Interview with Federico Mayor, UNESCO director general: Surveying the role of UNESCO

“A way of thinking that has visible form”


Mr Mayor, your book The New Page was published last year. For whom were you writing it?

I thought that after October 1988 we had turned a new page and I wanted to speak at the level of governments, parliaments and academic institutions. I wrote the book to alert them to what I see as the new problems in the world. Mankind is facing new threats but we are still proceeding as before—buying armaments, for example—because we have not realised that there are these new threats and we must face them. The UN was founded to think about future generations. We must take these generations into account.

Perhaps the most exciting paragraphs in your book are those where you describe how you improved women’s and children’s health in the region of Granada near your university. It seemed to me that here you were dealing with a small-scale, resolvable problem. Most of what you do and what you think about is quite the opposite.

We must act locally but we must think globally. This was my reaction to the institution for disabled children which I visited as early as 1956: I saw that some of their disabilities could be prevented, and realised that it is one of our moral duties to prevent suffering and disease. That is where my small programme started in Granada; then it became national; then as a scientist I started to working on children’s brain development and it took on a more international dimension.

They say that God lies in the details. When you took over UNESCO, did you start from the particular and move out, or did you begin with looking at the overall purpose and mission of the organisation?

I knew the organisation very well on a practical level but I made reference to the principles of our original mission. I asked who, where, how, how much; and, above all, I asked why we were doing all these things—what was our aim. Our aim is so well expressed in our constitution. Above all we are a peace-building organisation. Of course science is important, as is education, culture, communication, but they are important primarily to contribute to building peace.

To be sustainable peace needs development, and this needs democracy. It’s not up to UNESCO to implement education in countries: that is for governments to do. We want to provoke awareness. UNESCO is a very big instrument of persuasion. When the Prime Minister of India told me that he was raising spending on education from 3.6% to 6% it was an important moment: it was their own money, their own priority. This is so much better than little drops of aid coming from outside.

Do you think the UNESCO mission has changed in the last fifty years?

On the contrary: Carlos Fuentes, the brilliant Mexican writer, says that “often the novelty lies in the past”.

Just as multinational companies are no longer held up as the best models, do you think there is an argument for breaking down UNESCO into smaller units?

Yes, I think that in a world that I hope is moving towards universal democracy, the giant technical institutions are not required because communication, the spread of knowledge is so much greater throughout the world. On the other hand, organisations based on ethical principles are more necessary than ever. These days, most of the threats are transnational and therefore the approach must be the same, while the mandate for solving the problems—environmental, cultural, energy, the problems of minorities such as the Kurds and the Mayans—must be the empowering of these people.

Would you acknowledge that you have changed to operating more at ground level recently?

Yes, because if UNESCO were considered to be a European organisation, or even a Spanish or an Irish one, we could not do what we want to do. If we send out an ethical message we must be everywhere. I therefore insist that we are not a Paris-based organisation; we are a worldwide one. Today we have fifty-six offices throughout the world and I am expanding this and giving authority to associations of journalists, to schools, in countries such as China. This to me is UNESCO; it’s a way of thinking that has visible form. The messages come from the grass roots, from Latin America, for example or Africa, which are so rich in initiatives at a time when Europe is quite quiet.

In Europe we continue to spin round in a vicious circle of the same problems, the same solutions, the same procedures. We can be perfect, but we don’t know where we are going. There is a lack of perspective, of farsightedness, of the vision of the people who wrote the Declaration of Human Rights, for example—MacLeish, Wilkinson—I don’t see these sort of people in Europe today.

Culture, our everyday behaviour, is the solution. In my view, it’s the key to the future.

Do you see the function of UNESCO as proactive or reactive; in other words, is it your primary function to further the development of culture or to save it from being destroyed?

This is a very important question. I found myself in the role of a sort of safeguard of things that were already in ruins, the remains of the past. Because of this very issue I wrote a book called Memory of the Future which deals exactly with your question. If we only look back we are losing so much. Every person is a monument because he is capable of creating, music, literature, fantastic things in his everyday life. So in our new strategy I have put the safeguarding of living culture at a much higher level. I have shifted the emphasis, and set up new initiatives such as the Merlina Mercouri prize (I admired her so much), and one for young creators. We are promoting artisan work, handicrafts, everything I would call creation.

To an English person, UNESCO is very French in its alliance of culture and morality and its tendency to take the broad view of culture. Do you think it has equal relevance to all countries?

This is exactly why I set up an independent commission on culture and development, chaired by Perez de Cuellar, which has presented a report called Our creative diversity. There is no one dominant national perspective. We are becoming more humble because we are becoming more global. I have been trying hard to get away from national cultural stances in order to benefit from every civilisation. Of course, some countries have a more intellectual and some a more emotional view of culture. Behaviour is the supreme expression of culture.

At UNESCO we are placing culture at the very top of our agenda because many of the conflicts today have cultural roots.

Early on in your book you said that you hoped that we would move away from the idea of nation States, but that is exactly what we have seen coming back in the ex-Yugoslavia. Nothing seems to have changed since Sarajevo eighty years ago

I think that this has been the solution necessary to end a terrible war that should never has started and that demonstrated the unpreparedness of Europe. We were prepared to deal with war but we were unprepared to deal with cultural issues.

You are right. We settled for the feasible solution, but as a Catalan, I know that there are more important things than territory and owning land. Now we know that it is the cultural space that matters. The grandeur of our culture is the space that we occupy in the spirit of the people, through artists such as Dalí, Gaudí, and through writers. There are universal principles that everyone in the world accepts: justice, freedom, equality.

I am convinced that Sarajevo will thrive. Clinton has shifted from force to reason in the last few years, trying to find links and bridges. In future we need better early warning systems. To do this we must change the role and composition of the Security Council; we must define the role of the agencies for rapid action and reinforce peace building. We are still directed towards spending money on war but not on reconstruction.

One of UNESCO’s less successful moments in the cultural field was its failure to act quickly enough over Dubrovnik.

I don’t agree. We went there. We immediately gave $300,000 (and we are not a fund) in order to prevent further deterioration. We have studied it house by house and published exactly what can be restored. We have put a small office there in order to work with the town council.

As I said in London yesterday, I hope those who have been supplying arms will now be supplying the means to reconstruct. UNESCO people were there during the bombing. Ask the mayor of the city what we are doing. We haven’t received a single dollar towards our recent efforts, but we have given them another $150,000. I have visited three times, and was so touched last time that I gave out this extra money.

What exactly is the situation with regard to Britain and the US rejoining? When I spoke to the office of the British Observer of UNESCO in Paris, they were extremely noncommittal about the British position. Does this surprise you?

There is a big difference between the US and Britain. Clinton said after the last general accounting report that he was particularly impressed with our focus on population issues, on women’s education, on learning without frontiers. In November 1995 he wrote to me saying that rejoining UNESCO was a priority, and that only financial problems with Congress are preventing him. That’s enough for me. I am not seeking for money: last year we got an important amount of extra money. Japan, Germany, the Netherlands,Saudi Arabia, the Nordic countries are helping UNESCO very much. In the field of art, Japan is now a very big promoter of UNESCO.

The UK is not taking any kind of position. They keep repeating all the old arguments about decentralisation. At the beginning of my office they demanded that we concentrate on illiteracy: well, our programme was a turning point in the history of education in the world. All the non-governmental organisations’s are involved. Every day there are less illiterates in the world than the day before; that is a reality.

We are always open. I like the UK very much; I am a British scholar. But I think that the present British government should be more coherent and should ask for information. More than 250 members of my staff are British and we have excellent relations. I choose the best, young staff, British or otherwise. I think the problem is a lack of information about us within the British government.

I would say to the British: come and see us; make all the criticisms. I welcome them, but not criticisms based on out-of-date information. We were forced to make reforms because the UK and US left and we lost 31% of our budget. We have cut our staff by one-third, around 1,000 staff (which is part of my strategy to utilise the best from external sources). Look at how many people work in the European Union in Brussels.

The US government has studied UNESCO six times. They spent over $700,000 doing so. They sent an eight-person team from the General Accounting Office to us for seven weeks. They lived there. The UK government has never, never looked at UNESCO.

Can you outline some cultural initiatives that you are setting up in the next couple of years.

We already have some very good programmes but now I would like proposals to come from other sources. For example, I have recently set up the International Institute for Artisan Production in Morocco which is for master craftsmen. I have set up an agreement with a leading bank so that two million Bangladeshi women can get loans for education and to make textiles. Interculturality is the key word here.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Behaviour is the supreme expression of culture”'