There is nothing terribly controversial about this work, yet it has been dramatically scaled back in recent months because the USA has cut off all funding to UNESCO. This action has nothing to do with UNESCO’s work around the world, and everything to do with a decades-old law that prohibits American funds for any UN entities that accepts Palestine as a member.
Last fall, UNESCO’s membership voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a member of the organization. This triggered early 1990s-vintage legislation forcing the USA to immediately stop paying its UNESCO membership dues. Holocaust education is among the many programs that has been affected by the cuts. “We cannot organize some of our training courses that otherwise we would have organized,” Says UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova. “Thank God that Israel continues to support these programs.”
I sat down with Director General Bokova yesterday, who detailed the many ways that the cuts to UNESCO is impacting the daily work of her organization–work, she stressed that helps advance American interests and promote American and universal values.
So far, the USA has held back $78 million, which includes past funds it owed the organization and its current membership dues. This accounts for about 20% of UNESCO’s general funding. The across-the-board cut has hurt several UNESCO program areas–including literacy programs, girls eduction, projects that help develop access to freshwater and sanitation in poor communities, and even its flagship world heritage program. “The cuts effect practically all of our programs,” says Bokova.
In response to the US cut-off, other donors have pledged an emergency fund of about $40 million to help cover some of the shortfall. One program to which Bokova has diverted the emergency funds is right in America’s front porch: A tsunami early warning system for the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. What happens if those emergency funds are not replenished? “Well, we don’t know,” says Bokova.
A program that was forced to completely discontinue was an effort to help Iraq create a national freshwater management authority. This is precisely the kind of technical capacity building in which UNESCO excels, but they were forced to cut the program several weeks ago for lack of money.
The automatic cut-off of US funds for UN entities that admit Palestine is nearly 20 years old. It was passed in a different era, yet persists to this day — even as the United States gives millions of dollars a year to support the political and economic development of Palestine. It has never been triggered until Palestine’s UNESCO bid last fall, but it will likely be triggered again as momentum builds to admit Palestine to the United Nations.
Other potential UN Agencies that might experience a precipitous funding cut-off include the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, and World Food Program, among others. Unless this law is repealed, there is every likelihood that these important agencies will have to scale back work that very directly serves American interests, advances American values and promotes human dignity.
The Obama administration is seeking a waiver to this legislation that would permit the government to continue funding agencies if it were deemed in the national interest to do so. But in this election season, it is unclear whether or not members of congress are even aware of the deleterious effects of this legislation to American interests and America’s image abroad.
Holocaust education and a Tsunami early warning system for the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico is the collateral damage of myopic legislation intended to punish the UN and Palestine. It seems, though, that Congress is self-inflicting a wound.
“I don’t see how the USA can disengage from UNESCO without harming its own interests,” says Bokova. “It is not only about money — we are replenishing our funds. It is about the universality of the organization. It is about sharing common values. I think it is very important that we jointly promote the same values. “