BEIRUT: An Arab has never stood at the helm of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Indeed, the Arab states represent the only electoral group among UNESCO’s executive board not to have had one of their own rise to the post of director-general. But with Lebanese academic Joseph Maila’s name alongside Djibouti’s Rached Farah’s in the three-person race for the office, that may be about to change.
Maila was confident about his candidacy as he spoke to The Daily Star by phone from Paris Wednesday.
“If I succeed – I am going to succeed – this will be the first time that an Arab will be elected,” Maila said.
The appointment of an Arab to the role is of “utmost importance,” the professor of international relations added.
“This region has fallen into complete oblivion when it comes to such an organization ... Every country, every continent, every cultural group has had its share of power, if I might say, in UNESCO ... The Arab region was completely forgotten.”
Maila denied however that the Arab states were subject to some sort of electoral bias within the U.N. agency’s executive board.
“No, I don’t think” voting is biased against the Arab world, he said, suggesting instead that the top position rotates between the body’s six electoral groups and that the ascent of an Arab director was imminent.
Maila indicated that at the last election in 2009 it was much anticipated that an Arab would take the post. In the end up, Bulgarian Irina Bokava won the vote, securing the office for the first time for the Eastern European states, the only other geographic bloc that up to then had not held the post.
Since UNESCO elected its first director-general in 1946, the office has been dominated by representatives of the Western European and North American geographic regions.
Excluding the Arab states, the remaining regions – Latin American and Caribbean states, Eastern Europeans states, African states and Asian and Pacific states – have each held the office once.
This time out, the directorship will either stay with Eastern Europe – Bokova is seeking re-election – or go to the Arab states.
Maila’s candidacy is supported by President Michel Sleiman, Speaker Nabih Berri, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Prime Minister-designate Tamman Salam.
Identifying the Arab world as the current nexus of “tremendous and terrific social and political and cultural transformation,” Maila believes the time is ripe for Arab leadership at UNESCO.
“It’s high time to have somebody coming from this region, understanding what is at stake today, able to strike a balance between what is happening in this part of the world and the image that is sent outside this [part of the] world, especially to the United States and Europe, concerning the prevailing issues in the Middle East today.”
Describing these images of a radical, extremist, sectarian-filled region as “very negative,” Maila envisages himself “bridging ... the gap between the West and the Arab world.”
But Maila is clear that his would not be a directorship of tunnel vision with just the Arab world as his focus.
If appointed director-general at UNESCO’s General Conference in Paris this November, Maila says the first item on his agenda would be education.
“Education is the key ... for everything. It is the key for development, the key for culture, the key for jobs. It is the key for personal growth, [both] for a population or individuals.”
Central to Maila’s approach would be an effort to find commonalities in challenges across all regions.
Maila would also endeavor to usurp what he says is referred to in U.N. jargon as the “Africa priority.”
The former president of the Catholic University of Paris doesn’t deny Africa’s importance, but instead asserts “there are many Africas outside Africa.”
“There are a lot of countries that really deserve some help. My idea is to try to twin or pair situations in the Arab world, situations in Africa, situations in Latin America of countries that are for the moment sharing the same preoccupations, that are witnessing the same kind of change, in order that each of these countries may benefit from the good governance practices that others are succeeding in [implementing].”
Maila also sets forth a triumvirate of ambitions for his four-year term, should he be awarded it.
The first is a thorough assessment of and reflection on systems of education around the world and the challenges they face with a view to capacity building. The second involves triggering “a whole reflection on the impact of globalization ... on the cultural treads and cultural landscape of the world.”
But it is the third that is the most innovative. Maila wants UNESCO to be an integral part of the peace-building and peacekeeping efforts in post-conflict states.
Maila, who has founded two research centers for peace and mediation, believes that in postwar states work on the educational and cultural fronts is just as important as physical-infrastructure and institution building.
“I want in all the programs of rehabilitation that are set forth in post conflict countries that UNESCO be present at the same level as the World Bank, for example,” he said.
“I want UNESCO to be part of the team. When it comes to the World Bank coming and trying to build a new Sierra Leone for example, or a new Liberia or new a Cyprus ... why should we think all the time in terms of ‘yes we need new roads and new institutions and new administrations’? ... Why is nobody thinking that we need a new cultural mind, a new way of addressing issues such as history, schools, the training of teachers? I want that this could be part of the global and comprehensive policies. ... I want UNESCO to be visible ... [to be] part of a team ... trying to help the people restore their country, rebuild their institutions and the whole framework of common life.”
A Lebanese director is perhaps well poised to advocate such an agenda.
“Lebanon is a lesson of courage ... because despite all the difficulties that this small country has gone through. ... Lebanon has always been very firm and stood very proudly, saying ‘there are institutions, we have a constitution, we need to have elections,’” he said. “ Lebanon has never despaired about the democratic model.”
UNESCO’s executive board is now in a series of meetings that will last until early October, and its recommendation for director-general will be brought to the organization’s general conference in November. The general conference has never failed to vote in favor of the executive board’s chosen candidate.