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VIRTUAL SIMULATION: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Executive Board

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the specialized agency responsible for promoting global collaboration through programs that promote education, science and culture. The five major programme areas addressed by UNESCO are education, natural sciences, social and humanitarian science, culture, and communication and information. UNESCO acts as a clearinghouse for information and assists Member States in developing human and institutional capacity. UNESCO reports to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); it also coordinates with several other specialized agencies as well as many intergovernmental organizations outside the United Nations System. The General Conference meets every two years to determine the policies and the main lines of work of the organization.

Strategy for youth and adult literacy (2020-2025) Strategy for youth and adult literacy (2020-2025)

In 2019, there were 773 million illiterate people across the world, a disproportionate number of which were women. Literacy is an essential component of the right to education and a prerequisite for accessing other human rights. In addition, literacy underpins other United Nations goals, including reducing child mortality, eradicating poverty and promoting gender equality. Illiteracy disproportionately affects women, rural populations, indigenous peoples, minorities, people with disabilities, and refugees and migrants. As part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations has vowed to achieve literacy and numeracy for all youth and a substantial proportion of adults by 2030.

The United Nations has long recognized the importance of advancing global literacy. UNESCO conducted research to define the scope of the illiteracy problem in the 1950s, revealing that 44 percent of people worldwide aged 15 or older were illiterate and that a majority of adults in almost half of all countries were illiterate. In 1965, UNESCO convened the World Conference of Ministers on the Eradication of Illiteracy, which described literacy as the most significant cause of human progress and fulfillment, and issued a Declaration that sought to achieve global literacy by 2000. In keeping with this goal, the International Symposium for Literacy was held in 1975 which resulted in the Persepolis Declaration. The Persepolis Declaration outlined the importance of literacy as social progress not just a set of learned skills. Further, it acknowledged the value of mass literacy campaigns and the progress being made to eradicate illiteracy. Despite such efforts, illiteracy remained prevalent. In 1990, designated International Literacy Year, the International Literacy Conference convened literacy providers and educators from governments, non-governmental agencies and financing organizations. By the turn of the century, global illiteracy rates remained around 20 percent

The United Nations has served as a platform for setting international development goals in literacy and education. Adopted in 2000, Millennium Development Goal Two mobilized States to develop the capacity to ensure all children could receive a full course of schooling by 2015. Through UNESCO and the Education for All goals, States committed to halve the illiteracy rate by 2015. To advance this ambitious goal, in 2003 the General Assembly declared 2003-2012 to be the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD) in an effort to raise public awareness and to make literacy a political priority on both the national and international levels. To complement the UNLD, UNESCO and its specialized organization for adult literacy—the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning—created the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment as a 10-year (2006-2015) strategic framework for the international community to collectively focus on the spread of literacy in the 35 countries that accounted for 85 percent of the world’s illiterate population. The program was structured specifically to improve literacy rates among women and girls and other marginalized groups. While the international community achieved some success during the lifespan of the Millennium Development Goals and the UNLD, adult illiteracy only declined 26 percent since 2000, significantly short of the ambitious 50 percent target set at the start of the century. Even so, lessons from the initiatives offered insights for the next international framework to combat illiteracy and paved the way for the creation of the Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy (2020-2025).

In 2019, UNESCO’s 40th General Conference adopted the Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy (2020-2025) to stress the crucial role of literacy and education in executing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. While similar past initiatives from UNESCO sought to spread literacy broadly, the Strategy aims to provide global support to the countries and populations that face the world’s most significant literacy challenges. In particular, UNESCO is focusing on the 29 countries in the Global Alliance for Literacy within the Framework of Lifelong Learning (GAL), which advocates for policies in favor of youth and adult literacy both locally and globally. The GAL includes 20 countries with a literacy rate below 50 percent, as well as the E9 countries, which represent over half of earth’s population and 70 percent of the world’s illiterate adults. Four strategic priority areas underpin the Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy: supporting Member States in developing national literacy policies and strategies; addressing the learning needs of disadvantaged groups, particularly women and girls; leveraging digital technologies to expand access and improve learning outcomes; and monitoring progress and assessing literacy skills and programs. Furthermore, the Strategy emphasizes the need to provide young people and adults who are out of school with alternative learning opportunities. Within the framework of the Strategy, UNESCO and Member States will continue to consider what measures will provide children and adolescents with access to quality education. 

However, many efforts to obtain global literacy were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the cost of illiteracy while exacerbating underlying risk factors. UNICEF reports that across low- and middle-income countries, learning interruptions resulted in the proportion of 10-year-olds unable to read and understand a simple text increasing from pre-pandemic levels of 53 percent to up to 70 percent. The pandemic has contributed to a global learning loss with disadvantaged groups being disproportionately impacted. UNESCO will have to contend with the worsened state of global literacy resulting from the pandemic. If recent trends in illiteracy are to be reversed, care should be taken to incorporate literacy development into post-pandemic rebuilding models. Representatives are likely to consider how the challenges in obtaining literacy vary across different demographic groups necessitating robust responses capable of advancing literacy rates among both youth and adults. 

Even though progress toward basic literacy remains an ongoing challenge complicated by the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO hopes to give increased attention to advancing digital literacy skills, employing native or mother language-based literacy practices and providing competency training for educators and administrators. Understanding the scope of the challenge ahead, UNESCO will need sufficient financial, human and technical resources—and the strong political commitment of Member States—to achieve these ambitious goals.

Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • How can Member States leverage technology to provide education to children living in areas where in person learning is impossible?
  • What measures should be enacted to combat the disparity between the number of literate men and literate women?
  • How can UNESCO and Member States generate momentum to support literacy in the 29 countries with highest numbers of illiterate adults?

Bibliography Bibliography

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Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change

A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that sea levels rose 15 centimeters during the 20th century. Today, they are rising more than twice as fast—3.6 millimeters per year—and this rate is accelerating, placing 680 million people in low-lying coastal areas and 65 million people in Small Island Developing States in harm’s way. Furthermore, the ocean has absorbed between 20 and 30 percent of human-made carbon dioxide emissions since the 1980s, causing ocean acidification that impacts fisheries, aquaculture and tourism. By displacing populations and stressing natural resources, the effects of climate change often fuel international tension

Climate change possesses an ethical dilemma that undermines the international community’s political efforts to address it. The significant time delays associated with climate change mean that most of the worst effects of yesterday’s pollution will not become apparent for decades, while already some effects cannot be stopped because of the accumulation of past carbon emissions or future, inevitable emissions. Further challenging political efforts to address the problem is a misalignment between the sources of greenhouse gas emissions and the areas that will bear the brunt of climate change’s catastrophic effects. This then presents ethical considerations: for example, while a wealthy State responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gasses may be able to mitigate the effect of climate change by building levees and seawalls to control flooding, impoverished States with less responsibility for climate change cannot finance expensive infrastructure projects and will bear the brunt of climate change. Integrating ethics into the global approach to addressing climate change is necessary to building the political will to ensure a response to climate change that considers the full ethical ramifications and does not further exacerbate systems of inequity.

In 1987, the international community adopted the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Ratified by all Member States, the Montreal Protocol is considered to be one of the most effective environmental agreements in history, with universal ratification resulting in the almost complete elimination of the use of ozone-depleting substances. Because it was created to prevent future calamity, the Montreal Protocol serves as an example of the precautionary principle in practice, which reasons that scientific certainty is not necessary to take actions that reduce risk. At the time of its ratification, science was still finalizing its understanding on what role substances like chlorofluorocarbons contributed to ozone depletion; however, waiting for scientific certainty may have perpetuated additional harms to the earth’s ozone. The international community’s work continued in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Member States began to sign the new United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC aims to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to limit the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Its preamble declares that Member States have an ethical duty not to harm others outside of their borders, a recurring principle among modern ethical norms.

Although climate change has been a topic of frequent discussion at the United Nations for over 30 years, a specific focus on climate change and ethics is a relatively recent development. Recognizing the compounding scientific, social and humanitarian challenges posed by climate change and the necessity for thoughtful solutions, UNESCO adopted Resolution 36 at its 35th General Conference in Paris in 2009. The resolution called upon the UNESCO Director-General to prepare a report on the merits of and desire for a declaration of ethical principles in relation to climate change. While the General Conference chose not to immediately pursue the creation of a declaration, UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) developed and adopted a Framework of Ethical Principles and Responsibilities for Climate Change Adaptation in 2011. While the Framework highlights principles that would become the cornerstone of the final Declaration, it also details stakeholder responsibilities relevant to climate adaptation.

In 2015, the General Assembly adopted the Paris Agreement, which established emission reduction targets and supported Goal 13 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. The Paris Agreement draws from some ethical principles—like the principles of equity and sustainable development—in making its political declaration to mobilize States toward addressing climate change. To reinforce this political progress, UNESCO in 2017 adopted the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change. The Declaration details six ethical principles for responding and adapting to climate change: prevention of harm, the precautionary principle, equity and justice, sustainable development, solidarity, and scientific knowledge and integrity in decision making. The Declaration further explains that unless ethical principles become the guiding lens for climate action, climate change and adaptation measures could create irreparable damage and injustice, especially in vulnerable States that are already enduring the effects of climate change. In contrast to other conventions created by the United Nations, such as the Montreal Protocol or the UNFCCC, the Declaration is designed to be a framework for behavior by both State and non-State actors. Consequently, the Declaration may advance coordinated action among civil society organizations, academics and local communities as they seek to raise educational awareness and international cooperation on climate change.

Addressing climate change through the lens of ethics is a crucial opportunity for the international community as States’ efforts to meet the Paris Agreement goals continue to fall short. Yet the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change has struggled to gain traction as well. UNESCO convened a panel in 2019 at the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Madrid, Spain, where participants highlighted that Member States and nongovernmental organizations have failed to identify or apply ethical principles when evaluating policies that bear environmental implications, resorting instead to economic arguments. The 2018–2021 Strategy for Action on Climate Change directed UNESCO to support Member States with developing and implementing climate change education and public awareness programs to empower people and States to adopt sustainable lifestyles. The strategy noted work remains to include promoting interdisciplinary and scientific knowledge on issues associated with climate mitigation and adaptation, and recognizing the role that cultural knowledge and diversity play as crucial social drivers for implementing the resilience measures required in order to respond to climate change. While UNESCO judged in 2021 that the strategy had been successful in integrating the strategy’s tenets into its work, it concluded that most of the specific projects done in the name of the strategy were already planned or proposed, not novel projects generated in response to the strategy itself. UNESCO accepted much of this internal feedback into its midterm strategy, where promoting an understanding of the ethical and moral implications of climate change remains a priority. Confronting and adapting to climate change in an ethical and just manner will prove demanding, but the consequences of failure are dire, making the work of UNESCO ever more important in motivating international cooperation to build a more sustainable and prosperous future.

Questions to consider from your country’s perspective:

  • How can States incorporate the Declaration’s six ethical principles into policy at the national level?
  • What should UNESCO do to instill ethical principles in nongovernmental and civil society organizations and the private sector?
  • What measures can UNESCO take to support the inclusion of ethics, as well as scientific and cultural knowledge, in global, national, local, and individual efforts to address climate change?

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Bibliography Bibliography

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United Nations Documents United Nations Documents

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