Global Policy Forum

Cutting Off UNESCO, US May Endanger Programs in Iraq

When UNESCO approved full membership for Palestine last months, the US immediately cut off all financing for the UN agency. The US pays 22 percent of the agency’s budget and an extra $2-3 millions for specific projects. Officials of UNESCO state that these cuts will put the agency’s programs in Iraq at risk, and regard this as a self-defeating move for the US. Important projects in Iraq include education, literacy training and special training to the judiciary. These projects depend on UNESCO money and will be halted or harmed by an overall budget cut.

By Steven Erlanger

November 16, 2011

Some important programs affecting American interests in Iraq are at risk because of Washington’s cutoff of money to Unesco, officials of the organization say. Unesco programs in Afghanistan will also be affected, but to a lesser degree.

The programs include projects to train the Iraqi judiciary and news media, to analyze Iraq’s fresh water resources better and to provide literacy training to Afghans, the officials said. Some of the officials declined to allow their names to be used, but all of them wanted to illustrate the impact of the American cutoff of financing on the organization, which they regard as self-defeating, and to promote efforts in Congress to restore the money.

Late last month, Unesco — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — voted to approve full membership in the group for the Palestinians. That vote activated longstanding American legislation mandating the immediate cutoff of all financing for any United Nations organization that accepts the Palestinians as a full member.

The impact on the organization was immediate. The United States pays 22 percent of the budget of all United Nations agencies, and normally pays late, at the end of the calendar year. So the vote meant that the American contribution of about $80 million (including currency conversion costs) toward Unesco’s general budget of $643 million for 2011 was stopped, as well as equivalent contributions for following years. American extra-budgetary financing of $2 million and $3 million a year for specific projects supported by Washington, particularly those in Iraq, was also halted.

Unesco has important projects in Afghanistan, as well, including education, literacy training and special literacy training for the Afghan police. But in general those programs are paid for by Japan or other countries, not by Washington. They will be affected by the American cutoff, however, since the regular budget pays for Unesco offices and management staff.

George Papagiannis, an American, was until a month ago in charge of the Unesco office for Iraq, based in Baghdad. “The ramifications are serious,” he said in a telephone interview. “The larger issue is how a law has undermined our capacity to deliver in a place very critical to American interests. We’ve invested gazillions of dollars in Iraq, and we can’t put a price on the lives of the Americans and Iraqis who died, and we promised to help build a new Iraq, something fresh and new in the Middle East, and then we hamstring ourselves.”

Unesco, as a United Nations agency, “has a positive image, certainly in Iraq,” said Mr. Papagiannis, who now works at Unesco headquarters. The United States, by contrast, was “an invading force in Iraq, with some negative connotations, even if it gave Iraqis something they hankered for. Unesco doesn’t come with that negative imagery.”

In one odd and awkward example, the State Department signed a $1 million, multiyear contract on Sept. 23 for a project to promote the transparency of Iraq’s judiciary through legal and media training. But because the money had not been sent before the vote on Palestinian membership, American lawyers are studying whether the law supersedes the contract.

Casey Walther, a Unesco official currently working in Iraq on issues concerning clean water, said that access to water for drinking and agriculture was a vital part of Iraq’s future stability and thus important to Washington’s long-term interests as it pulls out its military forces. But the continuity of these programs is dependent on American money, he said. “That funding is now not coming through, so I’m in a very awkward situation with Iraqis.” As a Unesco official, he said, “I had access to, and credibility with, Iraqis and now that’s in peril. And to be frank, I don’t know if I can replace that funding or get around it.”

Among affected programs in Iraq are work with the Iraqi National Water Council, in particular to perform a groundwater survey using NASA satellites and American technology, to create a database of Iraq’s underground water supplies. Financing of $800,000 to $1 million was to come from the State Department to the Army Corps of Engineers, with a contribution from the Iraqi government of about $500,000 and about $7 million from the European Union for projects resulting from the study. But everything has been put on hold, officials said.

A similar study was planned for the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, which has about one million refugees, but that has also been shelved for now, Unesco officials said.

Other projects in Iraq include literacy training and education, largely supported by Qatar but managed by Unesco, which will be harmed by overall budget cuts, the officials said.

Already, Unesco’s director-general, Irina Bokova, whose candidacy Washington strongly supported two years ago, has instituted a freeze on all new spending, as well as a hiring freeze, travel restrictions and a cancellation at year’s end of the contracts of most outside consultants. She is seeking savings for future years, including cuts in staffing and offices, but it is difficult to achieve savings of much more than $35 million a year, officials said.

She has said that she hopes the budget cutoff will be temporary, and that Congress will annul the law or pass a waiver to it, allowing the president to judge whether a cutoff is in the interests of the United States. But Congressional action to reinforce the law seems more likely than action to soften or alter it, American officials say.

In Afghanistan, Unesco is involved in several major literacy efforts, including a $35 million program meant to reach 600,000 people in 18 of the 34 provinces, 60 percent of them women.


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