AMADOU MAHTAR M'Bow offered last fall to make a full, rich contribution to relieving the crisis that had developed at UNESCO during his dozen years as the director general of the world educational and cultural agency. Mr. M'Bow declared he would step down. UNESCO has been sadly plagued by bad management and by politicization extreme even by United Nations standards -- developments that drove the United States, among others, out of the organization. Some part of this is his personal legacy.

How depressing, then, to hear the latest from the World Press Freedom Committee, the private American group that has coordinated the battle against efforts in UNESCO to put a Soviet-Third World stamp on the international media. Mr. M'Bow, it seems, is still trying to hang on. He reportedly offered to back Uruguay's foreign minister, Enrique Iglesias, one of the most respected candidates for the UNESCO position, for later election if Mr. Iglesias would support his reelection for two more years. The flavor of Mr. M'Bow's style is fairly suggested by his reported comment that Uruguay has a problem with Arabs and Africans because of its diplomatic ties with Israel and South Africa, but he, Mr. M'Bow, could deliver those votes for Mr. Iglesias -- in two years.

Currently Mr. M'Bow, who is from Senegal, is said to be lobbying for reelection at the Organization of African Unity summit in Addis Ababa, perhaps hoping to neutralize his own country's support of another African candidate, Baba Miske of Mauritania.

The elevated nature of the ideals of these international organizations is not inconsistent with a little politicking by and for those who seek to run them. Mr. M'Bow, however, has exhausted all possible sympathy. This is the man who helped divert UNESCO from its great and proper original purpose of promoting the free flow of information and ideas around the world. He is the director who very nearly ran the organization into the ground. Now, having promised to retire, he is out campaigning for a further lease on power, and such is his insider's knowledge of the political terrain that his prospects cannot be lightly dismissed.

For all its troubles, UNESCO still has enough potential for service -- for a major drive for Third World literacy, for instance -- to warrant being spared a further dose of his leadership.