Claudia López Costa
Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
In the spring of 2011, I studied abroad in Rouen, France. As a government major, I was delighted to have the opportunity to experience the French elections that year. Additionally, during my time in France, I was given the great opportunity to travel to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris to learn more about this UN agency. I became interested in learning more about it in the fall of 2010 when Palestine was accepted as a member state, as the UN General Assembly had not yet recognized it. That is the reason why I applied for a travel enrichment grant. My goal was to become more familiar with UNESCO, its programs and ultimate purpose. Moreover, I was interested in learning what it meant for Palestine to be accepted as a member state of UNESCO, what were the challenges that UNESCO would be facing after the US cuts off its funding, and how was the institution planning to finance its agenda for the coming years.
During my time there, I learned about the work UNESCO carries out. As defined in its own constitution, UNESCO’s ultimate 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.” On the basis of such statement, they have implemented different programs that aim at making quality education available for all individuals, mobilizing science knowledge for sustainable development, promoting cultural diversity and peace, and building inclusive societies through the mobilization of information.
Although the acceptance of Palestine to UNESCO did not mean the recognition of its statehood, it was a symbolic step for Palestinians who had sought acceptance in this UN agency since the late 1980’s. Considering the humanitarian nature of this organization, Palestine is now able to obtain the benefits of UNESCO’s programs aiming at the improvement of education, the protection of the environment, and promotion of culture. For instance, the acceptance of Palestine opened the possibility for historical sites in its territories to gain heritage status, like in the case of the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route.
After the acceptance of Palestine as a member state, the UN agency was immediately forced to implement budget cuts, as they saw countries suspending their funding due to the new addition. US contributions accounted for 22% of the institutional budget before Palestine’s acceptance, and the suspension of this funding would immediately affect their ability to deliver all programs. By the time I was able to visit the UNESCO headquarters in May of 2012, UNESCO had already stopped funding their library, and all the subscriptions to journals, newspapers and magazines were cancelled. The emergency fund was not enough to cover all the expenses the agency was incurring and all development programs were being affected by the lack of funding. Sadly, the situation remains the same. At that time, UNESCO was waiting for the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution (initiated by President Obama) to reverse the decision to suspend US funding. However, as of February of 2012, the United States has not taken such step, and UNESCO faces serious budgetary problems, as the United States is risking its membership status. Finally, the upgrade of Palestine from a non-member status to an observer-member status at the UN General Assembly in late November of 2012 had no effect on UNESCO’s budgetary situation.
I would like to give especial thanks to the Center for International and Intercultural Studies and my donors, the Andrews family, for their generosity. This research greatly enriched my traveling experience.