When Palestine was voted in as a UNESCO member by more than 100 countries in October, U.S. law required that all of its UNESCO funding be abolished. This restricted the United States from paying its 2011 dues, which account for 22 percent of the agency’s budget. Without those funds, UNESCO will be forced to slash programming and, possibly, invaluable staff positions. This law will damage the United States as well, because our country stands to lose its influence over UNESCO’s work, which includes designating cultural heritage sites, promoting tolerance, protecting media freedom and fostering creativity.
UNESCO offers literacy programs in conflict zones that help people develop critical-thinking skills necessary to fight violent extremism. Without the requisite funds, this is one of many programs that will be negatively affected. Girls in Pakistan will no longer have a UNESCO program for basic education; support for free and competitive media in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt will be weakened; literacy education for police officers in Afghanistan will halt; training for journalists in the Arab region will be diminished.
Many Americans shrug their shoulders, while others celebrate what they believe is a comeuppance for the United Nations. I, however, strongly believe it is essential that we stay involved and engaged. UNESCO helps ensure that our world remains soulful, spirited and full of life.
Case in point: UNESCO recently endorsed April 30 as International Jazz Day. This is an opportunity to spread the gospel of jazz, its message of peace and cooperation, and its unique American traits. Under UNESCO’s banner, we plan to spearhead concerts and major educational and cultural events from New Orleans and New York to Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Moscow, Beijing and beyond, finding common ground among uncommon allies.
Jazz has its roots in the late 19th century, when disenfranchised African slaves began to develop new forms of music. Their efforts were spontaneous, emotional and improvisational — and became the backbone of modern jazz. This music has been the cornerstone of my career, the melodies that have shaped my life force; the sounds, tones and notes that have helped soothe and uplift millions of souls.
As a UNESCO goodwill ambassador, I have an obligation to help dispel the misinformation and ignorance about other cultures, religions and ethnicities that stand as barriers to communication and togetherness. People need to know that we have much more in common with one another than our differences.