Taking stock and looking forward, UNESCO at 70

04 November 2016

70 years ago, the UNESCO Constitution came into force,  on 4 November 1946. On that occasion, the event “The Future of UNESCO History” takes place on Friday 4 November 2016, at UNESCO Headquarters, Room IV, from 10 to 11.30 am. To mark the event, Wide Angle suggests articles from our file 70 Years of Ideas in Action and shares Jens Boel's thoughts about UNESCO's history and action.

"The Universal Copyright Convention, the creation of CERN, the global recognition that human and natural heritage and memory has value for humanity as a whole, the acknowledgment that quality education for all, women and men, is an indispensable condition for development – these and many more achievements can to a very large degree be attributed to UNESCO’s work," says Jens Boel, Chief Archivist at UNESCO. Read his article below.

This year, we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More's Utopia. I think this is worth remembering today because, as Jay Winter has pointed out, UNESCO itself was born as a utopia. The American historian called UNESCO a small utopia and that was meant as a compliment, keeping in mind the disasters of the vast totalitarian utopias of the 20th century.

UNESCO was carried by a utopian aspiration since the Organization intended to create another mindset – the Danish historian Poul Duedahl and others have called this “mental engineering”, in the recently published book A History of UNESCO (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016). The archives are there to testify, they are the evidence, on sheets of paper, audio recordings, images, digital documents – whatever the format the archives preserve and transmit the accounts of the visions, the dreams and the work done on how to get to this different world, based on the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity and on mutual understanding as a foundation for a lasting peace.

In contrast, major dystopias may engage in the eradication of archives, of evidence. That is why Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984 reflects that the past “had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?"

At UNESCO the archives exist and we do our best to make them available and facilitate their use. At first encounter the world of UNESCO documents and archives may seem a dry and dusty one. Programme and budget documents, reporting and financial tools, correspondence, working documents, decisions and resolutions… However, you don’t have to dig far beyond the surface to find out that these records tell the stories of a political will to make the world a different and better place and also about the men and women who tried to make this happen.

So how can we actually be inspired by these archives? I think that mentioning a few examples of current research topics in the UNESCO archives may at least give a hint to part of the answer.

One researcher is consulting archives on a programme from the early 1950s on “cultural assimilation of migrants”. UNESCO was involved, from different perspectives in the situation of refugees and migrants. Another research topic is UNESCO’s early work to raise awareness of and counter stereotypes and prejudices in textbooks and manuals.

Climate change also has its history in the UNESCO archives and a researcher is looking at related work of the Organization over the years. This includes the launch of the Hylean Amazon Project in 1947, UNESCO’s pioneer work on the arid zones from the early 1950s and the 1964 decision to launch the International Hydrological Decade as of 1965 for better water management and to develop water resources. The Biosphere conference in 1968 was a forerunner of the concept of sustainable development.

Where does this take us, what can we learn? Here are some suggestions.

The term “laboratory of ideas” is not an empty slogan: it identifies an essential function for UNESCO. Since its inception UNESCO has constantly experienced with ideas, concepts and approaches to achieve its objectives, to reconcile lofty dreams with very practical work. Not always successfully but what emerges from archival researches is the immense creativity over the years. UNESCO had to go high because right from the outset expectations, as set out in the Preamble to the Constitution, were very high. Holistic approaches to basic education, sustainable development, the importance of culture for development, the understanding of histories, memories and heritage as shared by humanity as a whole, the concept of a culture of peace in which peace is understood as a behaviour, the preservation of the diversity of cultural expressions, the freedom of expression as an intrinsic and fundamental right.

UNESCO’s history has always evolved in a world of paradoxes. It is in interaction between apparently opposing forces that the work of the Organization takes shape and evolve. UNESCO strives to realize universal values, and at the same time defends diversity. UNESCO is an intergovernmental organization, but at the same time it reaches out to civil society, probably more than any other UN agency, through its unique National Commissions, the UNESCO Clubs, the Associated Schools, the creation of multiple NGOs and close cooperation with so many others, partnerships with a vast variety of private businesses and associations. UNESCO has an extremely ambitious purpose and raison d’être, and a very limited budget. And there are other paradoxes. What is fascinating when you work with the archives is how they reveal the complex interplay between these contrasts, how it is sometimes possible to achieve amazing synergies, for instance in the teaching of human rights in very different cultural contexts, and how the contrasts sometimes create tensions, for example when support to fight against racism or support of independence movements for some time led to conflicts with certain governments.

I draw the conclusion that it is actually possible to learn from what the archives reveal about past experiences. Although it is always debatable what can actually be learnt and whether it makes sense to talk about lessons learnt in a world where genocide, exclusion, oppression and destruction of cultural heritage are all too often repeated, some positive conclusions can be reached. Evidence shows that it has been possible to achieve results that have clearly made a difference. The Universal Copyright Convention, the creation of CERN, the global recognition that human and natural heritage and memory has value for humanity as a whole, the acknowledgment that quality education for all, women and men, is an indispensable condition for development – these and many more achievements can to a very large degree be attributed to UNESCO’s work.

Part of the most interesting work in the archives consists in analysing and trying to understand how these results came about, what was the combination of timing and relevance that enabled these activities to become successful? Just as interesting is, of course, understanding the failures, the shortcomings: Which dynamics were missing, which stakeholders felt left out, which were the external constraints, political and others, that came into play and had a negative impact?

As a result of such research, we become more knowledgeable about which contexts and ingredients made change possible, where the challenges were and when and how UNESCO was actually able to make a difference, maybe even to change the world a little bit.

Jens Boel, Danish historian and Chief archiviste at UNESCO 


Read our file  70 Years of Ideas in Action

Is UNESCO Changing the World?

Historical Reconciliation and Education in Japan: the Role of UNESCO

UNESCO's World Book Policy and its Impacts

Fundamental Education : A Pioneer Concept

UNESCO against historical amnesia

UNESCO in the Field of Iranian and Afghan Archeology