American UNESCO Official On U.S. Funding Cut Off: ‘The Ramifications Are Serious’ In Iraq And Afghanistan

UNESCO's Casey Walther working on a water project in Iraq

Last month the United States cut off funding to UNESCO after the United Nations cultural body voted to admit Palestine as a member. U.S. law requires that funding be eliminated to any U.N. agency allows Palestinian membership, whether it’s UNESCO or the International Atomic Energy Agency. Indeed, as U.N. Dispatch’s Mark Leon Goldberg noted, “As long as these laws remain on the books, Congress is setting the stage for America’s waning influence over international affairs.”

But also, as the New York Times reports, cutting funding to UNESCO has immediate affects in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as the U.S. is ending the war in the former and coming close to withdrawing from the latter. “The programs include projects to train the Iraqi judiciary and news media, to analyze Iraq’s fresh water resources better and to provide literacy training to Afghans,” the Times reports. A former American UNESCO official based in Baghdad said the move hurts American interests in Iraq:

George Papagiannis, an American, was until a month ago in charge of the Unesco office for Iraq, based in Baghdad. “The ramifications are serious,” he said in a telephone interview. “The larger issue is how a law has undermined our capacity to deliver in a place very critical to American interests. We’ve invested gazillions of dollars in Iraq, and we can’t put a price on the lives of the Americans and Iraqis who died, and we promised to help build a new Iraq, something fresh and new in the Middle East, and then we hamstring ourselves.”

Unesco, as a United Nations agency, “has a positive image, certainly in Iraq,” said Mr. Papagiannis, who now works at Unesco headquarters. The United States, by contrast, was “an invading force in Iraq, with some negative connotations, even if it gave Iraqis something they hankered for. Unesco doesn’t come with that negative imagery.”

Casey Walther, another UNESCO official working in Iraq, said the clean water project there is a vital part of Iraq’s future stability. “That funding is now not coming through, so I’m in a very awkward situation with Iraqis,” he said, “I had access to, and credibility with, Iraqis and now that’s in peril. And to be frank, I don’t know if I can replace that funding or get around it.”