There is no doubt in Sospeter Muhongo’s mind which operational field UNESCO should strengthen now. He believes the agency should promote science as key to fighting climate change and addressing development challenges in the world’s poorest regions.
Muhongo talked to Devex about the changes he would bring should he become the next leader of UNESCO. These include improvements in management efficiency and transparency, along with a greater focus on science and education.
Muhongo is the regional director of the International Council for Science Regional Office for Africa. He is also an honorary professor of geology at the University of Pretoria. Between 1997 and 2000, he headed the Department of Geology at the University of Dar es Salaam in his native Tanzania.
UNESCO’s executive board will announce its nominee for director general during its session ending Sept. 23, 2009. Interviews of candidates will take place in a private meeting starting on the morning of Sept. 15.
As a man of science and regional director of ICSU for Africa, what do you think is the importance of science for the development of the continent?
I’m working with the International Council for Science, and I am in charge of the Regional Office for Africa. This organization is one of the oldest NGOs. Actually the history goes back to 1998. But the contemporary history of my organization begins in 1931.
So actually we have two types of memberships. One is the national members. At the moment, we have 116 national members. … Each country is represented by one organization in that country. If we take as an example the United Kingdom, it is represented by the Royal Society. South Africa is represented by the National Research Foundation.
The second type of membership, these are the international scientific unions. There are a set of them. These are world-class and they operate on a large scale, on a global scale. … So my task is actually to make sure that the national members and the international scientific unions do have activities on the continent. So I’m twinning the African scientists with the non-African scientists for joint activities.
But we said that the regional office itself has got its own science agenda and the science agenda is as follows - we have identified the four priority areas that we think, if we can deal with these four, we will also contribute in a way to reduce poverty in the African continent. One of the science plans deals with sustainable energy. The second one deals with global environmental change, including climate change and adaptation. The third one deals with the health and the human well-being. And the fourth one deals with the nature and the human-induced hazards and disasters. So we have prepared science plans, and we have formulated these science plans. And now we are in the implementation of the projects extracted from the science plans.
So science and African leadership, this means the scientific community in Africa and also the political community in Africa has realized that science is so important for the social-economic development of the continent. That’s the bottom line.
Is UNESCO helping in this process?
UNESCO was established in 1945, and UNESCO has four main mandates. The first mandate is to deal with education, the second is science, the third is culture, and the fourth is information and communication.
So on the aspect of science, UNESCO has done something. I would say UNESCO did an excellent work in the development of science on the continent in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But for reasons that I don’t know, the science within the UNESCO, I would say that we need to emphasize it much more on this mandate. You know, UNESCO has been doing very well in education, UNESCO has been doing well on culture, and UNESCO is also doing well on information and communication. What UNESCO needs to emphasize now is on science.
And then it has to be science not for the sake of science, but it has to be science in service of society. Today, we are about 6.9 billion people. In 2015, the world will be inhabited by 10 billion, and by 2015, Africa will have 2 billion people. Right now, our population is 1 billion, and in 2015, it will be about 2 billion. Now, whether this big population will have a sustainable livelihood will depend on the application of science technology and innovation. So what UNESCO has to do is actually to offer [solutions] to the population, and by this we touch areas like climate change and adaptation. That is science, and UNESCO ought to do something in that arena.
The issue of sustainable energy, for instance, we know now about 77 percent of sub-Saharan Africa has no access to electricity. We have to change this figure not only for Africa. There are also other poor countries around the world where over 50 percent of the population have no access to electricity.
And the energy of the future is actually the renewable energy. We have to [have] the solar energy, the wind energy, the sea waves. Those are the types of energy that we can produce on a small scale, and that is where UNESCO has a role to play in order to actually bring about sustainable livelihood on our planet Earth.
What environmental challenges do you think Africa is facing, and how can UNESCO help?
Now the issue with environment, it is true that Africa is facing many challenges on these problems. But one of the things we have to keep in mind is that environmental issues actually do not obey political borders. So when we are talking about environment, we have to keep in mind that this is something that is confronting humanity, and its solution can be found when many nations are working together.
For instance, you know, from around 1800 up to today, the greenhouse gases - this meaning the toxic gases such as carbon dioxides - have increased by 30 percent in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide, another toxic gas, has increased by 15 percent; methane has increased over 100 percent. These concentrations are very high. So we need to adapt the science of climate change and adaptation. This means how can we lower the emission of these toxic gases and, at the same time, how can we also, for instance, capture these toxic gases and destroy them in the ground so that the population around the world can live in a clean environment?
So what UNESCO has to do is, one, UNESCO has a mandate to deal with the science. And UNESCO has a [mandate] in education, science, culture, information and communication. … [These mandates] have to be utilized actually to work on climate change and adaptation issues.
By adaptation I would say, for instance, we know the rainfall pattern. Now the rainfall pattern has an impact on the floods and the droughts in Africa, so each year in Africa, either we have droughts or we have a lot of floods. Now this has to do with the rainfall pattern, but this rainfall pattern also has to do with the greenhouse gases, this means the atmospheric composition of these toxic gases. So we need to do science firstly to come up with an efficient way to utilize energy, so that we don’t emit most of these greenhouse gases. At the same time, we also have to find a strategy where we can capture these [gases], eliminating them. But at the same time, we also have to help the private sector to come up with low-carbon industries and to help the private sector to come up with green activities.
What I mean is that, in a very sustainable manner, we don’t continue emitting these gases that actually raise the temperature, and we know that [it will happen] if we are not going to meet that and work on a global level. If the temperatures are going to increase to about 2 degrees Celsius, it is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the plants and of the animal species are at risk of extinction. So something must be done, and it needs to be done for the utilization of scientific techniques, finding facts and figures actually to confront the climate change and its consequences.
You mentioned education as one of UNESCO’s main mandates. Is UNESCO doing enough to address this issue in developing countries, Africa in particular? What still needs to be done?
This is a very good question. If you can recall, in the constitution of UNESCO, it is said that wars begin in the minds of people, and it’s the mind of people which should act as a defense of peace. That is within the preamble of the constitution of UNESCO. So in order for us to attend [to] this, in order for us to obey this, in order for us to have world peace and security, we have to engage the world population in education.
But for education, what am I advocating for? I am advocating for quality education. It is not just education; we want quality education for primary, secondary, tertiary, even the public [school system] to have quality education. Today, many countries are complaining that the quality of education is going down. The quality of teaching and of learning is also declining. So this has to be revised. And we can revise this, for instance, [by] producing good teachers … which actually produce creative curiosity and a problem-solving types of learning.
So, again, we know that there are countries - especially the poor nations - around the world where over 50 percent of the population is still illiterate. So, actually, UNESCO has to do something to revise this. We need a world whereby people are literate, [where] people can get information and absorb that information because they have had a bit of education to do that.
In other parts of the world, we still have the marginalization of women in education and science. So this gender inequality has to be dealt with hand in hand with illiteracy. So this is where UNESCO has to help, not only in Africa but in many countries around the world, which are confronted with the marginalization of women and youth in education and science.
What would your priorities be should you be nominated as the director general of UNESCO?
I would say that if today I’m the director general of UNESCO, I would recognize that UNESCO has four mandates, which means education, science, culture, information and communication. So what we need to do is to have strategic plans on the four mandates. We should come up with well-focusing programs. That would be number one.
And, also, the most important thing to do is excellence in the management. We need a management, people with excellent managerial skills, so that the programs and projects of UNESCO are in the hands of very competent people.
At the same time, all activities of UNESCO should have some indicators of success. By this I mean that we should actually have performance indicators for all of the activities of UNESCO. That in two, three, five and 10 years, we should actually measure ourselves and how much we have achieved. And then we have to have well-coordinated intersector initiatives because UNESCO has so many sectors. But these sectors have to work together to impact in multidisciplinary approaches. At the same time, we also have to have parameters that can measure our degrees of achievement. All of this is a very quality-focused type of management.
And within finance, you see, the budget of UNESCO, if you take the contribution from the member states and from the extrabudgetary initiatives, it comes to about $500 million. That is a very modest budget. One may even say there is no budget. So we have to increase the budget in order to fulfill the four mandates of UNESCO.
And we can increase the budget by actually partnering with other stakeholders. We have to work with the private sector. UNESCO has to work with the member states, and UNESCO has to work with other U.N. agencies and also NGOs.
At the same time, the organization has to remain very transparent so that the organizations that contribute funds or contribute some ideas and knowledge, UNESCO has to be at their disposal, at any time of the day, to actually go into the organization and actually check what has been, especially in the allocation of resources and the utilization of resources.
So we need a management that is very transparent, we need a management that is innovative, we need a management that is efficient, and we need a management that will always actually work for high-impacted delivery for the satisfaction of UNESCO membership.
Read our interview with Ivonne A-Baki, another candidate for UNESCO director general.