Mr. Chairman, Madame Director General, Mr. President, and Distinguished Colleagues, I’m so honored to be here with you for my first Executive Board session.
After President Obama announced my nomination, friends asked me one of three questions: “What exactly is UNESCO?” “Isn’t UNESCO that controversial political group?” And for those familiar with UNESCO, “How are you going to do anything when the United States isn’t paying its dues?”
On the first question, UNESCO is doing tremendous work, from literacy to climate change, press freedom to preservation of cultural heritage. But in my country, and maybe in some others, few people know enough about it. To expand public awareness, one of my top priorities will be to find ways to highlight UNESCO’s many accomplishments to key American constituencies, including our Congress. But that’s just the beginning.
Although we are encouraged UNESCO has increased media exposure and private sector engagement, we can further heighten UNESCO’s visibility by attracting additional prominent and active Goodwill Ambassadors. We should also focus on improving UNESCO’s results in the field so that, over time, UNESCO can become known definitively as the premiere international organization for the advancement of education for all, the protector of the environment, the champions of tolerance and anti-extremism, and the organization that is raising up the next generation of transformational young leaders.
Take education for starters. Last month, First Lady Michelle Obama called on UN member states “to fight even harder” for educational quality and parity for women and girls. And UNESCO has done just that in promoting literacy and educational quality as important post-2015 development goals. Yet the task ahead requires turning those goals into tangible accomplishments where it counts – with those hungry to learn. Of the 781 million illiterate adults world-wide, two-thirds are female. Over 58 million children are out of school. And 77 million girls can’t read or write. While these numbers are daunting, the highest rates of illiteracy are concentrated in 15 countries. That’s a definable group on which to focus our resources. With the aid of Member States, the private sector and NGOs, UNESCO can target expanded educational opportunities for millions of women and children, and galvanize public support in the process.
Another important focus is genocide prevention. As religious intolerance and ethnic tensions rise, UNESCO has a crucial role to play, as the Director-General recognized in continuing the genocide program amid budget shortfalls. But we should do more. In my prior government work on ethnic conflict, I traveled extensively to the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and I saw first-hand – at the mass graves in Srebrenica, the cadaver-filled church in eastern Rwanda, and the overcrowded refugee camps in Goma – just what ethnic and religious hatred breeds. To help deter future conflicts, UNESCO should develop an interactive, mobile curriculum to teach government leaders, educators and young people about the lessons of past atrocities – from the Holocaust to Cambodia to Rwanda and Bosnia – and the techniques to prevent them. And I bet we can entice some of the best storytellers, educators and conflict resolution specialists to help us.
This proactive approach can be used for other initiatives, including entrepreneurial training, environmental safety, and repairing World Heritage sites. And it should guide our response to the Ebola crisis. On Ebola, while we commend UNESCO on conducting a community radio campaign, we join other delegations in urging a more robust response, which could include distributing UNESCO flyers in major airport hubs, and delivering mobile education to kids who may lose an entire year of school. Donors to a UN Trust Fund, including the United States, are financing Ebola-related services, and UNESCO should be an active participant.
Now turning to the second question about UNESCO’s image, we encourage Member States to keep a laser focus on improving UNESCO’s results in the core areas of education, science and culture. In evaluating proposed political resolutions, we will look carefully to determine if they advance or hinder UNESCO’s mission. We were pleased to co-sponsor the Iraqi resolution because protection of cultural heritage lies at the heart of UNESCO’s mandate. But we will reject other, largely symbolic, resolutions that divert our attention and undermine our cohesion and effectiveness.
Finally, on the third question of U.S. engagement, some of you may be wondering how we can propose new initiatives given the state of our arrears. We understand that sentiment, but we are committed to continued engagement, including President Obama’s ongoing request for a congressional waiver. At the same time, our government can and must leverage strategic “out-of-the box” thinking to develop robust initiatives and reforms that will move UNESCO forward.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing many successful business and philanthropic leaders, and seen how much competition there is for their engagement and resources. If UNESCO is going to be able to expand public-private partnerships, and we want to work with UNESCO to do that, it needs the most compelling case possible – from having a lean operation to using innovative techniques to achieving quantifiable results.
President John F. Kennedy once said that the Chinese language uses two characters to write the word ‘crisis.’ One character stands for danger, the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but also recognize the opportunity.
Despite the challenges, I am filled with an enormous sense of possibility. There is so much more we can do together. Let’s aim high.