In his prison cell on Robben Island Nelson Mandela had very few opportunities to learn about what was going on in the world. Years later, in 1996, he told UNESCO’s Director-General, Federico Mayor, who was on official visit to the new, free South Africa, that his window to the world had been the UNESCO Courier. The President explained how pleased he and his companions had been to read The Courier through which they had learnt about cultural diversity and mankind’s common heritage, African history, education for development and so on. All these subjects did not exist in the apartheid lexicon, let alone in the solitary confines of Robben Island, as Annar Cassam from UNESCO, who was present during that meeting, later wrote.
Another personal account is that of Mme Vissière, a woman from the Marbial Valley in Haiti who learned to read and write at the age of 42, in 1948, thanks to a UNESCO pilot project on Fundamental Education. This is from her personal account on what it meant to her to become literate:
“When I am required to put my signature on any document, needless to say that I no longer settle for drawing a cross, and when the opportunity arises to read documents related to my possessions, I do not resort to friends to whom I pay tips when begging alone won’t suffice. At the speculator’s, I now know to inspect the weight of the coffee I sell; at the shopkeeper’s, I am agile to calculate the currency to be paid and received.
In truth with all these open horizons before me, I feel happy...“
For generations UNESCO has embodied high aspirations, hopes and an ongoing struggle for a better life, built on ideas of human dignity, mutual understanding and solidarity of humanity. These ideals and values are spelled out in the Organization’s Constitution, which is the key to understanding UNESCO’s history.
The Constitution was adopted in London on 16 November 1945 by representatives of 44 allied countries. This was the moment where UNESCO was created as the outcome of a series of meetings, the Conferences of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME), held in London from 1942 to 1945. One year later, on 4 November 1946, the new organization came formally into being with the twentieth ratification of the Constitution.
The mission of the new organization was to build, as the North American poet and head of the US delegation, Archibald MacLeish, suggested, "the defences of peace in the minds of men". UNESCO should work for this visionary dream to come true by way of education, culture, sciences and communication. The mandate was manifold but the goal was one: peace.
UNESCO's early work on fundamental education had a powerful impact, as can be seen above in Mme Vissière’s testimony of the pilot project on in the Marbial Valley, Haiti. In 1948, UNESCO recommended that Member States should make free primary education compulsory and universal. The same year, education was included in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Article 26). Nevertheless, more than 40 years later, in 1990, the World Conference on Education for All, in Jomtien, Thailand, found it necessary to launch a global movement to provide basic education for all children, youths and adults. As a next step, the 2000 World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal, led Member States to commit to achieving basic education for all by 2015.
The United Nations Secretary-General launched the five-year Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) in September 2012 to accelerate progress towards the Education for All goals and the education-related Millennium Development Goals. UNESCO is the Secretariat for this initiative. According to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics there are, in 2014, still more than 900 million illiterate adults and youth in the world. Although important results have been achieved a lot remains to be done.
The awarding of the 2014 Nobel peace prize to Malala Yousafzai is in perfect harmony with UNESCO’s mandate and the efforts it has made since its creation in 1945 to promote education and human rights. UNESCO has expressed solidarity with Malala on several occasions in recent years; the Executive Board paid tribute to Malala on 18 October 2012 and the Director-General, Irina Bokova, declared : « Whenever and wherever a young girl is forbidden from going to school, it’s an attack against all girls, against the right to learn, the right to live life to the full; and it is unacceptable ».
The Natural Sciences
Examples of early major UNESCO work in the field of natural sciences are the Arid Zone programming 1948–1966 and the preparation and organization of the International Hydrological Decade, beginning on 1 January 1965. In December 1951 an intergovernmental meeting of UNESCO led to the creation of the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 1954.
In 1968, UNESCO organized the first intergovernmental conference aimed at reconciling the environment and development, a problem which continues to be addressed in the field of sustainable development. The main outcome of the 1968 conference was the creation of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere programme.
UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, took, in October 2013, the initiative to establish a Scientific Advisory Board. This new board provides advice on science, technology and innovation for sustainable development to the UN organizations. UNESCO hosts the Secretariat of the Board.
Social and Human Sciences
From the outset UNESCO saw the promotion of international understanding as an essential precondition for preventing the crimes and tragedies of genocide, racism and war from being repeated. Thus, it launched an expert work on the concept of race, which led to UNESCO declarations on race in 1950 and 1951. These statements against racism, prepared by scientists, were used as references by civil rights activists in the USA in their campaigns against race segregation. In 1955 South Africa withdrew from UNESCO in protest against “interference in South Africa’s racial problems by means of Unesco publications…” and didn’t rejoin until 1994 when Nelson Mandela had become the leader of a free and democratic South Africa.
Moving through time, among other influential and groundbreaking initiatives, the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1997 and approved by the UN General Assembly in 1998), extended this reflection on the concept of human dignity to the field of biotechnology and genetics.
UNESCO's early activities in the field of culture included the Universal Copyright Convention from 1952, which aimed at protecting the rights of creative artists, thereby also promoting cultural diversity by enabling these artists to live decently.
UNESCO launched in 1950 the History of Mankind project, which was the first of a number of history activities, including the General History of Africa (launched in1964). These initiatives were concrete follow-ups to the statement in UNESCO’s Constitution that “ignorance of each other's ways and lives has been a common cause” for war. The histories aimed at fighting stereotypes and prejudices and fostering mutual understanding. This was also the objective of the "Major Project for Mutual Appreciation of Cultural Values of East and West" (1957-1966).
The Organization’s work in the field of cultural heritage became famous with the Nubia Campaign, launched in 1960. The purpose of the campaign was to move the Great Temple of Abu Simbel to keep it from being swamped by the Nile after construction of the Aswan Dam. During the 20-year campaign, 22 monuments and architectural complexes were relocated. This was the first and largest in a series of campaigns including many others, such as Borobudur in Indonesia.
This work led to the adoption, in 1972, of the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The World Heritage Committee was established in 1976 and the first sites inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1978. Since then important legal instruments on cultural heritage and diversity have been adopted by UNESCO member states in 2003 (Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and 2005 (Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
UNESCO has also pioneered the idea of culture as an essential component of development. Milestones in this process were the 1982 World Conference on Cultural Policies in Mexico City (Mondiacult) and the work of the World Commission on Culture and Development ("Our Creative Diversity", 1996). UNESCO has proposed and prepared the integration of culture in the United Nations Post-2015 Development Agenda.
Communication and information
In the field of communication, the free flow of information has been a priority for UNESCO from its beginnings. In the years immediately following World War II, efforts were concentrated on reconstruction and on the identification of needs for means of mass communication around the world. UNESCO started organizing training and education for journalists in the 1950s. In response to calls for a New World Information and Communication Order in the late 1970s, UNESCO established the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, which produced the 1980 report: "Many Voices One World". As a follow-up, UNESCO introduced the Information Society for All programme and Toward Knowledge Societies programme in the lead up to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 (Geneva) and 2005 (Tunis).
WSIS resulted in the creation of the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum in 2006 through which UNESCO promotes the idea that the mechanisms of Internet governance must be based on the principles of openness, privacy and diversity, encompassing universal access, interoperability, freedom of expression and measures to resist any attempt to censor content.
The Memory of the World programme was created in 1992 with the purpose of safeguarding endangered documentary heritage. It has been described as the « collective memory of the peoples of the world ». Following the organization of an international conference in Vancouver in 2012, the programme also strongly emphasizes the importance of ensuring preservation of and long-term access to the digital memory of the world.
In order to achieve the goals set out in the Constitution UNESCO has used a wide range of tools and roles, such as legal instruments, conferences and expert-meetings, missions and projects. UNESCO has been and is an actor on the ground, a laboratory of ideas, a capacity-builder and a normative standard-setter.
Among the tools are the Organization’s publications. The very first UNESCO book was issued in 1947: “Fundamental Education : common ground for all people”. During the next 25 years more than 5,000 titles were added. In October 1960, the New York Times Book Review wrote a highly favorable article on UNESCO publications with the comment that in the international publishing field “Unesco has achieved a success never attained by any private publisher: its authors, books and periodicals, and, inevitably, ideas and facts have gate-crashed the minds of men everywhere”. An example of an international bestseller is the “UNESCO Sourcebook for Science Teaching” printed in over a million copies in its various editions.
UNESCO is the only UN agency to have created National Commissions and clubs in the Member States as a way of linking directly with civil society. It also created numerous non-governmental organizations during the early years of its existence and these NGOs were involved in developing the programmes as well as in implementing them. Another initiative, the Associated Schools programme, has been one of several powerful networks bringing together children, teachers and citizens from different countries and cultures. UNESCO has succeeded in creating networks for scientists, professionals, activists and youth from all over the world, even during the Cold War and the decolonization process. One of its major challenges has been to promote dialogue across cultures and civilizations. Indeed, thanks to the decolonization process UNESCO became truly universal. From 1958 to 1964 a total of 27 newly independent African States joined the Organization. As a result, it developed a stronger focus on development and capacity-building.
UNESCO has been influential through the ideas it has either created or been active in developing and disseminating across the borders of Member States. In today’s world, we see the substantial impact of such ideas as freedom of expression, universal cultural and natural heritage, biodiversity (sustainable development), diversity of cultural expressions, lifelong learning, intangible heritage, the role of sciences for society, and bioethics. More general UNESCO concepts have been widely used and discussed, such as the Culture of Peace (launched in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire in 1989) and a New Humanism, suggested as an overarching concept for UNESCO by the Director-General in 2009. These ideas are all expressions, at different levels, of the ideals, values and goals in the UNESCO Constitution. They are as timely and relevant as ever.