March 5, 2000

March 2, 2000 NY Times-

Unesco's Fat Gets a Trim And Reform Is in

the Air




UNITED NATIONS, March 3 -- In the family of United Nations agencies, Unesco has long been the spoiled child. The top jobs in Paris, no less -- were invariably cushy and easy to get with a little political pull. Reformers anxious to curb the selfish traits of this wayward offspring came and went without a trace.


When a new director general with new ideas, Koichiro Matsuura of Japan, was elected last fall, he thought he knew quite a bit about how bad things were. He had been Japan's ambassador in Paris for five years and chairman of Unesco's World Heritage Committee.


"But I discovered once I was inside that the mismanagement was much more serious than I had anticipated -- a lot of arbitrary appointments, arbitrary promotions," he said in an interview. His office alone had 20 politically appointed advisers hired without professional screening. They were soon dismissed.


Mr. Matsuura, a lawyer and economist who graduated from Haverford College in 1961 after four years at Tokyo University, made tough speeches to the board of the agency -- formally the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- and to its staff. He opened a Web site for complaints from the 2,500 employees.


"I discovered that there were a lot of people more demoralized than I had anticipated," he said. "Rewards to the undeserving, not to those who deserved them -- that was a common theme." He found that some departments had refused to meet with outside auditors, and in-house auditing systems were "weak, almost nonexistent."


Mr. Matsuura, 62, a veteran diplomat who is fluent in English, French and Spanish, succeeded Federico Mayor Zaragoza of Spain. Mr. Mayor is blamed for acquiescing to many political appointments demanded by member nations but won praise in his two-year term above all for squashing Unesco's efforts to develop a "new international information order," which many nations saw as an attempt to regulate or muzzle the press.


In 1984, the information proposal and mismanagement at the top of the organization prompted the United States to withdraw from Unesco. Britain and Singapore followed suit, but Britain went back in 1997 under Prime Minister Tony Blair. President Clinton told Unesco in 1995 that he was prepared to restore American membership, but administration officials say

there is no money to rejoin.


Mr. Matsuura hopes to tempt the United States back in with a reform plan he says he will put in place this spring.


David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy in New York and a former Canadian Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with international agencies, is skeptical.


"I think Matsuura faces an uphill battle in turning around an organization which is deeply scarred," he said.


"The problem of Unesco is that successive heads have turned it into a personal patronage machine, neglecting programs and bloating the staffing," Mr. Malone said. "We used to all know what the Unesco objectives were. Now nobody knows what Unesco does beyond the World Heritage sites. The important work is on literacy, education, key cultural monuments and themes, and serving as a forum for the promotion of high scientific standards. Who ever consults Unesco now on science?"


Mr. Matsuura is the first Asian to head Unesco, which was established in 946. Since then, Mr. Matsuura said, the world has changed "and we must evolve with it." He says Unesco, with a largely Europeanized view of culture -- more than half of the 630 World Heritage sites are in Europe --needs to extend more help to the poorer nations that also want to save their historical artifacts and natural sites and cultures not necessarily covered by the current convention governing world heritage.


"We cannot be simply content with promoting intellectual cooperation among developed nations, without paying attention to the needs of developing nations," Mr. Matsuura said. "The convention only covers tangible things. It does not cover intangibles like craftsmanship, music, tradition and languages."


Unesco was founded to promote peace through knowledge and communication, Mr. Matsuura said, and he is planning to interpret that in very concrete ways. Unesco has already been involved in projects as diverse as restoring colonial Havana and recreating a traditional silk industry in Cambodia.


Mr. Matsuura is making a big push into education. He has been asked by Bolivia to help create a higher education system, and Haiti is seeking advice on all levels of schooling. But the biggest job will be Nigeria, where President Olusegun Obasanjo is asking Unesco to design a basic school system. "There is a country of 120 million people," he said, "and their education is in shambles."