Students have a hell of time grasping the spirit of UNESCO, the vital principle animating not only the formal organization but also the huge community of people and organizations that choose to affiliate with UNESCO in order to advance its mission. UNESCO’s founders told us in the UNESCO Constitution that UNESCO was about building structures in the minds of men, about changing the zeitgeist that had led to two world wars and the holocaust. UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova restates that objective, writing that UNESCO must work towards “a new humanism for the 21st century” – that is a vision shared by many peoples, drawing strength from their diversity, forming their common intentions and their mutual will to pursue peace and understanding. The mindset that UNESCO seeks is one that values objective truth, that is informed by the best of human culture, that understands peace not only an end to be desired but as something that must be worked for, that values communication as an end in itself. And thus the problem. How are we to understand such a shared vision; how is the zeitgeist to be changed?
Given the unique spirit of UNESCO, it is not surprising that that it is a unique enterprise, perhaps more a movement than an organization. At one level UNESCO is, of course, a decentralized intergovernmental organization within the United Nations system, the repository of a collection of international declarations, resolutions and conventions. It is historically the descendant of the Bureau for International Education and the Intellectual Bureau of the League of Nations. Uniquely, UNESCO’s constitution calls for member states to create national commissions for UNESCO involving the intellectual communities (educators, scientists, cultural leaders and knowledge workers) both to advise their governments on UNESCO and to link their national communities with the work of UNESCO and with the intellectual communities of other nations. Finally, the UNESCO spirit has imbued schools, clubs, cultural and natural sites of world importance, bioreserves, geoparks, university chairs and many others to affiliate with UNESCO and independently work to carry out its mission.
John Daly, UNESCO in the Spotlight: Science and Communications, September 13, 2011