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A Science Prize Complicates Life at Unesco and for the US


unesco science prize
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Irina Bokova, the director-general of Unesco, at the agency's headquarters in Paris.

Unesco is keeping a $3 million science prize after debating for months whether to drop the controversial award, which is meant to help fight diseases and was donated by the government of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of Equatorial Guinea. With 33 years in office, he is Africa’s longest-serving dictator.

The vote to keep the science prize alive but rename it the Unesco-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, thus dropping Obiang’s reference, was divided along geopolitical lines, as is often the case with tense United Nations matters.

The award comes as Unesco is experiencing budget strains brought on by the US cutting its dues of $79 million in October to the UN agency ($65 million in 2011; the rest toward the 2012-2013 budget) after it accepted Palestine as a member nation last fall. United States laws forbid financing to any UN entity that recognizes Palestine as a nation. Israel also withheld its dues of $1.5 million for Unesco’s 2012-2013 account.

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The 33-to-18 vote on the prize (with abstentions) tallied at Unesco’s 58-member executive board meeting in Paris last week revealed alliances: all 14 African countries on the board voted for it, joined by all Arab members as well as Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, India and Russia. Most of the Caribbean and European board members opposed it, with Afghanistan, Peru and the US.

Some African leaders said they backed the prize because it went to a good cause and was a source of pride for the continent.

But Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, said, “I regret this vote, because it occurs at an acutely difficult time for this organization.”

It is unclear if Bokova will carry out the prize, since the money came from public funds, which violates Unesco rules on named awards. The new title was created by the board to skirt the rule.

US efforts to help Unesco

A US government spokesman told PassBlue that it was “disappointed” by the vote, given Equatorial Guinea’s record on corruption, adding that the State Department was encouraging Unesco’s legal team to investigate further whether the prize can be put into action.

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The US State Department is also trying to lift the ban through a legislative waiver to reinstate US assessed dues to Unesco, the government spokesman said, adding that it was a “very sensitive” situation with “lots of moving pieces.” The proposed 2013 US budget allots money to Unesco.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in Congress last month that although the government opposed Palestine’s moves to gain statehood at the UN (and membership to Unesco), it’s a “complicated issue.”

She said that she would “welcome the tightest possible written waiver, because right now we’re in these anomalous situation. Israel remains a member of Unesco, and so they believe, as we do, that Unesco actually does things that are every much in Israel’s interest. Holocaust education is a clear example.”

Clinton also lamented the possibility of Palestine becoming a member of the UN World Health Organization and jeopardizing the $400 million that the US contributes to its budget and ultimately hurting global health work.

Poor human rights and health

Equatorial Guinea’s record on corruption may be reflected in its drastic economics. Rich offshore oil reserves have put the country’s per capita gross domestic product at $34,475, near to that of Japan, according to World Bank figures, yet its living standards rank it 136th of 187 countries and territories in the UN’s Human Development Index. The central-African country, about the size of Maryland, is the only Spanish-speaking nation in the continent and has fewer than a million people. It won independence from Spain in 1968, and Obiang seized power in a coup in 1979.

The country’s death rate for children under five has steadily dropped in the last few years, but it still ranks 15th in the number of infant deaths worldwide, according to US government statistics. It spent 1.7 percent of its gross domestic product on public health, landing in the “medium human development” range, the UN index says.

In a 2010 report, the nonprofit group Freedom House included Equatorial Guinea in its “worst of the worst” human rights abusers, with such company as North Korea and Somalia.

Equatorial Guinea president
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasog, the president of Equatorial Guinea, speaking at the UN in September 2011. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

Suliman Baldo, director of the Africa program for the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, said in an e-mail to PassBlue that the “$3 million largess offered to Unesco is an extension of EG’s [Equatorial Guinea] image cleansing campaign. I suggest Unesco should not accept this prize.”

Last month, the French police raided an apartment in Paris owned by the government of Equatorial Guinea and used for diplomats, media reports said. The police contended that the apartment, the home of a government minister who is a son of Obiang, was bought illegally through state coffers. A statement from Equatorial Guinea condemned the raid, saying, in part, that the residence “belongs to the State of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, evidence of which is available at the Embassy of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea in Paris.”

Shifting gears on programs

Unesco has reacted to the US budget cuts by honing its focus and reducing costs, among other actions. The new direction, publicized last week, prioritizes Unesco’s work in Africa and gender equality, while continuing its programs for youths and projects in post-conflict or post-disaster countries.

Some countries have offered donations to a Unesco emergency fund to help make up the gap left by the US, including Indonesia, which pledged $10 million last fall and so far has given $6 million. In turn, Unesco will be working with Indonesia to host the first World Culture Forum in 2013 in Bali.

Other countries that have agreed to chip in to the fund include: Qatar ($20 million); Turkey ($5 million); Republic of Congo ($3 million); Gabon ($2 million); Timor-Leste ($1.5 million) and Kazakhstan ($250,000).

When the Unesco vote on the science prize occurred on March 8, the US ambassador to Unesco, David Killion, said that his office supported a prize for enhancing life sciences paid for by “verifiable sources.”

“We are willing to continue discussions on how we can all support life sciences through Unesco,” Killion said. “We are convinced that this prize will not further Unesco’s goals.”

[The article was updated on March 20.]

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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