America’s withdrawal of UNESCO funding. The entire world is ready to recognise Palestine as an independent state – yet because of America’s resolute assertion that the declaration may endanger Israeli foreign interests, essential foreign aid projects that stand to benefit millions of people will never see the light of day.

It’s one thing to stand up for what you believe in, but quite another to stand in the way of progress based simply upon a grudge. Palestine’s membership in UNESCO hasn’t led to its full statehood in the UN, nor has it led to a catastrophic war on the West Bank – so why cut funding to the world’s most effective humanitarian organisation, simultaneously risking the future of one of Anglo-America’s most ill-advised foreign intervention project ever conceived? Unfortunately, that’s not a question that anyone is fully prepared to answer; the only apparent solace anyone can offer is that UNESCO will soldier on, helping where it can, when it can. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is merely left to hope and dream that America’s legislative branch will one day have the common sense to be wiser about picking its battles in order to correct its misguided and ignorant take on foreign policy.

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