Candidate envisions UNESCO as ‘institution of ideas’

By Rolf Rosenkranz 18 August 2009

Ivonne A-Baki – artist, painter, diplomat, peace negotiator, humanist and politician. Photo by: Ivonne A-Baki

Ivonne A-Baki has emerged as the dark-horse candidate to succeed outgoing UNESCO Director General Koïchiro Matsuura. The race for this plum diplomatic post is in full swing - and it is attracting a remarkable amount of attention.

A-Baki has put her presidency of the Andean parliament on hold to run for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s top job.

In an Aug. 13 interview with Devex News, the Ecuadorian politician and artist discussed the need for American leaders to collaborate on developing Latin America. In part two of that interview, A-Baki now shares her vision for UNESCO as a U.N. “institution of ideas” and an engine for peace, as well as her interest in conservation.

A-Baki’s career has many highlights: After graduating from Harvard University, she joined the board of directors of the Conflict Management Group, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting peace. She advised Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad during peace negotiations with Peru in late 1998, and became the country’s first woman ambassador to the United States the same year. A-Baki served for three years as Ecuador’s minister of trade, fisheries and competitiveness before being elected to the Andean Parliament in 2006.

A-Baki was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, of Arab Lebanese parents, and lived in Lebanon for more than 18 years in the 1970s and ‘80s with her husband and three children. A-Baki later shortened her last name, Abdel-Baki, to simplify pronunciation. Her paintings have been displayed in the Americas, Europe and Middle East. She has co-founded the Galapagos Conservancy Foundation to protect the archipelago of volcanic islands west of Ecuador.

What do you see as UNESCO’s role - its significance - in the U.N. system?

It is very significant. You know, UNESCO was created together when they did the United Nations. And it was created as a separate entity - part of it, but, at the same time, with its own mandate that was, because of the Second World War and because of why the war happened, it was created for peace, for education, culture, science and technology. And I think it’s been used, but it’s not been promoted the right way so that it’s known to the world what its mandate is.

I believe very much that if you want to create peace, you have to … give [people from different cultures] the education that’s needed for the mentality of peace. It’s not just educating, it’s educating for peace, it’s educating for nonviolence, it’s having programs that are based on arts, on sports - these kinds of things that will put us beyond these violent reactions. And [you have] to educate them to understand and accept the different cultures and religions.

So, this is a very important institution, but it’s not - it’s doing well, but it’s not that known [for] what it’s doing. So we have to put it on the agenda. And now, more than ever, because of communication, because of technology, because of science, we can make it even more this - I call it this “institution of ideas” that could be implemented.

It doesn’t have to be UNESCO that does the work of UNICEF. It could be UNESCO that will tell UNICEF what they need to do in a certain country or a certain place. It doesn’t have to be UNESCO to be the one to give the money for higher education. But it can be the one that will say: This is what’s needed, so invest in that area, that region. This is like a leading institution. It could take the leadership on all these issues that it was created for.

And I think it’s the moment for UNESCO because we’re having problems more than ever, because we need to have something to look up to. I always think that the definition of wisdom is that it’s what remains when we have forgotten everything. When you have learned everything and you’ve forgotten everything, what remains - the essence - is wisdom. And this institution represents that. It represents this essence of people working together from all walks of life, working to give this thing that’s missing - hope, motivation, with the right ideas, with the right ways of solving these problems, and getting them done, showing the results.

I know it’s being done, but it’s not enough. We need to be more this kind of enforcing force that will be showing everywhere in the world where it’s needed that education is a must, that education for all is a must, that science and technology can make a difference, that cultural understanding is a must to have less violence and wars in the world. And if you understand differences and respect the other, by respecting and values… We have to teach values and ethics that are always forgotten in schools, too… So, everything is just what UNESCO’s role is.

What would your priorities be at UNESCO, when it comes to your focus but perhaps also when it comes to organizational reform?

Well, you know, I think that we have to focus on what UNESCO was created for. We have to focus principally on that. But also, at the same time, we have to do something beyond that because the issues now are different. It’s important to have Africa as a priority, of course; it’s very important: We have to continue Africa as a priority. And it is a priority, because it needs us. But they are not seeing it, still.


But also there’s a priority in other regions, like Latin America, where there’s a lack of education, too. So this is an important part.

We have the gender issue. Gender is very important: If you educate a woman, you educate a whole family and a whole village. And that’s something we have to concentrate on. And it’s a priority, too.

Climate change, environment - it’s very important. Communications, transparency of the communication system, technology and science…

But if you ask me: If I come [to lead UNESCO], what is going to be? I told the delegates, because I’ve met with most of the countries’ delegates: It’s listening to them first, to what they want. It’s listening to everyone about what they want, because it is them that know best what’s going on in their own countries. How can we be able to help unite groups of the United Nations institutions, the family of the U.N., and give everyone the role it’s needed? And that’s UNESCO’s role - to give them what they have to do.

And getting private and public-sector support. My life has always been - wherever it was, whether it was as ambassador here in the United States, as minister of foreign trade and industry, as president of the Andean Parliament - all the things that I have done, the success that I’ve got was always when you get public and private sectors working together for change, because it’s the civil society, it’s the people that are part of it. And if you don’t work together, you’ll never get results. So, it’s not an issue of getting more funds, it’s an issue of making it happen for the purposes of what it is. It’s not just saying, “We need more money.” What for do we need the money? - And that’s why if you get the private sector [and] you get the public sector working together, the money is not the problem.

Conservation is a huge issue for UNESCO, and few approaches are without controversy. In Latin America, for instance, Ecuador’s President Correa has proposed leaving some oil-rich Amazon regions untapped and in the hands of indigenous groups. Meanwhile, Peru sent troops to break up conservation protests. What are the cornerstones of a good conservation strategy, and how would you weigh competing interests by stakeholders such as scientists, indigenous groups, national industries, multinational corporations, government, multilateral organizations, civil society, and so on?

It’s such an incredible way of seeing it. Because, as you already mentioned, all these groups are interfering each one for their own good. - What about the good of all? You have to concentrate on what is good for everyone.

I think Ecuador has done a very good job in the new constitution of putting that part of prioritizing the indigenous communities, not losing their culture, taking care of the environment. This is a new approach of Ecuador to keep oil underground in a very important region of the Amazon, where the biggest variety of species are, and it has the maximum amount of oil underground. And this is a new innovative project that will keep oil underground for a benefit, and it will benefit the world because the Amazon is the lungs to the world as a rain forest. And if we decide to do that, we need the support of the international community.

And then comes education. This is another thing: You have to tell people why. If they don’t know why it’s important to do that - if they don’t understand the reason why, really, climate change is a problem now and that we have to all be part of the solution because it’s the only world that we have… We haven’t discovered another one yet to be able to go. So we have to do something to help everyone, and that’s why it’s education. Again, it’s about educating people.

I think the reaction of the indigenous people is because it’s their land. And they see when [companies] explore these parts [of land], they are getting diseases, they are getting problems. And so they are asking; they don’t know why. You have to tell them, you need to educate. You need to say: You need education, you need help. Of course you need to have money for that so you can do these kinds of things with an environmental consciousness.

These companies, they are realizing now that they have to do it the right way. Maybe in the past, it was not. Again, we go back to technology and science: It’s different now, so that now, we can do things like exploring and bringing the oil out and minerals, but in the right ways. And you have to educate the people that it’s going to be in the right way: It’s going to generate a lot of jobs and, at the same time, you can also keep oil underground if it’s necessary. And that’s what Ecuador is doing, and I’m sure that other countries are doing it, too. But this is an example that’s starting from Ecuador, and it’s known all over now, and we’re getting a lot of support for it.

Again, we’re going back to the same issue. It’s about educating. For example, my foundation, the one for the Galapagos: We created a foundation when the Jessica ship broke near the Galapagos. It was a moment when almost all of the species were going to disappear. And we created this foundation [the Galapagos Conservancy Foundation] for the protection of the animals that are so rare in the world. And it’s amazing the help from everyone that cares, because it’s a World Heritage [site] - UNESCO, again, UNESCO’s World Heritage. It is so important to tell people why it’s a world heritage. It’s where Darwin made his theory of evolution, and it’s an amazing place that, if you go there, you realize that you’re really at a place that represents evolution.

An example: shark fins. When you have poverty in a region, in a place, and there’s demand, these people will supply, because they are in need, and because they don’t know what a shark can do in the ocean. They don’t know about sea cucumbers. They don’t know that sharks are the “oxygen of the ocean” … and the sea cucumbers are the “vacuum cleaners.” We don’t have any more sea cucumbers because they use them in China, in Hong Kong, even the United States.

So what we did - we couldn’t do more internally. So we said we have to do something about demand. So we joined forces with other groups like WildAid and others, and we started working in publicity, in educating people. We used celebrities like Jackie Chan, Yao Ming [and others] to influence the young generations. And, you know, the demand dropped by 32 percent at least, because we were reaching a million people a week via the media, on the front page, pro bono. During the Olympics, they were not serving shark fin soup. And the people, they don’t know, because it doesn’t say “shark fin” - it says “fish soup.” They don’t know the problems this is causing. So this is what we have to do: educating people. And they will do it once they know.

In Galapagos, those that were guides, they were foreigners [until recently], because the [local] people didn’t know. Now the Ecuadorians are proud of their islands, and they are protecting their islands. They care for them because they know. So this is what we need to concentrate on, educating people, telling them why it’s important for us to have the sharks in the ocean, why the land in the Amazon is needed, because it’s a rain forest and it’s important to the world because of oxygen. So, on all these issues UNESCO can take an important role.

I read somewhere that you once said: “Ever since I was a child, I was raised with the idea that Peru was our enemy. That’s what they always told us in school. But as I grew older, I began questioning things.” How does your experience in Latin America and the Middle East inform the way you approach education and peacemaking in various parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, where UNESCO and others are, of course, very active?

That’s a question that for me is very important because that’s what changed my whole life. I was raised, as you said, in Ecuador as a child [believing] that Peru is our enemy, and that they had been taking half of our land. I realized very late that Peruvians didn’t even know - because education is different - they didn’t even know why Ecuadorians… they didn’t even know all these things.

But what made me work for peace and believe in peace and the importance of peace was because I lived all though the war in Lebanon, under the bombs, for 18 years. My children were born under the bombs. They didn’t see anything except violence, bombs, fighting, killing people in the name of religion. That’s what I saw every day for a long, long time. So, always I’ve said: We have to create peace. Something has to be done to make people understand that it’s not violence that creates peace. Violence generates more violence. Only through dialog and understanding and education do you reach peace.

When the war between Ecuador and Peru started in 1995, I was at Harvard at the time, and my professor was Roger Fisher. I was member of the board of the Conflict Management Group. And the president at the time called me, and I said: Of course we have to do something.

And, you know, it’s amazing. When we created these two groups of six Ecuadorians and six Peruvians to come to Harvard in a neutral place and do the work, when you entered the room, the six Ecuadorians were here and the six Peruvians were there. Nobody wanted to talk with anybody. I was the only woman in those negotiations. And they put us in a room to talk. They put us in a way that I had, on both sides, Peruvians. And then we had to present each other. I had to present a Peruvian, he had to present me, because we went for 15 minutes to talk about why we were there. And it was opening my eyes. I couldn’t believe it: They were there because they wanted peace, but they didn’t know that we hated them because they took our land. It was an experience that was unique.

And then, we exchanged places: We became Peruvians, they became Ecuadorians. And that’s when we got the answers to why this was happening for over 60 years of war - because of lack of communication, because of a lack of understanding. And now, between Ecuador and Peru, because of this amazing peace, it’s the No. 1 trading partner that we have. They’re married to each other; it’s like family. It’s an amazing result that we have now. And this should be taken as an example to other disputes, and especially to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That’s why President Clinton - after I became ambassador after we made peace - asked that this example of Ecuador and Peru be taken to the Palestinians and Israelis. Yasser Arafat was here at the time with Ehud Barak as prime minister. And we had a meeting at the embassy of Ecuador with them and with the presidents of Ecuador and Peru, just to put this experience as something that could be done.

We created Tiwintza [a military outpost close to the Peru-Ecuador border] as a World Heritage and also as an example to the world of what peace represents. It was wanted by Ecuador, wanted by Peru - nobody was giving it up, and the decision was: It belongs to Peru, but it’s leased for life for free to Ecuador. So, it was a negotiated agreement. And this is one of the things that we have to find, always something that will see the interest of all and not the positions of few. And that is why we continue the problem when everyone sits down at the table to negotiate attacking, attacking, attacking, and attacking. They have to see it in a different way. Of course, UNESCO is not to interfere in politics, but they could be the leading mediator, promoter for peace.

About the author

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Rolf RosenkranzRolfRosenkranz

Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.


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