Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. November 2003
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The World Policy of UNESCO

Katérina Stenou (UNESCO/Paris) [BIO]


To speak about the world policy of UNESCO would be tantamount to speaking about the mission of this organization within the system of the United Nations as established in the founding charter. I am aware that the topic I am supposed to talk to you about today is a very broad field, namely, the cultural policy of UNESCO in its connections to the world.

I can immediately say that these efforts have been permanent since 1945 but that the modes of their expression have been very different

The founding charter of UNESCO, which became effective in 1946, insures that the "fruitful diversity of cultures" is respected. In the first period the Study of Cultures was especially emphasized and, to be precise, in the Goethean sense of world literature: that in every aspect, be it historic, mythic or taken over from a fable, be it more or less arbitrarily invented, one recognize the universal as well as the national and individual characteristics. That could be interpreted that a cultural policy should rather mean the import of the other and the export of one's own. Consequently, in 1948 we established the unit "Art and Literature," which was subsequently replaced by the program "Translation of Classical and Contemporary Literary Works" in the "UNESCO Collection of Representative Works."

In the area of the fine arts, especially in music one can find a similar effort, which in 1954 leads to the UNESCO "Universal Collection of World Art." As early as 1949 we initiated the project of a World History of Music as a dialogue of cultures, at the time that the International Music Council (CIM), which still exists, was established. This phase, characterized by the optimism of our founders, also witnessed the beginning of the project "World History of Humanity and of Regional Histories."

Now I would like to direct your attention to the second phase, which has to do directly with the phenomenon of colonization and reached its high point around 1960. In 1953 the series "Cultural Unity and Diversity" appeared in two volumes: the first was related to an opinion poll on the "current conception of cultures, which are native to the different countries of the world and their relationships with one another": its title is "Humanism and Education in East and West," and it appeared in 1951 as an issue of the international journal "Gesprächsrunde" (Round Table Discussion), published in New Delhi. This view was emphasized by the acceleration of the process of decolonization in many countries, especially in Africa, so that UNESCO now gradually proceeded from a limited conception of culture - as literature and fine arts - to a much more open concept and, to be precise, by large collective actions, which, among other things, had as their goal the retention of the oral tradition in many languages, which were earlier disparaged by the colonial powers.

One must not forget that at the same time the field of education was making an effort to retain the native languages and to support them.

It is possible to claim that the fruits of these experiences were actually gathered twenty years later, when the MONDIACULT-Conference in Mexico in 1982 expanded the concept of culture: culture is not only the expression of belletristic literature and the fine arts, but also "is to be conceived as the totality of the intellectual and material, of the intellectual and affective qualities of a society or social group; to culture belong, in addition to literature and the arts, also lifestyle, forms of social life, value system, traditions and faith"

Following the beginning phase from 1945 to 1960 and the second phase from 1960 to 1982, I would now like to mention the third phase, which is connected to the demands of globalization. The early signs were indicated around 1985 by the "Global Decade of Cultural Development." At the same time it was important to insure the survival of every culture threatened by the hegemony of several major powers. Several years later the danger was taken up by the world commission "Culture and Development," resulting in 1995 in the publication of the report "Our Creative Diversity," which was used as a basis of the International Government Conference on Cultural Policy in Stockholm in 1998.

Concern for giving every culture not only opportunities for survival, but also for development characterizes the new UNESCO policy, which was recently enunciated in UNESCO's World Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001). This new orientation of the organization is characterized on the one hand, by the return of the founding principle of the "equal value of all cultures," as well as, on the other hand, by a warning against cultural relativism, which is contained in the following sentence: nobody can use the matter of cultural diversity as an excuse to violate or limit human rights."

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have now quickly covered half a century of institutional history. After this short historical part, I would now like to address several areas, where the thinking and acting of UNESCO stands in the foreground. I would like to address two areas: the first concerns the following concepts:

The second area is more pragmatic:

In this new landscape, intercultural communication assumes many forms, which resist dogmatism and always in their atypical form retain some magic. One is to accept this secret, for the cultures confirm themselves and explain themselves invalidly, they negotiate, they adapt and constantly adopt each other.

Consciousness of the quality of every culture will justify resistance against the dominance of another culture; this particularity, this specific quality of cultures is to be regarded not only as a claim in the present, but also as a potential topic for future projects.

In comparison to 1945 we have a clearer picture today: the international community needs an official forum, which defines the rules of the game and guarantees the mobility as well as the survival of cultures in the face of lethargy and death. For the cultures represent not only an inheritance of humankind, placed next to or over one another, but they also help us to imagine the world in more coherent, more diverse terms and not as strange or foreign.

UNESCO, which has been committed to supporting cultures in very different situations - the barbarism of war, colonial and postcolonial conditions, conflicts between major powers, the testing of the paradigm of development - is facing a new challenge these days. To be precise, it must fight against a "macro culture," which would like to replace the splendid diversity of cultures with encapsulated identities, which bear cultural fundamentalisms in them.

In conclusion, I would like to convey our optimism, for I am certain that you share our view that cultural diversity represents a source of enrichment for society by opening up a broad spectrum of Weltanschauungen, new points of view, ideologies and creative sensitivity, so that every citizen can have several life projects, whether individually or jointly.

I thank you for your attention.

© Katérina Stenou (UNESCO/Paris)

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For quotation purposes:
Katérina Stenou (UNESCO/Paris): The World Policy of UNESCO. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003.

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