UNESCO and Issues of Colonization and Decolonization

University of Dakar, 5-6 October 2009


Among UNESCO’s founding Member States were both colonial powers and former colonies. This Conference invited students and scholars utilizing a range of methodological approaches and intellectual frameworks to reflect on UNESCO’s historical role, relevant orientations and actions in regard to colonialism and the era of decolonization. The conference was hosted by the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, and took place on 5 and 6 October 2009.

The history of UNESCO cannot be written without reflection on its relationship to the mass decolonization of both peoples and nations that occurred after 1946. How did these phenomena intertwine with developments at UNESCO in regard to its lines of emphasis, themes, bodies and functions, financing, leadership and conflicts at the heart of the institution and its competing networks? That history can be approached from many angles. Even in terms of the stakeholders involved, questions arise not only about relations between the colonizers and the colonized, but about the role that UNESCO itself played in decolonization.

What role did UNESCO play in the heated debates on the future of colonial empires, whose (former) masters were among the powers wielding great influence over UNESCO’s programmes and financing, and whose historical legitimacy was strengthened further by their status as founding members of the Organization? What stance did the Organization, which was supposed to dedicate its action and resources to the promotion of education and culture for peace, take on the national liberation movements which sometimes expressed themselves through violence?

There is no doubt that UNESCO made many contributions, in diverse forms, to the building and consolidation of the new nation States that emerged from the decolonization process. In so doing, UNESCO contributed to the attainment and consolidation of national independence. UNESCO launched numerous programmes and projects, bilaterally and multilaterally, or endorsed initiatives designed to assist those new States, particularly in the area of education and training. At the same time, decolonization deeply influenced ideas and developments in former colonizing States. In what ways has UNESCO contributed to shaping post-colonial thought both in former colonies and colonizing countries?
The transnational nature of UNESCO’s involvement in the decolonization process over time remains largely unexplored. For this reason, the conference focused on transnational approaches to the following themes:
- UNESCO and concepts of race;the History series published by UNESCO;
- UNESCO’s approach to colonial issues and national liberation struggles;
- decolonization in Africa and Asia and the impact on UNESCO;
- the role of culture and education in “decolonizing minds”;
- decolonization and the future of cultural dialogue.