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.
I am not new to UNESCO or to the politics that swirl around this United Nations agency. I began my affiliation 10 years ago, working on International Philosophy Day before President George W. Bush returned the United States to the organization in 2003. Shortly after, when first lady Laura Bush was designated honorary UNESCO ambassador for literacy, she noted that, “with UNESCO’s leadership, freedom can be realized throughout the world with the promise of education for all.”
Music is an essential ingredient of my life, and I am in awe of its power. In my decades of experience, I have seen how innovative thinking can achieve miracles, revolutionize lives and positively influence communities. Music, art, science and faith in people can make powerful changes in our humanity.
UNESCO can help promote music as a tool for building peace as well as other facets of culture, enabling distant communities to work together for the benefit of all nations.
That is why U.S. engagement in UNESCO and the United Nations must continue. This is indeed a challenging moment: Having won a seat at UNESCO, the Palestinians are eligible to join the World Intellectual Property Organization, which is responsible for protecting copyright and trademarks and fighting piracy. Palestinian leaders have expressed interest in seeking membership in the World Health Organization; the International Atomic Energy Agency; and the International Civil Aviation Association, which coordinates international airline security.
Following its current mandate, the United States would be required to stop contributing dues to those important organizations as well, which would force our country to recoil from the world. As we face challenges that threaten the very existence of humanity — changing climatic conditions, pandemics and illiteracy — solving these issues demands a concentrated effort from leaders and citizens of all nations and will require a world where people live in harmony to overcome these obstacles to our survival. During these crucial times, the work of UNESCO is needed more than ever.
The writer is a jazz pianist and composer. He is chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and was named a goodwill ambassador to UNESCO in July.