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U.S. Public Supports UNESCO, Despite Funding Cuts

A recent poll reveals widespread U.S. support for various UN agencies—including UNESCO, which the U.S. has withheld its support from ever since the agency agreed to recognize the “state” of Palestine.

A national poll revealed that 83 percent of voters in the United States believe it is important for the country to be a member of and provide funding to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, commonly referred to as UNESCO.

Polling results released on Jan. 16 by Better World Campaign(BWC), an organisation that works to support U.S.-U.N. relations, came after recent rows between the U.S. government and U.N. bodies surrounding Palestine’s push for statehood.

In November 2012, the United States was one of nine member states out of 193 in the General Assembly that tried to unsuccessfully bar Palestine from gaining non-member observer state status, and in October 2011, the U.S. cut off funding to UNESCO for admitting Palestine as a member.

The move to cut funds stemmed from a 20-year-old U.S. law that prohibits funding to any U.N. organisation that recognises Palestine as a state.

“The U.S. remains a member of UNESCO even though the U.S. has stopped funding UNESCO,” George Papagiannis, external relations and information officer at UNESCO, told IPS.

“It is even a member of the organisation’s executive board, and fully participates in UNESCO’s Programs,” added Sue Williams, media chief at UNESCO’s Department of Public Information.

UNESCO, a specialised U.N. agency, is described in the poll as an organisation that “helps prevent conflict and build peace around the world by promoting democracy, working to eradicate poverty, and supporting education for all”.

“The public support, indeed, affirms that UNESCO matters to Americans at home and abroad,” said Papagiannis.

Controversial issues

Jeffrey Laurenti, senior fellow at The Century Foundation, told IPS, “There is very little the U.N. does that runs counter to U.S. foreign policy,” but the U.N. does prioritise some issues that are “inconvenient and premature” in Washington politics.

These issues include the death penalty under the Bush administration and the Israel-Palestine conflict under any administration, explained Laurenti.  U.S. President Barack Obama is, however, “pressing to rescue UNESCO from the tangle of 1994 de-funding legislation with regard to Palestinian membership”, Laurenti added.

Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Associates conducted the bipartisan poll by surveying 900 registered voters via telephone between Jan. 6 and Jan. 9, on behalf of BWC.

“[Part] of our objective is to be the people who look at American attitudes just about what’s happening around the world,” said Bill McInturff, partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies.

In response to one of the survey’s open-ended questions, “What do you think should be the main international priorities for the Obama Administration to accomplish in the next four years?” three out of every 10 responders said they hoped to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

According to McInturff, a veteran pollster who gathers data biannually for the U.N. Foundation, three out of 10 is a very high ratio for a response to an open-ended question.

Funding to multilateral organisations

Also on the survey were questions related to U.N. funding.

“We know from previous research [that] Americans greatly overestimate the share of the budget that goes to foreign assistance,” said Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research Associates, citing that the actual amount was less than 1 percent.

During a press teleconference on the morning of the poll’s release, Garin, McInturff, and Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, discussed the topic of U.S. funding to the U.N.

“Two-thirds of our voters support paying our dues to the United Nations on time,” said Yeo, even though “in past years, the U.S. has not paid its dues [on time]“.

“Americans have a sense of ‘Hey, if you’re a member of an organisation, and you’ve agreed to pay the bill, guess what? It’s like a mortgage, it’s just like any other bill. You have an obligation to pay,’” added McInturff.

Laurenti told IPS, “Presumably, the U.S. will continue to pay its assessed dues on time, in full, and without conditions.”

Other multilateral organisations ranked high in polling as well: 87 percent of those surveyed thought the U.S. should be a member of the World Food Programme(WFP).  “You just need to look at the headlines from Syria to know the important role that WFP is playing in feeding and taking care of refugees there,” said Yeo.

Additionally, 92 percent believed the U.S. should be a member of the World Health Organisation(WHO). “This is particularly relevant given that we’re experiencing the worst flu season in many years,” Yeo said.

Laurenti also added, “The U.N.’s performance ratings among Americans are vastly higher than those of the U.S. Congress.”

“Among the international agencies tested, a higher percentage [of people] feel they know enough about what the U.N. is doing that they can offer a judgment, compared to any others,” he noted.

George Gao is a contributor to Inter Press Service.

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