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The UN organisation with responsibility for science should embrace its role in tackling poverty — not keep it at arm's length.

When the United Kingdom re-joined the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1997, after an absence of 12 years, it made the Department for International Development (DFID) responsible for its membership.

By doing so, British politicians clearly indicated that they felt UNESCO's main remit is to help developing countries, for example by building up their educational systems.

Not everyone agreed. Many continue to argue that the principal role of the organisation is to secure and maintain international peace through cultural cooperation, as set out at its creation in the wake of the Second World War. And they say its role in development debates should remain primarily intellectual, not 'hands on'.

The tension between theory and practice that this creates has simmered within the agency ever since. It surfaced again last week, when DFID announced that UNESCO had performed poorly in a review of the UK's membership of 43 multilateral aid organisations.

As a result, the United Kingdom — which currently contributes US$24 million a year to the agency's operating costs, seven per cent of the total — has announced that it intends to withdraw once again in two years' time unless there is a considerable improvement in UNESCO's performance.

'Not an aid organisation'

UNESCO's reaction has been robust. In a response from its Paris headquarters, it admits that there is room for improvement in the way that it operates — and has promised to "work intensively" towards that goal under its new director general, Irina Bokova.

But it has firmly rejected DFID's decision to judge the organisation's achievements largely on its record in helping the United Kingdom to achieve development objectives — to focus a significant proportion of resources on poorer countries, for example. The statement puts it starkly: "UNESCO is not an aid organisation."

This response goes too far, and could backfire. It is certainly true that the public still thinks of UNESCO primarily in terms of its cultural achievements, such as its protection of heritage sites across the world. But whether this should remain its dominant claim to public support is a matter for debate.

Science above culture

In financial terms the largest slice of UNESCO's budget goes towards promoting education. In developing countries, this has been critical in helping to raise teaching standards and mobilising resources from governments and other aid agencies, at all levels of education.

But the second largest part of its budget supports science. In recent years, an independent review of the agency's efforts to promote scientific activity found achievements in some fields — such as boosting the tsunami warning systems in the Pacific that were called into action after this week's earthquake in Japan. But these efforts are too fragmented, it said, often lacking the critical mass required to make a significant impact.

And UNESCO's insistence that it is the sole agency within the UN with responsibility for promoting science in the developing world, while formally correct, has created tensions with other UN bodies keen to deepen their own involvement with research as part of their more specialised mandates.

Yet natural science remains, after education, the second largest of UNESCO five sectors (the other three being culture, social science and communications). With a broad-ranging remit that includes science policy and science communication, this sector has the potential to be an important player in global efforts to apply science to development needs.

UNESCO has certainly made efforts to do so, particularly in the recent past. And this goal need not conflict with that of promoting rigorous standards of intellectual debate. After all, science can only prosper where such standards are met, and such debate is encouraged.

Development aims are compatible

The problem comes when UNESCO's cultural mandate is seen as the main lens through which all of its other activities are viewed, to the exclusion of more practical goals — a position which is still held by too many of its member states.

Within the science sector, for example, there is too much talk of the value of science for its own sake, and too little discussion of the ways in which it can be used to reduce poverty, such as helping to develop the technologies required to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

UNESCO may be wary of becoming more involved in development, preferring to discuss the world's problems in comfortable conference rooms in Paris rather than directly engaging in solutions.

But the more that it resists calls to make a clear impact on efforts to tackle global problems, the more it risks its own future — particularly if other member states follow DFID's lead in insisting that the organisation must provide better value for money.

To avoid this, UNESCO must not oppose demands for accountability on development aid, however difficult it is to demonstrate, particularly when looking at investments that will only pay off in the long term.

Indeed, it is time for UNESCO to reject the idea that it is not an aid agency — and, at the same time, to accept that this is not incompatible with its cultural aspirations.

But the longer the organisation and a vocal number of supporters maintain that its traditional perspective should continue to take priority, the sooner it risks losing support from a cash-strapped public.

David Dickson

Director, SciDev.Net