Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow

In his two terms as director general of UNESCO, Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow (born 1921) implemented goals and procedures which proved highly controversal, prompting the withdrawal of the United States and other countries from the organization

Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, a man who was to become the sixth director general of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), had humble beginnings. Born in Dakar, Senegal, in 1921, M'Bow grew up in a small town where he learned traditional farming and animal tending skills.

M'Bow volunteered for the French army and served in France and North Africa during World War II. In 1947 he passed the Baccalaureat and entered the Sorbonne University in Paris. He graduated in 1951 with a License ès Lettres degree in geography.

M'Bow began working for UNESCO in 1953 with the literacy program "Le Service de l'Education de Base." Back home in 1957, M'Bow assumed the post of minister of national education and culture in the first indigenous Senegalese government to handle internal affairs. In 1958 M'Bow clashed with Léopold Senghor, another nationalist leader and Senegal's future president, over the issue of transition to independence. M'Bow supported immediate and complete independence for Senegal, while Senghor and a majority of Senegalese favored continued affiliation with the French community.

In 1966 M'Bow became a member of UNESCO's executive board and twice—in 1966 and 1968—he served as head delegate of the Senegalese mission to UNESCO. In 1970 M'Bow became assistant director general for education of UNESCO.

Four years later, at age 53, M'Bow became UNESCO's director general, succeeding RénéMaheu. M'Bow was the first Black African to head a United Nations support organization. He won unanimous reelection to a second term of seven years in September of 1980.

M'Bow's leadership triggered strong Western criticism, and a number of nations withdrew from UNESCO. M'Bow emphasized such politically-charged topics as disarmament, Israel, and South Africa, rather than such less controversial subjects as scientific cooperation, literacy programs, and cultural preservation and exchanges. M'Bow explained his emphasis by describing UNESCO's major function as intellectual collaboration rather than international development and preservation. Supporters of M'Bow, largely from the developing or Soviet-bloc countries, believed that political issues are basic to education, science, and culture. The United States and some other nations perceive UNESCO's politically-inclined resolutions often as "anti-Western" and as deviating from UNESCO's original functions and mission.


Media Proposal Drew Fire

Western nations especially criticized the proposed New World Information and Communications Order (NWIOCO). While there was general agreement on the goal of giving underdeveloped countries greater access to media technology, controversy developed over sections of the resolution that proposed licensing journalists and requiring the news media to allow rebuttals by governments to stories they find unfair. Western governments—and most media representatives throughout the world—strongly opposed this proposal on the grounds that it would mean censorship. In the words of Cushrow Irani, Chairman of the International Press Institute and publisher of the Calcutta Statesman the licensing proposal would "transform the press into an instrument of governments." While the provision for licensing was deleted from the NWIOCO program at the 1983 UNESCO general convention, other problems had already cropped for M'Bow and UNESCO.


M'Bow Alienated America

M'Bow also faced criticism for administrative and budgetary practices. He centralized operations at UNESCO's Paris headquarters: UNESCO spent 80 percent of its budget on Paris operations, and its Paris bureaucracy grew while its field staff declined. The U.S. General Accounting Office in 1984 concluded that M'Bow made "all substantive and most routine decisions." Western states, especially the United States, objected to an imbalance between their budgetary contributions and their organizational influence. While they contributed the bulk of UNESCO's budget, they were often outvoted on resolutions. Finally, some opponents of M'Bow claimed that UNESCO suffered from substantial nepotism and fiscal irregularities. A report by the US General Accounting Office found that a conference in Latin America originally budgeted at $54,000 actually cost $600,000. According to an article in US News & World Report, M'Bow also remodeled the two top floors of the organization's headquarters into a rent-free penthouse for his family.

Concerned at what it considered the mismanagement and anti-Western bias of UNESCO, the Reagan administration demanded major reforms, but these were not forthcoming. M'Bow further angered the United States by characterizing the American representative at UNESCO, Jean Gerard, as "that woman [who has] no idea how UNESCO works," and that she treated him "like an American black who has no rights," at which point Gerard walked out. Shortly thereafter, in July 1983, President Reagan announced there would be a "thorough review" of continued participation in UNESCO, and in December, he announced withdrawal from the organization by December of 1984.

M'Bow labeled the criticisms as a "veritable smear campaign" which could have far-reaching international consequences. After the United States left UNESCO M'Bow spoke of "certain circles [which] wish to put into doubt the foundations of the international system." Defenders of M'Bow claimed that his tenure at UNESCO gave an important voice to the developing nations, that many of UNESCO's activities—notably its environmental "Man and the Biosphere" program—were valuable, and that under M'Bow's leadership UNESCO's membership grew from 135 to 158 nations.

Criticism of M'Bow—and how he was running UNESCO—continued with both Great Britain and Singapore also leaving the organization and several other nations expressing reservations about continued membership. In an interview with John O'Leary in the London Times Higher Education Supplement, M'Bow dismissed the threatened exodus and declared, "If one, two, three, or even ten (countries) leave, as long as the others have the will to continue to cooperate internationally, that will not affect the organization."


M'Bow Defeated for Reelection

As dissatisfaction continued to mount, 26 nations announced their decision in February of 1986 to oppose M'Bow's reelection for a third term as director-general. In October, M'Bow suddenly announced to a UNESCO executive board he would not run for a third term the next year, stating, "It is necessary, whatever the cost, to get UNESCO out of the hurricane zone while remaining faithful to its democratic principals," as quoted in the New York Times. However, M'Bow quickly changed his mind and campaigned for a third term. He was able to receive a plurality over his opponents when the fifty-member executive board met in September of 1987, but could not muster the necessary majority. On October 17th, just before the fifth ballot, M'Bow withdrew his name, reportedly at the urging of delegates from the Soviet bloc who were concerned about a mass exodus of nations from UNESCO if M'Bow was reelected. The next day Federico Mayor Zaragosa, a Spanish biochemist and former Minister of Education, was chosen to be the new director-general of UNESCO. However, 20 members of the executive board—mostly from African and Arab countries—still voted for M'Bow.


Further Reading on Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow

No biography of M'Bow has been written. He has written at least six books, all published by UNESCO in Paris: Suicide or Survival? The Challenge of the Year 2000 (1978); Consensus and Peace (1980); Building the Future: UNESCO and the Solidarity of Nations (1981); Legacy for All: The World's Major Natural, Cultural and Historical Sites (1982); Where the Future Begins (1982); and Hope for the Future (1984); Details of M'Bow's stormy tenure can be found in "The Man Who Pulls the Strings at UNESCO," US News & World Report (December 25th, 1984); "M'Bow: An Interview," by John O'Leary, London Times Higher Education (January 11th, 1985). M'Bow's unsuccessful bid for a third term as Unesco chief is discussed in "Unesco Board Votes to Support Spaniard in Post," by Steven Greenhouse, New York Times, October 19th, 1987.