Since time immemorial, adventurous folk have carefully folded their belongings into their Gucci luggage – or merely just tossed a few things into a backpack – with a burning ambition to set off and explore the globe. Chances are that, if you were ever one of these eager jetsetters, your choice of destination was almost certainly heavily influenced by UNESCO.
It is, after all, the organisation that reviews meritorious manmade edifices, extraordinary natural wonders and any other place of deep cultural significance. If it sees fit, it then awards them a prestigious world-heritage listing. Or not. In tourism terms, it’s a hugely valuable recognition, pretty much guaranteeing an endless stream of modern pilgrims will have it on their itinerary.
How did it all begin, though, for this most singular of organisations? Its roots go back to 1945, a time when the last bombs were being dropped and the final shots were being fired in mankind’s bloodiest ever conflict, World War II.
In November of that year, the representatives of 44 countries convened in battle-scarred London. Shell-shocked by six years of conflict, the nations vowed to work together to deliver a better tomorrow and a future free of such horrors. To this end, they swore to promote education, access to information, cultural protection and scientific endeavour.
By the end of the conference, 37 of the participating countries had agreed to form UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Today it is an agency supported by 185 nations and 10 associate members, with operations all across the world. This month, it is also celebrating its 70th anniversary.
Initially, UNESCO’s membership extended only to the World War II victors, as well as to those few nations that had remained neutral throughout the conflict. As time passed, however, one-time enemies began to come together, united by a common cause. Japan joined the organisation in 1951, followed by Germany in 1953. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of colonialism on the African continent eventually led to the former Soviet republics and the newly sovereign African nations also pledging their support.
Its steadily growing membership numbers were a huge endorsement for the organisation. As founding members had so prophetically warned, however, it was not enough for governments to merely align themselves politically and economically. Lasting peace, in their words, could only stem from “the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.”
Ever mindful of this challenge, the organisation has extended its remit in line with the changing times, launching projects in support of gender equality, access to education and clean water, cultural preservation, environmental protection and increasing awareness of the realities of climate change.
Since 1948, UNESCO has also worked toward ensuring universal primary education for all children. Tackling illiteracy and improving access to education – particularly for girls – remain high among its priorities. Despite its efforts, though, nearly 17 percent of the world’s population remains illiterate, two thirds of them women. According to UNESCO’s own figures, across the world 122 million children are still unable to read or write.
To tackle this, the organisation is working to rebuild education systems in post-war regions. It sees this as about far more than just reconstructing schools, seeing a real need to restore confidence in the victims of war, while undoing the tangled roots of intolerance, terrorism and gender discrimination that still block the way to educational equality.
Over the years, UNESCO’s scope has widened, with its remit now extending to poverty eradication, HIV/AIDS prevention and ocean preservation. It has also taken on the protection of important cultural, historical and natural landmarks.
So successful has it been in this respect that the organisation has even been credited with saving the Pyramids – or, at the very least, preventing urban expansion from destroying the pharaohs’ sacred tombs. In 1995, it took action when an eight-lane highway threatened to cut across the plateau that was home to the Great Sphinx and the Giza Pyramids. Representatives of UNESCO stepped in, asking the Egyptian government to reconsider its plans. Tellingly, it listened and acted on UNESCO’s entreaties.
Similarly in 1997, when the sanctity of the Mount Kenya National Park was threatened by illegal logging and marijuana cultivation, UNESCO stepped in. It brought the issue to the attention of the Kenyan government. It responded immediately, ramping up security measures, launching community awareness campaigns and training forest guards.
Today, the number of UNESCO protected locations – now officially known as World Heritage Sites – number more than 1,000 and stretch across 165 countries. Italy is home to the highest number, with 51 Heritage Sites, closely followed by China with 50 – including the Summer Palace in Beijing, the Silk Road, the historic centre of Macau and, of course, the Great Wall.
Of these sites, 55 are still considered endangered. The at risk locations currently include the Everglades National Park in the US, the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, and Bethlehem – said to be the birthplace of Jesus – in modern-day Palestine.
While it’s not yet formally listed as endangered, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is believed to be seriously imperiled by climate change and coral bleaching. Underlining the problem, the Australian government recently announced that 22 percent of the coral in the reef was already dead. In response, UNESCO has come out in support of the introduction of tree-clearing controls, an initiative designed to curb farm runoff pollution and reduced carbon emissions around the reef.
While this site still needs UNESCO’s unique brand of protection, a number of its previously designated locations have been preserved to the joy of travellers everywhere. A quick peruse of a few its Greatest Hits here provides both an apt celebration of its 70 years, while underlining the importance of its continuing mission.