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Interview with Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yaï: ‘UNESCO should be the locomotive of thinking on governance.’
in SHSviews 26
His term of office as Chairman of the Executive Board of UNESCO expiring, Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yaï provides an initial assessment of the experience gained in his role for SHSviews. Convinced that UNESCO has a role to play in rethinking global governance, he advocates having an international conference organized that would distribute the cards and responsibilities within the UN system.
Interview with Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yaï: ‘UNESCO should be the locomotive of thinking on governance.’ Your term of office as Chairman of the Executive Board of UNESCO is expiring. Has this experience changed your outlook on the Organization?

My two years of experience have enabled me to understand and affirm that if such an organization did not exist, we would have to invent it. The world today is in such a state as we face very important issues and challenges, even if we are not getting over a great cataclysm like the last world war, which, more than 60 years, was the mold on which UNESCO was created.

The fact that there are, for example, millions of illiterate in a world where all the resources to eradicate this scourge are available, is not acceptable. On another level, while we agree that the world is globalized, there are still many cultures and civilizations which lack knowledge of each other. If the founding fathers awoke, they would not understand this situation.

How do you explain this paradox?

The true explanation lies in the selfishness of states, particularly the more affluent ones. Although UNESCO is an essential component, it lacks the means to exercise its responsibilities in the field. One only has to see the UNESCO budget that has reached the ceiling for years and does not exceed the budget of an average university in the United States or Japan. One could think that somewhere there is a resistance to provide the Organization with the means to achieve the expected results.

Where does this resistance come from?

There is a marked trend to no longer trust multilateralism. States are becoming more selfish and more inclined to focus on bilateralism. It even happens sometimes that, through UNESCO, under the guise of multilateralism, they do bilateralism in disguise.

What solution would you suggest to curb this trend?

An international United Nations conference should be organized to conduct a redistribution of cards and responsibilities within the system to take measures, including legislative, to bring those who are supposed to better support UNESCO. The role of civil society should also be strengthened so that this is not the only case of States.

The day of your appointment you quoted L’Homme approximatif by Tristan Tzara, a poem in which he stated that dialogue is necessary for this “dream called We.” Do you think the role of UNESCO is to be the space for this dialogue?

If there is a space where we can speak of “we”, it is UNESCO. But “we” has a double meaning: it can be inclusive or exclusive.

The United Nations illustrates the “we” exclusively, with a Security Council taking major decisions by excluding many of the Member States of the Organization. I’m not saying that the un is useless, but it is organized in such a way that an exclusive “we” is practiced.

At UNESCO, it is different. Here the “we” is inclusive because each State has one vote. At the Executive Board, UNESCO Member States have the flexibility to participate, although major powers do everything possible to be permanent members of the Board, as proposed by a Japanese amendment.

While not perfect, UNESCO is a space for dialogue. Those who come to dialogue should be representative of all trains of thought. It should also open up a little more to civil society and not be the prerogative of states.

Why is representation of civil society so important?

Civil society should be represented, not necessarily to balance governments, but to hear the voices of the “voiceless”. Civil society has done much, at a national level, for democracy and human rights. If we gave it the authority to express itself on an international level, there would be more balance in world affairs, the voices of the “voiceless” would be heard.

What specific role(s) could UNESCO play in the coming years to meet contemporary challenges, including the global financial crisis and its impact on development?

Have you seen the reaction of the wealthy States to the financial crisis? They immediately went to the rescue of banks. If UNESCO had only 1 % of the money put up to repair the damage caused by private banks, and if this money was spent to curb illiteracy, we would have finished with this scourge long ago!

All the ideas expressed at the G8 or G20 summits are too specific and restrictive. The United Nations only speak about finance. UNESCO can help to think of new structures for global governance. This is its role and it is unfortunate that it is placed at the periphery of the on-going reforms at the United Nations. We need a concept of governance and UNESCO should be the locomotive, not a simple compartment of the train in this reflection. It is up to UNESCO to serve as a laboratory of ideas, including thoughts on the crisis.

Does UNESCO not play its role?

We do not give it the means to truly play its role. Look at the number of illiterates in the world, and cultures indifferent to each other. As one Indian proverb says: “One cannot quench thirst with dew.”

You now expect to involve yourself more in the Intergovernmental Council of UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations (MOST) programme. What does this programme mean to you?

If I can use an image, I would say that if UNESCO were to be the brain of the UN system, MOST would be the soul. UNESCO is indeed supposed to think, anticipate, plan, alert, taking the pulse of the state of the world. Within it, MOST should play a role of think tank and its members have some leeway for this. This programme, which is supposed to manage social transformations, is actually very important, and this is why it must be composed of prominent figures, observers alert of what is happening in the world.

Guidelines have been drafted to assist countries wishing to create or develop MOST National Liaison Committees. Does the establishment of such structures in the world seem feasible to you?

It is very desirable and achievable, provided that networks linking universities and civil society are established, not relying solely on States.

Regional integration is the priority of MOST for Africa and it is incidentally under the auspices of this programme that it is foreseen to open a Research Institute on Integration in West Africa (WAE) in 2010 in Cape Verde. Why this issue is so meaningful in Africa?

It is meaningful because it is always on the agenda. Existing States today have not been divided up by Africans themselves. The borders are artificial and these States are not even markets. With 8 million people, some of these States are not even the size of an average Chinese city. If, selfishly, we create walls between these entities that we have not created, we harm our people who, moreover, do not hesitate to ignore the artificial borders and cross them without any restraint. Our States are not viable in their current structures. I refer to it in the work of Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop and the writings of the former President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.

There has to be an institution that thinks about integration. And this is where UNESCO plays its role by ensuring that decision-makers are equipped so as they do not address these issues in a vacuum. There is not doubt about the importance of the existence of the WAE. It took time to create, and it should have grown in African universities, in the early years of independence.

Interview by Nfaly “Vieux” Savané

Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yaï
Ambassador, Permanent Delegate of Benin to UNESCO, Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai was elected on 5 November 2007, Chairman of the Executive Board of UNESCO. Born in Benin in 1942, he holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sorbonne (France) and a postgraduate degree in linguistics from the University of Ibadan (Nigeria). He taught at the Federal University of Bahia (Brazil), at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom) and Kokugakuin University in Tokyo (Japan). He is also a specialist in languages and African literature, in literacy, in oral poetry and in the culture of the African Diaspora.

Photo: © Andrew Wheeler / UNESCO

Click here to read other articles from this issue of SHSviews.
Author(s) UNESCO - Sector for Social and Human Sciences
Periodical Name SHSviews
Publication date 2009-10
Publisher UNESCO
Publication Location Paris, France
Related Website http://www.unesco.org/shs/views

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