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15th July 2000

Reflections on the Strategy of UNESCO


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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:

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 strategic nimbleness.

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 organizing principles.

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.

B. What 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 future?

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 development.

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.

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.

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 this respect.

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:

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:

Presentation and structure:


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