15th July 2000
Reflections on the Strategy of UNESCO
- / -
Adapted from the response to a consultation
Stakes and challenges at the dawn of the twenty-first century
We consider that UNESCO's mandate is the most exciting of all intergovernmental
organizations. It is therefore with regret that our response focuses on its
apparent inability to arouse such excitement in practice.
The most fundamental problem for UNESCO is that of learning new ways of listening
and working with constituencies that may be articulating unexpected messages
of relevance to a rapidly evolving social and institutional environment.
UNESCO has had a tendency to predetermine the kinds of information it considers
relevant by a variety of devices that ensure that new signals are obscured
or ignored. Such devices include:
- using outmoded categories within which to frame inquiries about its future,
whilst framing such categories as the most appropriate
- framing questions in terms of the institutional agendas and momentum of
existing divisional structures and excluding signals that cross departmental
- restricting its consultation to bodies that have been recognized by criteria
unrelated to the content of signals of potential significance to its future
development and the nature of the crises to be encountered
- depending on consultation timeframes and programme restructuring that exclude
emerging signals in favour of those evident months or years before
- indulging in expensive public relations gestures of questionable value
at the expense of investment in substantive programmes
The challenge for UNESCO is not the current or foreseeable problems, but rather
evolving a process for learning of, and dealing with, unforeseen problems that
are liable to emerge in the future as requiring greater attention than those
foreseen. Typically these will first be reported by unrecognized bodies and
will cross and stretch departmental mandates. They will challenge existing
mindsets and patterns of expertise. In this respect, UNESCO needs to develop
a form of 'lifelong learning' for itself to ensure a posture of
The following remarks are a development of a submission to the
UNESCO Task Force on Education for the 21st Century:
A. What are the factors
that are most critical to the long term survival of humanity ?
Development of a language and mode of dialogue appropriate to working collectively
with the ecology of fundamental differences characteristic of real social and
individual relationships, rather than dependent upon superficial reconciliation
and reduction of complexity. This implies giving content to that which cannot
be effectively named.
Development of the ability to integrate the polarized modes of understanding
promoting fragmentation so as to engender a new kind of cognitively global
framework that both justifies such polarization at one level and sustain a
more comprehensive, if paradoxical, form of understanding at another. This
implies a shift from either/or to both/and (of most
significance with respect to ownership of property).
Reduction in dependency on relatively simplistic, selective, and often impoverished,
metaphors underlying the models through which individuals, communities, humanity
and the environment are readily defined, notably for policy purposes but also
as a basis for any sense of identity and fulfilment.
Development of a proactive approach, integrating, rather than excluding, unwelcome
phenomena (of the 'shadow' of humanity) -- taking account of processes
of denial, the functional truths associated with such phenomena, and the ever-present 'obsolete' understandings
associated with educational or historical phases and with the challenges to
acquiring and using the latest insights.
Development beyond expectation of universal consensus on single-factor explanations,
or on a single paradigm, (global) plan, charter, vision, strategy or (licensed)
model -- towards collective use of an 'ecology' of such knowledge
Development of social and cognitive experiments, equivalent to those in science
and technology, in order to explore new community contexts capable of containing
the richer dynamics of multi-cultural societies.
Development of fulfilling ways of living more simply in the present rather
than depending on technology as a source of stimulus and meaningful quality-of-life.
are the current map and trajectory of these factors?
Whilst there is acknowledgement of the significance of these factors within
certain constituencies, there are major trends that effectively obscure them.
Thus there is a widespread, misguided belief in the adequacy of existing language - whether
that of a particular discipline or of English as a 'universal' language
-- to articulate the insights necessary for global transformation. Innovation
in dialogue processes is simplistic and culture-bound in comparison with technological
innovation. Major initiatives continue to be based on the assumption that a
single global plan, charter, strategy or explanation can be articulated in
response to the crises of humanity. There is little ability to handle fundamental
disagreement and honour it within new initiatives. Such denial extends beyond
disagreement itself to any problematic situations, involving a widespread desire
to restrict attention to positive information and to design out negative feedback.
Social experiment, in contrast to that of technology or commerce, is effectively
inhibited and marginalized as dangerous (and often associated with eccentric
sects). Exploration of more meaningful quality of life, with a smaller environmental
footprint, is framed as quaint and unrealistic.
C. What are the problems and opportunities with the factors identified?
Problems: The factors identified focus on intangibles in a situation in which
it is tangibles that appear to call for the most immediate action. Furthermore
it is primarily on tangibles that governments, commerce and university research
are most prepared to focus in order to sustain their legitimacy. In each case
demonstrable success in the short-term is required, even if this has little
useful impact on long-term challenges.
Opportunities: The many pleas for 'new thinking' indicate that
the limitations of the traditional approach on tangibles are increasingly recognized.
Furthermore the low costs of work on intangibles and the degrees of freedom
implicit in this emphasis, indicate that many can and will explore the opportunities of
such factors without being dependent on major institutional support. Notably
in the knowledge industry, it has been recognized that the values of the future
will primarily be associated with intangibles. Mathematics has much to offer
in articulating possibilities currently framed in terms of two-dimensional
solutions (notably in relation to territorial disputes).
D. What approach offers the greatest potential for the medium-term
Metaphoric innovation: Increasingly individuals, groups
and societies will identify or design new metaphors to articulate subtler and
more comprehensive forms of understanding that will offer them strategic advantages
in navigating a complex environment. Some of these will draw on traditional
knowledge or the environment itself. In search of helpful metaphors, others
will 'mine' the knowledge originally generated by the many disciplines.
Already metaphoric innovation is recognized as a key to software and technological
Cognitive innovation: For the individual (associated with
one or more communities) this will imply considerable variation in sense of
identity, and relationship to reality (or to any 'other'). Coherence
will be experienced through dynamic processes rather than static frameworks,
challenging present legislative and governance procedures. Aesthetic factors
will be vital to knowledge organization and comprehension and dissemination
of meaningful strategies -- charters will be sing-able and benefit from the
theory of musical harmony. ['Sound', 'Smell', 'Taste' and 'Touch' will
be as significant as 'Vision' in articulating the future!]
Principles and fields of action
The articulation of the challenges and issues is far from new. Underlying
these challenges is a habitual conceptual and institutional response to issues
and opportunities that inhibits imaginative innovation of any kind. As such
UNESCO is very much a creature of its times and handicapped in its ability
to provide any leadership in catalyzing approaches that have not already been
proven to have a poor track record.
- UNESCO needs to develop procedures to explore why its habitual procedures
continue to fail, rather than relying on excuses associated with limitations
of resources and lack of support.
- UNESCO needs to explore why its directive attitude to collaboration with
other bodies is relatively unproductive and precludes the possibility of
more fruitful modes of collaboration with a wider network of collaborators;
in particular this should be seen as a way of ensuring the zero cost collaboration
that UNESCO has never been able to develop
- UNESCO needs to explore the institutional implications of strategic nimbleness
in a rapidly evolving knowledge-based society
- UNESCO, given its information mandate, needs to explore ways of using web
technology to streamline its own institutional processes, rather than simply
using such technology as an alternative to its publication and public information
programmes; in particular this should be seen as a way of increasing geographical
participation, cross-sectoral communications, and more integrative approaches
- UNESCO needs to recognize that many of its challenges as an institution
derive from using outmoded hierarchical structures (whether organizational,
conceptual, or informational) to respond to situations of non-hierarchical
form and complexity; in particular the conflicts that it encounters between
specificity of priority focus and generality of preoccupation, between budget
restrictions of programmes (especially meetings) and a requirement for geographical
representativity, for example, are much better addressed within the higher
dimensionality of a web environment
Priority fields of action: As suggested above, there is an
inherent problem in deciding on priority fields of action (precluding consideration
of others) and therefore effectively 'colonizing the future' and
reducing the future degree of strategic maneuverability. This is not only the
problem of UNESCO, it is the problem of many institutions. But UNESCO is the
intergovernmental body with the mandate to address such policy challenges in
a knowledge society. It is not clear why UNESCO should strive for 'prominence' as
an objective rather than seek relevant opportunities that, if strategically
relevant, would ensure the degree of recognition it merits where that counts.
- Consistent with its long-standing mandate, UNESCO should endeavor to develop
a creative position at the evolving interface between knowledge organization,
policy formulation, information systems design, and institutional innovation - notably
as a means of providing leadership to those faced with the challenges of
the 'digital divide' as well as those endeavoring to respond
to the complexities of the problematique.
- It is not a question of which fields of action should be a concern for
UNESCO but rather of creating a communication context within which fields
of action can be identified, profiled, and prioritized on a continuing basis
in collaboration with shifting coalitions of actors, as situations evolve.
The 'specific role' for UNESCO should be as a catalyst, matchmaker,
midwife, or facilitator, rather than seeking some form of directive control
as a precondition for any collaboration. In particular UNESCO should avoid
a posture of depending on bodies with the energy to lobby it (and the dubious
responses this necessitates or occasions in dealing with matters of 'access'),
in favour of a proactive approach in seeking out collaboration with committed
bodies and placing it in an appropriate context. As the intergovernmental
body concerned with the social sciences, UNESCO should recognize its major
failure in restricting its attention to civil society to its procedural issues
in relating to NGOs; in particular it should take initiative in sustaining
serious experiment into alternative modes of social and community organization
- UNESCO has become inappropriately desperate in engaging in relatively costly
activities of little relevance primarily because of their supposed public
relations purposes. UNESCO needs to avoid entrapping itself in outdated rhetoric
concerning certain programmes of questionable impact, especially when this
prevents any subtler exploration of alternative strategies that may have
greater chance of success
Interdisciplinarity: As the only intergovernmental body with
a long-term mandate on this approach, it should be recognized that the initiatives
taken by UNESCO in this respect have been extremely limited in comparison with
those taken elsewhere. At this point in time, the key to a more fruitful posture
is not the traditional focus on agglomerations of concrete issues that can
be labeled 'transversal'. Rather it lies in directly addressing
the immense opportunities offered by web technology to ensure new kinds of
conceptual integration and sustain the programmes and institutional structures
in support of them. It is no longer sufficient to bundle several disparate
issues together and expect that transdisciplinary insights will magically emerge.
The many regional conflict situations (Jerusalem, Kashmir, Northern Ireland,
Sri Lanka, etc) are all indicators of a failure to develop more complex, integrative
conceptual frameworks through which new kinds of policy opportunity become
evident; again it is UNESCO which has relationships with the appropriate social
science and mathematical disciplines, but has failed to take initiative in
Functions and roles
The functions and roles identified are all highly appropriate for UNESCO.
The challenge in practice has been the failure to mesh UNESCO initiatives with
those of other bodies. UNESCO has tended to lay claim to initiatives that it
initiates, ignoring those of other bodies over which it has no control. The
consequence is that the resultant process is of great symbolic value but of
questionable significance to other bodies outside UNESCO's direct sphere
of influence. It seeks to set standards for those who may well consider themselves
inadequately consulted by the processes that UNESCO has been able to initiate.
It is noteworthy that UNESCO has been very slow to take advantage of internet
technology to become a genuine 'intellectual forum' and
a 'laboratory of ideas', preferring instead to
attach these labels to occasional, relatively costly meetings. UNESCO has taken
no initiative in adapting internet technology to the challenges of these roles.
With respect to gathering, analyzing and disseminating information,
UNESCO has failed to develop appropriate partnerships with bodies that undertake
such activity (without UNESCO support), possibly with greater attention to
its transdisciplinary dimensions than UNESCO's sectoral bias can ensure.
It is regrettable that the cross-sectoral linkages between problems, strategies,
values, and organizations in UNESCO's area of interest, are handled with
greater sophistication outside UNESCO than in relationship to it - and
UNESCO has no process to ensure a relationship to such initiatives (notably
via the web).
It is unfortunate that the response by UNESCO to budgetary constraints is
to reduce the scope of its programmes rather than to seek strategically more
innovative ways of both maintaining their scope and increasing their scope.
Again the budgetary advantages of the use of web technology in this respect
are ignored, despite its predicted role in the 21st century.
With respect to 'major themes', again it is much
less a question of pre-defining the nature of such themes and much more a question
of developing a knowledge communication and integration system to permit a
variety of themes to be handled as required. It is the outmoded and cumbersome
mechanism of consultation, with costly personality figures selected by questionable
criteria, that precludes investment in many such processes of greater efficiency
and transparency via web technology. Only in this way will it fulfil its role
as a genuine 'intellectual forum'.
With respect to 'standard setting', UNESCO could
provide extremely valuable guidance on the acceptable parameters in two areas:
- Social experiment. Despite the heavy commitment to 'experiment' as
the key to science and technological innovation, no comparable investment
is made in social experiment - despite the calls for new forms of sustainable
community and the social challenges of the disadvantaged (including those
in refugee camps). Consequently there is considerable confusion about what
constitutes valid social experiment, whether by groups like Auroville (with
which UNESCO has links), Findhorn (Scotland), or more radical experiments
by groups readily condemned as extremist sects (even by religious groups
with their own centuries-old intentional communities). How are the highly
publicized 'failures' of certain 'social experiments' (collective
farms, etc) to be assessed, in the light of the methodological approach to 'scientific
experiments' where 'failure' is part of the experimental
process? How can social experiment be encouraged by new standards, rather
- Dialogue: This is now a major process in any form of international,
inter-sectoral, inter-cultural, or inter-disciplinary development.
The term and the process is widely used and abused. Given UNESCO's
traditional manadate regarding international conference organization, there
is a case for UNESCO to assist in the articulation of the nature of different
levels of dialogue, from superficial to fundamental.
With respect to its 'clearing-house' role, it
would be useful for UNESCO to review its procedures for determining what clearing-house
initiatives are irrelevant to its mandate and how it ensures appropriate relationships
with those that are. Despite cordial discussion with a succession of UNESCO
DGs, and other officials, some NGOs been
unable to develop any fruitful communication with UNESCO concerning its own
extensively hyperlinked web databases on international organizations, world
problems, strategies, values, human development, or interdisciplinarity - covering
in detail the past and current preoccupations of UNESCO and probably
those of its future programmes.
With respect to 'national capacity building' in
the 21st century, UNESCO could fruitfully explore the implications of web technology
to bypass many of the bottlenecks in this process.
With respect to 'cooperation for development' in
the 21st century, UNESCO could fruitfully explore the implications of web technology
to bypass many of the bottlenecks in this process.
Priority groups: It is unfortunate that UNESCO makes use
of military metaphors such as 'targeting' and 'impact' in
endeavouring to assess the achievements of its programmes. This distorts the
conceptual framework through which appropriate assessments can be made, suggesting
the need for 'body count' statistics. It is especially regrettable
in the case of women who are sensitive to the manner in which they are targeted
by men. As noted above, a communication context is required in which priorities
emerge and are reframed as appropriate, especially for the constituencies with
resources to act.
UNESCO's Partners: With respect to 'new
roles' their emergence should be catalyzed by a new style
of web communication rather than being pre-determined.
With respect to 'new measures' to ensure effective
participation of groups concerned in UNESCO's work, the serious use of
web and internet technology should be explored (as noted above) in the light
of an assessment of why it has not explored this opportunity earlier as a major
opportunity for the 21st century. The major excuse has now been translated
into a preoccupation with the 'digital divide', ignoring the considerable
advances achieved and predicted in developing countries in ensuring more effective
communication across continents. UNESCO needs to switch from a fixation with
providing costly airline tickets for one-off meetings of questionable effectiveness
to investing in long-term internet communication with partners so as to provide
the basis for a continuing pattern of communication and collaboration.
With respect to UNESCO's 'international vocation',
it should be noted that the United Nations system has been committing itself
to 'integrated programming in cooperation for development' since
the Jackson Report in the late 1960s. UNESCO will succeed or fail in its international
vocation to the extent that it shifts its operational and intellectual center
of gravity from Paris (as a 'European' organization) onto the
web as a virtual institution with only occasional need for symbolic physical
meetings. The web was made for the complexity and variety of UNESCO's
challenges in a global environment. Its late and conventional adoption of this
technology says much about its probability of survival as a leading institution
in the 21st century.
With respect to 'decentralization' of UNESCO,
the use of web technology is again a key opportunity for new institutional
arrangements and patterns of communication and consultation. It is a regrettable
indicator of the feedback that UNESCO is likely to receive on the questions
raised, when no reference is made to this opportunity in the commentaries leading
to the questions. Presumably no feasibility studies have been produced to scope
out these opportunities.
Structure of the Draft Medium-Term Strategy and the Draft Programme and Budget
Nature and scope of the medium-term strategy:
- Detailed vs Short report: These are not necessarily mutually
exclusive. It might be more useful to have certain sections in greater detail
and others briefer and open to subsequent interpretation in the light emerging
circumstances. As noted earlier, it is unfortunate that UNESCO should be
under pressure to over-determine its strategy in areas which may be rapidly
evolving and call for alternative approaches and opportunities and challenges
emerge. Furthermore, if the document was understood to be a web document,
it could evolve with time, rather than effectively colonizing UNESCO's
own future and inhibiting strategic flexibility.
- Fixed or Rolling: Clearly, as argued above, a rolling
type document. A combination of the functions listed should be envisaged.
- Adaptive approach: The SISTER approach is a welcome development.
However the question of the major issues or themes does not take account
of the flexibility articulated in the earlier responses above.
Presentation and structure:
- Structure: Mixed
- Major programmes: Requiring a decision on number is extremely
artificial in a rapidly changing environment. UNESCO should be able to use
the SISTER framework to reform in response to new needs rather than be locked
into a specific pattern dependent on past insights.
- Transdicisplinarity: Idem
- Regional presentation: An electronic document lends itself
to being reconfigured in several ways: by major theme/sector, transversally,
by region. If it does not, then this is in itself a challenge.
- Distribution of resources: If web facilities are to be
considered as under 'communication' then greater emphasis should
be placed on communication, since cost reductions for the other programmes
should be achieved by greater use of such facilities (meetings, etc). If
they are not, then again there is a sever challenge to future operations.
- Fields of action: As argued above, UNESCO is faced with
a series of traditional problems on which achieving any significant impact
has proved very challenging and which tend to evoke habitual institutional
responses. As argued at the beginning of this response, cost-effective strategic
breakthroughs need to be sought by reframing the strategic challenge to focus
on underlying opportunities susceptible of breakthrough. The challenges
UNESCO faces are not necessarily organized in the social environment according
to the categories into which UNESCO places them for institutional reasons.
easily become a victim of simplistic thinking and the search for tangible
- Highlighting UNESCO capital: In arguing for a new pattern
of partnerships, UNESCO runs the risk of failing to reframe partnerships
within a new strategic context. UNESCO's strength lies in its mandate
with respect to the subtleties of culture and the arts, science, the environment,
and the nature of the emerging knowledge society. Its weakness lies in the
simplistic, outdated thinking about these subtleties into which it is forced
by habitual institutional responses that do not reflect the substance of
many of its expert meetings - that is not stored in any way that is
relevant to decision making in a knowledge society. It should be UNESCO that
defines the nature of exciting new patterns of partnership to other institutions
that have no mandate to think in these terms. Just as UNESCO failed to distinguish
the social phenomenon of 'civil society' because of its administrative
preoccupation with 'NGOs', it runs the risk of failing to operate
at the appropriate level of complexity in advocating new patterns of partnership.
It is how it develops a 'pattern language' and positions itself
within these patterns that will establish its position in the eyes of others.