Flat White

What do taxpayers get from UNESCO?

16 October 2017

7:31 AM

16 October 2017

7:31 AM

Last week the United States withdrew from UNESCO, the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, citing politicisation, after UNESCO designated Hebron in the West Bank, where the Tomb of the Patriarchs is sited, a Palestinian World Heritage Site.

The US previously paid 22 per cent of UNESCO’s annual budget – some $US80 million – but the admission of Palestine, long a sore point for the US means that withdrawal will halt the arrears the US has run up since it stopped funding UNESCO in 2011 to protest Palestine’s admission as a full member.

By the end of 2017, the unpaid US bill will amount to $US550 million. With no sign that their concerns would be addressed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided to pull out at the end of next year, when the unpaid balance tops $US600 million.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said the last straw was when UNESCO designated Hebron in the West Bank, with its Tomb of the Patriarchs, a Palestinian World Heritage site.

It’s not the first time the US has withdrawn from UNESCO; in 1984 President Ronald Reagan pulled the US from UNESCO. Now Donald trump has followed his precedent.

Stated Haley “US taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”

Australia is a full member of UNESCO and has been since 1946 when a teetering post-war economy required the assistance of every Allied nation to keep things on an even kilter. Australia has been a loyal, paid-up member ever since.


But what do we get for our considerable amount of dollars contributed to UNESCO?

Well, according to UNESCO’s news service, Sydney, like St. Petersburg, has been selected as an International Jazz Day Global Host City. In the same bulletin, was announced that ‘Princess Sumaya bint El Hasan of Jordan has been named UNESCO’s Special Envoy for Science for Peace.’ So, Jazz Festivals and ambassadors for Science for Peace. Aren’t these things most Australian States governments can handle at much less cost?

UNESCO does, of course, carry huge capital in prestige. UNESCO headquarters are in Paris, but there’s a UNESCO Commission in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, headed by the very experienced Ms AnneMarie O’Keefe, formerly Communications Officer for AIDAB before it morphed into AusAID and was subsequently subsumed into DFAT.

The Sydney Opera House, Fraser Island, the Great Barrier Reef, Port Arthur Convict Settlement, Ningaloo Reef, the Greater Blue Mountains Area and Shark Bay have all been selected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and been given that very special tick of approval. But what does it really mean?

Like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or the Heart Foundation’s Tick for nutrition, UNESCO’s heritage rankings are all about kudos for the designated country, that, with the heritage tick, can bask in the approval of the famous international body.

The basking, of course, isn’t free. Australia pays a hefty price for UNESCO membership and unlike the US, we’ve never caused an alarm, just paid the bills when they came in, without a murmur. Of course, along with the prestige (and the French are very good at ‘prestige’) comes beaming approval of good global citizenship.

Wait a moment. Do Australian taxpayers get anything out of UNESCO membership, apart from the comforting reassurance that our heritage sites, natural and man-made, have that august body’s tick of approval?

UNESCO was unable to do anything to stop the destruction, by ISIS, of the ancient city of Palmyra or the world-renowned Buddha statues of Bamiyan, blasted to smithereens by the Taliban.

It’s perfectly possible to negotiate a new status within an established organisation, and possible to leave with grace and probity. Australia should probably also think about a decrease its contribution –reportedly standing at some $A20 million to the International Labour Organisation (Bob Hawke’s favourite overseas jaunt).

Both organisations are funded through DFAT in Canberra. With the Budget in the state it’s in and a taxpayers revolt underway, perhaps it’s time to follow the US lead and loosen ties with UNESCO while deploying the funds where they might benefit more, like the UN Security Council or schools, roads and hospitals in Australia.

No prestige, perhaps, or smoked salmon canapes and champagne in Paris, but a lot more grateful taxpayers

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