Malcolm Adiseshiah - UNESCO and UN Service

UNESCO and UN Service

Adiseshiah served as Associate General Secretary of the World University Service, Geneva during 1946-48. This association helped him later to support steps for the construction of World University Service Centre in Chennai and women’s hostels in Delhi and Rajasthan. In that period, he was also connected with the World Student Christian Federation and Student Volunteer Service.

A United Nations Conference for the establishment of an educational and cultural organization (ECO/CONF) was convened in London from 1 to 16 November 1945 which decided to create a new organization to establish the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind” and, in so doing, prevent the outbreak of another world war. Thirty-seven countries founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Its Constitution to promote collaboration between member states in the fields of education, science and culture was signed on 16 November 1945 and came into force on 4 November 1946. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, former President of India, was an old student of Adiseshiah’s father. He made a referral to Sir Julian Huxley, then Director-General of UNESCO, who invited Adiseshiah to the organization in 1948. He was posted as Deputy Director of the department of exchange of persons. In that capacity Adiseshiah signed the UNESCO Fellowship letter in 1949 to M. S. Swaminathan, eminent scientist and administrator, to pursue research at the Agricultural University in Wageningen, the Netherlands which turned out to be the starting point of his illustrious career.

Adiseshiah was promoted to the post of Director of technical assistance department in March 1950 thus turning out to be one of its six top executives. He was authorized to represent the Director-General at the technical assistance board set up by the UN.

About this period, Rene Ochs, a fellow member of staff, who later rose to be a Director at UNESCO, writes:

The stage was set for the beginning of a new era. Everything was possible; yet everything remained to be done with non-existent resources. It was done, though in a surprisingly short time, by very few people, among whom Malcolm Adiseshiah held a prominent, if not a unique place. Those who had the privilege of working with him from the early years of technical assistance, and the following years of growing success and achievements, witnessed the outstanding performance of man whose extraordinary vision immediately recognized the opportunity offered, projected its potentialities into the future and made the dream come true. This required no less than the towering quality of his intelligence, his rare organizational ability and resourcefulness, his uncommon physical stamina, his unrelenting pace of work and unflinching dedication to the task at hand and a faith coupled with realism which carried mountains. 6

UNESCO's tentative proposals were submitted for Technical Assistance for Economic Development in 1950-51. Adiseshiah organized the new department, established area desks corresponding to UN geographical regions, instituted the procedures and methods of operation and set-up a ‘report and information unit’ which produced periodically a technical assistance bulletin.

In 1955, he was promoted as one among the three Assistant Directors General of UNESCO and put in charge of development.

The third stage of UNESCO’s activities dated from the early sixties when many African countries became independent and joined it. In 1962, he was promoted to the post of Deputy Director General of UNESCO. Then he was the sole incumbent to that office. The UNESCO began organizing important regional conferences of ministers of education or ministers of sciences along with ministries of economic development. The first Asian Ministers of Education Conference was held in Karachi in 1959 and the first conference for Africa in Addis Ababa in 1960.

Sylvain Lourie, Assistant Director General of UNESCO, writing in 1991, has commented that

Radical changes which had affected educational demand and supply are forcing a reconsideration of the very foundations of educational planning such as they prevailed in their heyday some 30 years ago, when Dr. Adiseshiah played a historical role, guiding UNESCO in setting regional targets for public spending on education throughout the world and in establishing UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.7

Adiseshiah was responsible for the development of the Karachi Plan for Universal Primary Education for Asia, the Addis Ababa and Santiago plans for the African and Latin American educational development and the corresponding science plans for Asia, Africa and Latin America. He worked in tandem with David Owen, Executive Chairman of the Technical Assistance Board to convince donor countries, since the financing of the expanded programme rested on voluntary contributions made by them at pledging conferences. He soon recognised the need for looking to additional sources and established relations with the International Development Association (IDA), Inter-American Development Bank and other regional development banks. UNESCO approached the World Bank, also known as International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) for medium trade credit for funding a project in Tunisia in 1962. The IBRD till then was concentrating on investments in physical capital. It needed the persuasive skills of Adiseshiah to shift IBRD’s focus exclusively from expansion of physical capital towards the development of human capital as well, especially extension of education. He was chiefly instrumental in negotiating the memorandum of understanding between International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and UNESCO in 1964. He introduced flexibility in utilizing multilateral aid. For instance, he used a substantial part of USSR contribution for technical assistance for establishing IIT, Mumbai. The expanded technical assistance programme was merged with the United Nations Special Fund to form the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which was launched in 1966. He was able to formulate in each country a programme of technical and financial assistance, which he started with a global outlay of $ 3 million per annum in 1950. When he retired from the organization, the outlay had increased to $ 300 million!

In his own words,

UNESCO has had a double responsibility. First it has had to coordinate the entire educational programmes of the United Nations family and give each part of the programme the expertise and help it needed. Secondly, for the UN system, it has had to act as the focal point and leader in all matters of education and science… there has been a continuing process by UNESCO of clarifying, refining and consolidating its own educational and scientific mandate. … education and science also have wider connotations in their application to peace and understanding...”8

Adiseshiah kindled efficiency by arousing team spirit. He had mastered the art of training a team to fulfil the aspirations of the mission. He made two rounds of round the world trips each year which took him to as many as twenty five countries in succession, and yet he did not get tired out. He organized more than 120 projects in the various countries of the world for their economic and social development through education, science and culture.

He had visited all the hundred and twenty seven member states of the UN several times and had used all forms of transport. He visited each one of the Third World countries that was becoming member of the UNESCO, studied its economic situation first hand, assessed its need for literacy and education and made recommendations as to how those needs could be met in his ‘Mission Reports.’ He never wrote a Mission Report about any country before familiarizing himself with the features of each situation. Each of his ‘Mission Reports’ were reported to be pioneering contributions about the specific regions on which the reports focused to the emerging discipline of development economics.

The then Director-General, Rene Maheu, was reluctant to let him retire in 1970, when he was 60. But Adiseshiah insisted on leaving. So Rene Maheu obtained the sanction of the Executive Board of UNESCO to replace Adiseshiah with two Deputy Director-Generals!

There are in the UNESCO archives 118 Adiseshiah files covering, even by a rough estimate, 48000 pages.

As UNESCO official, he had rendered lots of assistance to Indian projects. The publication of UNESCO Art Album on Ajantha was mainly due to his yeomen efforts and was due to his vision that the heritage sites of humankind must be preserved for all posterity.

UNESCO assisted in the setting up of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), New Delhi: the establishment of first TV broadcasts in India; the reorganization of Films Division of India; the provision of twenty renowned Professors of engineering and science; the supply of $ 12 million worth of equipment to IITs of Bombay and Kharagpur; the expansion of aeronautical engineering in Madras Institute of Technology; and the provision of experts and equipment to Alagappa Chettiar College of Engineering and Technology in Madras (now Chennai), Tamil Nadu.

He was instrumental in rendering such assistance to all member nations of UNESCO with special emphasis to Asian, African and South American nations.

Even after his retirement from UNESCO, till 1991, he had visited countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia at their invitation three times a year to advise them on their development plans.

In January 1981, Adiseshiah was elected Chairman of the Governing Board of the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) for a five-year period. He was re-elected for a second term for five years from 1986. He was the Chairman of the jury for the selection of the international literacy prize winners in 1987, 1991 and 1992. He delivered the Presidential Address at the World Literacy Day function in Paris in 1989.

With a lively interest in environmental science, he was a member of the UN International Committee of Consultants on Environment. He was the co-coordinator of the UNESCO Working Group on the New International Economic Order. He reviewed India’s experience with the UN during the first forty years of its existence in a frank assessment of the role of the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the powerful interests working behind the scenes in shaping their policies in a book which he edited.9

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