Commentary Magazine


Topic: Daily Show

Obama’s Push to Fund UNESCO is No Joke

Even amidst the flurry of overt philo-Semitism that is the hallmark of President Obama’s election year Jewish charm offensive, some remnants of his less appealing foreign policy stands persist. One such anomaly is the administration campaign to restore American funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). U.S. law required Obama to cut off UNESCO after it admitted the Palestinian Authority as a full voting member of the group as part of the Arab effort to make an end run around the Middle East peace process. The Palestinian push for recognition of their independence without first making peace with Israel fizzled, but the president’s ardent love for the UN and its constituent agencies made him regret the fact that he was obligated to punish UNESCO.

There is little chance that Congress will amend the law so as to allow the flow of U.S. taxpayer cash to resume. But those supporting such a move got a boost recently when Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” did a segment intended to spoof the cutoff. The satire complimented UNESCO’s own efforts to persuade Americans that they are a collection of non-political do-gooders whose efforts are being hampered. But as Claudia Rosett writes in an important piece in The Weekly Standard, the truth about UNESCO is a familiar story for those who follow the world of international non-governmental organizations. The corruption of the agency and, in particular, its efforts in the African nation of Gabon (which was the focus of “The Daily Show’s” skits), serves as a warning of how the world body wastes American money intended for charitable purposes.

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Even amidst the flurry of overt philo-Semitism that is the hallmark of President Obama’s election year Jewish charm offensive, some remnants of his less appealing foreign policy stands persist. One such anomaly is the administration campaign to restore American funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). U.S. law required Obama to cut off UNESCO after it admitted the Palestinian Authority as a full voting member of the group as part of the Arab effort to make an end run around the Middle East peace process. The Palestinian push for recognition of their independence without first making peace with Israel fizzled, but the president’s ardent love for the UN and its constituent agencies made him regret the fact that he was obligated to punish UNESCO.

There is little chance that Congress will amend the law so as to allow the flow of U.S. taxpayer cash to resume. But those supporting such a move got a boost recently when Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” did a segment intended to spoof the cutoff. The satire complimented UNESCO’s own efforts to persuade Americans that they are a collection of non-political do-gooders whose efforts are being hampered. But as Claudia Rosett writes in an important piece in The Weekly Standard, the truth about UNESCO is a familiar story for those who follow the world of international non-governmental organizations. The corruption of the agency and, in particular, its efforts in the African nation of Gabon (which was the focus of “The Daily Show’s” skits), serves as a warning of how the world body wastes American money intended for charitable purposes.

As Rosett writes:

Far from helping the world’s neediest, UNESCO’s top priority is helping itself. The Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer calculates that 87 percent of UNESCO’s $326 million budget last year was allocated for its own staff, travel, and operating costs. More than half of UNESCO’s staffers are based in Paris, many pulling in tax-exempt six-figure salaries, with plush benefits and 30 days of vacation per year. UNESCO’s auditors reported that on travel costs alone, the organization was squandering more than $3 million annually via bad management and a taste for business-class airline tickets. A program of financial disclosure by senior UNESCO officials has been mysteriously delayed.

To its credit, UNESCO does have an Ethics Office, which in its 2009-2010 annual report bluntly noted “a failure by employees at all levels to take responsibility for their work.” That’s no surprise, given the findings in the same report that many of UNESCO’s employees don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. The Ethics Office further reported receiving “more and more complaints” about UNESCO employees “inappropriately using their diplomatic immunity” to show “non-respect of private legal and financial obligations.” In other words, they were abusing UN privileges to break local laws.

As for Gabon, as Rosett notes:

Apparently [UNESCO’s Washington flack] neglected to mention to Comedy Central’s intrepid reporter that little Gabon is the ninth-largest oil producer in Africa. Gabon’s 1.5 million citizens are poor not because the United States has been snatching their books or defunding UNESCO, but because Gabon has been plundered for more than 40 years by the family of President Ali Bongo Ondimba—the same fellow who showed his support for UNESCO after its Palestinian vote by pledging $2 million from Gabon.

Though UNESCO was supposedly reformed in the last decade after a long history of being one of the most corrupt and politically biased (against Israel) of all the UN’s agencies, the reality is that the rhetoric we have heard from the president and Secretary of State Clinton about its value to the world is largely fluff. It continues to show its prejudice against Israel in efforts to treat Jewish holy sites in Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem as Muslim shrines and to oppose archeological digs in Israel’s capital as attempts to “Judaize” the city.

The Obama campaign to refund UNESCO is one more example of how the president intends to use a second term to show how “flexible” his foreign policy will be. UNESCO doesn’t deserve American funding. But one can bet that a re-elected Obama will spend the next four years finding ways to funnel U.S. support to his pets at the UN.

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