A conversation with Joseph Maïla, UNESCO DG candidate

Joseph Maïla is a professor of international relations at École Supérieur des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales in Paris and former president of the Catholic University of Paris. In March he submitted his candidature for the post of director general of UNESCO – he is one of two candidates challenging the incumbent, Irina Bokova. YOJANA SHARMA spoke to Maïla as he prepared for the first stage of voting for the post, to take place on 4 October.

UWN: What made you decide to become a candidate for UNESCO director general?

Maïla: UNESCO is very specifically about education, and culture education, and I happen to come from the education field. I am an academic. I have maybe 15 years of experience of mediation, in Africa mainly. I am a specialist in the Arab-Israeli conflict. I am a specialist on the interreligious, intercultural dialogue.

I also have practical experiences as a university head, and of many faculties – the Centre for Peace Research, the Institute for Mediation, the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue. I have also been a manager when it comes to the academic field. Not just a theorist.

The majority of past UNESCO heads were academics. Even Koichiro Matsuura, deemed to be a manager in an administrative office of the foreign affairs ministry in Japan, spent some time teaching and lecturing and wrote a wonderful book on Japanese-United States relations. The only person not of an academic background is Irina Bokova. The exception should not confirm the rule.

The proposition to run for DG was made to me by the president of Lebanon. It is a great honour – I had never dreamed of doing this job, though I have been an expert for UNESCO and I established the International Center for Human Sciences in Byblos, Lebanon.

Then Irina Bokova asked me two years ago to help shape the roadmap for UNESCO concerning the social and political upheavals occurring within the Arab world. So I have been involved in UNESCO debates and research and so on, for 30 years.

There is a very specific feature of UNESCO, which is that it is the only United Nations agency that at the very beginning – not later, because there was an evolution after that – said it needed a personality from the intellectual, cultural world.

It is important to create a consensus around a candidacy that is not only a political consensus. Of course the election for DG is a political election. But for UNESCO, you can be a candidate without even being supported by your country. I remember Frederico Mayor was not supported by Spain, but by three or four countries from Latin America, when he offered to run as a candidate.

UWN: Which countries are supporting you?

Maïla: As a Lebanese, I am from the Arab world. And I know you will immediately say there is already an Arab candidate, Rachad Farah. Yes there is, but he is not an Arab candidate. He’s an African candidate supported at one point by the Arab League, at a time when there was no other Arab candidate.

Everybody is saying, "What, two Arab candidates?" But there were in all 11 candidates at the last election four years ago: three from Europe and three from the Arab world. Irina Bokova, a European, was elected at a time when everyone expected an Arab to be elected.

The Arab countries are aware of my candidacy. The president of the Republic of Lebanon has written to all his colleagues, his counterparts and presidents of Arab countries. I have countries in Africa supporting me, and Latin America and the Caribbean also. So I am not focusing on a single region or continent.

I have no formal endorsement coming from the Arab world. But the point is there is no official [Arab] candidate. I think that some countries are interested by my candidacy. At the end of the day, you’ll see the lines moving. If it were a battle of continents, things would be fixed.

Nonetheless, I think the issue will not be ‘it’s my turn, it’s your turn’ – it will be about a vision of the future, which might help overcome the difficulties UNESCO is facing. And bringing visibility and vision to UNESCO, because UNESCO is no longer visible on the screen. It has completely disappeared when it comes to important mandates that UNESCO has, such as education.

While campaigning, I was struck that a lot of people are not aware of what UNESCO is doing today. UNESCO was set up just after the Second World War. And today the issues of education, science, communication, have changed tremendously. And maybe UNESCO does not fit very well, and that must be addressed.

UWN: UNESCO’s role seems to have become dulled. Not as sharp or as active as in the past. Do you have a view on that?

Maïla: My general assessment of UNESCO today is that this institution is losing its leadership – institutional leadership – within the United Nations system.

Let me begin with education. The OECD is dealing with education, the World Bank is dealing with education, UNICEF is concerned with education when it comes to primary education. But where is the added value of UNESCO? Where is its leadership?

The secretary general of the United Nations has created a panel of very distinguished personalities, Education First. Gordon Brown, [former prime minister] of Britain, is chairing the group. UNESCO had to press [Irina] Bokova and ask her to be part of it, and she finally obtained the position of secretary of the group.

Within UNESCO there is very good expertise in science, climate change, ocean issues and sub-aquatic issues. But I am sorry to say UNESCO expertise is being challenged by other institutions and people are asking, "Where is UNESCO?"

It is not supposed to be the leader, for example, in nanotechnology. But it is supposed to have a broad view on who is doing what in the field of science and in terms of expertise. And it should be coordinating and adding value.

But unfortunately, what we have been witnessing, maybe over the past 15 years or so, is a lack of visibility, whether it is in science or education or post-conflict issues, which are issues I have been dealing with. So there is a lack of presence, a moral crisis, a mission crisis of UNESCO. This is very worrying.

There was an order to make some budget cuts, to have the sector of human sciences placed in the broader framework of science. I will never accept that. I want visibility for human sciences. I am a very determined activist, a militant, on this matter. I will never, never ever – categorically never – make the sector of social and human sciences disappear.

UWN: Can you say something about why UNESCO has withdrawn from the higher education field at a time when everyone is talking about the knowledge economy, innovation and so on – and what you would do?

Maïla: I would not say that UNESCO has withdrawn from education. I think the approach UNESCO has on education, and higher education in particular, is a very comprehensive one. UNESCO has a general mandate on education, on planning systems of education, on trying to improve the methods of training teachers.

Although there was the UNESCO [higher education] summit of 2009, I think UNESCO has not been very effective in this field. UNESCO has been focusing on literacy, which is of course important, and has left aside the whole sector of higher education.

But maybe higher education has become a very specialised area. It is the key to the future – it includes innovation, it includes research, which concerns also the scientific and industrial and economic fields.

But there is also a view that maybe higher education has more and more to do with the private sector. Private higher education and teaching is booming all over the world, and there is no new thinking as to what a country should be doing for higher education – it is left to the business sector.

We have to try to articulate how to deal with the business of higher education when it is not located within the state. Maybe the big universities all over the world which are mainly, or more and more, run by the private sector need to be brought within the system of education at UNESCO, including research – big corporations are financing research and laboratories all over the world.

Higher education is one sector that has been really improving and booming and enhancing. The evolution was so quick and went so far that UNESCO has to catch up and come to terms with this sector that has been developing out-of-the-box, if I may say so, the usual box of UNESCO.

UWN: The biggest problem UNESCO is facing is financial. And 22% of the budget was lost when the US pulled out over the Palestinian issue. How can that be resolved?

Maïla: It is related to the Palestinian question, of course. The United States' withdrawal of its contribution of 22% stems directly from its position on this issue. But it is not only about that. The report from the external audit by the French Cours des Comptes blames the current UNESCO leadership for a lack of anticipation and foresight.

This will be the third year since the United States withdrew funding from UNESCO. The third year! What are we waiting for? Is it only now that we are struggling with the problems? Where were they three years ago? Where was the foresight? Where was the perspective?

Yes, there is a problem of management, which the current UNESCO leadership is not solely responsible for. There has to be a new management system. Downsizing is necessary but it is not only downsizing, it’s about reshaping the whole map.

Why put the focus on the centre and forget the regional bureaus? We have to revisit the whole thing and try to strike a new balance between people who are working at the periphery and people who are at the centre.

This is not just a crisis of UNESCO, but has to do with the whole international system. The people who were paying for this system, mainly the countries of the North, are undergoing a tremendous crisis. They do not have the money they used to have to finance international organisations and they are [staying] very close to the money. We have to understand that, and deal with this crisis of funding in the international system.

Another way is to try to create a real partnership between the private and public sectors – between UNESCO, civil society and the business sector, in order to have the money. UNESCO has lost its attractiveness. If you ask…people or states to give money to UNESCO, you won’t have it, because the image of UNESCO is blurred. UNESCO has to be attractive in order to have money, not have money in order to be attractive.

So renew the message. Give UNESCO new visibility and then ask for money, and you will have it. But with this [current] leadership there’s no visibility. They are just focusing on how they are going to pay the electricity bill and the civil servants' bill and have completely forgotten about UNESCO’s mission.

Seventy-five percent – some people say 80% – of the budget is dedicated to just paying civil servants and the fees of the current management of the whole organisation. Only 20% is left for programmes.

When you are in such a situation, you have to ask questions about where you are heading. This is the tragic situation we are in today.

UWN: What can be done? How will you bring the US back in?

Maïla: I don’t want UNESCO to be politicised. Everybody has to be in. You cannot say we are a UN institution but this country or that country is not in UNESCO. UNESCO should not be used as a political instrument in trying to settle conflicts that are not of the UNESCO remit, but are the UN Security Council’s maybe.

So I won’t be telling you I’m going to be very active on resolving [Palestine] or anywhere else in the world – we have no mandate when it comes to political change. But I will be struggling to bring the United States back to this UN agency.

Also, I believe in culture as a diplomatic tool. It is a way to help countries that are separated by conflict or by different views, or national interests, to bring them to a better understanding. Maybe UNESCO has been too politicised.

This institution is about culture. So use cultural channels. I know that it can be idealistic. It can also be a very abstract approach. But look, when you have tried the other approaches, and you are now struggling with the consequences, you should give the other way of dealing with things a try.

UWN: The Arab Spring brought up issues of youth education and unemployment, and of course you did some work with UNESCO on this. What can UNESCO do now?

Maïla: One of the reasons [my name has] been put forward by the highest authorities in Lebanon is that, look, we have a candidate coming from an Arab country at a time when Arab societies are witnessing, or undergoing, tremendous change.

It’s not just me; the Lebanese state is very eager to send a message that, yes, you can come from the Arab world and still stick to diversity and cherish pluralism. You can struggle for a democratic system in which all cultures and religions can be accommodated, and work out a viable and sustainable political system that fosters diversity.

Yes, the Arab [Spring] is mainly about unemployment, about youth, about people looking for their country to become a better place, and looking for jobs for the future, and trying to participate in a system where participation was totally banned.

The Arab upheavals should not be phrased in terms of religion. It is mainly a social problem. Of course, when it comes to the social impact you might have radicalism or extremism, be it in Egypt or Syria today, between factions that say they are belonging to religious communities.

But the core of the problem is not how you define yourselves in terms of cultural identity or religious identity, when economic needs are not satisfied – especially for the youth, but not only for the youth. It has to be a society in which everyone can participate.

UWN: So what can UNESCO’s role be?

Maïla: Values are on the move now. We are trying to deal with transformation without blaming an old system or by going so fast that you won’t be able to be heard by the society in which you are or in which you are working.

The cultural process of changing the whole mindset is important. And UNESCO is about that. It’s about new values, new debates. It’s not about imposing something on societies. It’s about just hearing, listening to societies’ struggles to address their difficulties and their demands, and trying to find the best answer to all these new problems.

I don’t want a UNESCO that is a museum of the past. I want a very active UNESCO. I want a UNESCO on the move.

* Q&As are edited for length and clarity.