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UNESCO must lead on HE, says Africa’s candidate for DG
UNESCO should promote higher education in the developing world in particular, to provide hope for unemployed young people, according to Rachad Farah, Djibouti’s ambassador to the UN agency, who announced his candidacy for the top UNESCO job last November.

Farah will challenge incumbent Director General Irina Bokova, whose first term comes to an end this year. Bokova, a former Bulgarian foreign minister who was elected to the UNESCO post in 2009, has said she wishes to continue for another term, and was recently endorsed by the Eastern European group of countries.

Although rumours abound of possible contenders from Latin America, other candidates have not yet entered the field.

But Farah has hit the ground running. Last month African leaders at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa endorsed him as the African candidate for UNESCO chief. “I carry the hope of the whole continent,” he told journalists in the Ethiopian capital.

Last year Farah was also endorsed by the 56-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and he hopes to pull off a hat-trick by securing the backing of the Arab League in early March.

“I am an African and an Arab, but also representing the countries of the South,” said Farah, a career diplomat who has served in Japan and India as well as Europe.

The OIC, and the African and Arab groups in the UN, previously backed former Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni, who lost out to Bokova in 2009 after injudicious remarks that he would burn any Israeli books found in the Alexandria library.

Africa and the Arab states argue that it is their “turn” to take the helm at UNESCO.

Higher education a priority

Farah expresses a strong belief that education, particularly higher education, should be a priority within the UN organisation. However, “UNESCO is absent [in the higher education sphere]. It is not visible.”

If he succeeds in his bid for director general, Farah says he will initiate a “first conference as soon as possible to put higher education at the top of the agenda within UNESCO, and request support for it.

“UNESCO has to have a responsibility for higher education, and not pass it [responsibility] on to other UN agencies or other institutions. It must be one of the fundamentals of UNESCO,” he told University World News in a wide-ranging interview.

It was important to build up the quality of higher education institutions in the global South and improve their research capacity through regional and inter-regional collaborations, he said.

Then “maybe after 10 years we will be able to have Nobel prizes from the South. Nobel prizes for science, mathematics, etc. Why not?” he said.

Higher education had become an important sector in Africa, contributing to economic development and well-being. It also had a key role to play in the development of a strong civil society and intelligentsia that would contribute to greater tolerance and peace at a time when Africa faced threats of religious fundamentalism and continued conflicts, Farah argued.

In a speech to African and Arab ambassadors in Berlin on 15 February, Farah said UNESCO’s flagship Education For All (EFA) programme, with its focus on universal access to primary education, “no longer responds to the needs of our countries.

“Let’s take Ethiopia: it counts today more than 30 universities against three universities only 20 years ago. Kenya just announced last week that it will upgrade 15 colleges to full university status. So we will have to focus on higher education.”

As EFA ends in 2015, there are likely to be many international meetings in the coming months and years on what should follow on from it.

“UNESCO has to be very involved with these meetings and push the idea of higher education. It has to be part of a system in which it will lead the South to have more cooperation to upgrade universities,” Farah said.

University collaboration

UNESCO needed to strengthen existing universities, establish links between universities in the South and create African centres of excellence as proposed through the recently established Pan-African University, which the African Union officially endorsed at its meeting in January, Farah told the ambassadors.

One of Farah’s first steps if he succeeds in his bid to head UNESCO, he told University World News, would be “to reinforce those universities, put universities together through fibre optics or whatever other new technologies.

“I would like to bring African universities together with Asian universities, Asian universities with Arab Universities and universities in the Gulf countries and Latin America, and have very, very strong links between universities in the South so that they can be in a better shape to have a good partnership with universities in the North.”

He would bring this up with regional development banks such as the Islamic Bank and the Asian Development Bank and at the Africa-South America summit hosted last week by Equatorial Guinea – the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa – in the capital Malabo.

Farah has also had talks in India and Japan, countries where he previously served as a diplomat.

Upgrading institutions was also important because 60% of the populations of the South are young people aged 20-30, many of whom have degrees but no jobs, and that can lead to revolution and instability, he said, referring to the Arab Spring.

But with the withdrawal of the US contribution after UNESCO voted to allow in Palestine as a member, UNESCO’s main problem has been a financial crisis and there is a freeze on hiring at its Paris headquarters and on travel. This has put Bokova under a great deal of pressure during her first term.

But Farah believes that if the right kind of projects in education and science can be presented to donors and the regional development banks, “then I'm sure we can get the money to finance them”.

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