UNESCO, a praiseworthy organization at the service of knowledge and peace

An interview with Danielle Mazzonis, a member of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO and an adjunct professor at the IULM in Milan and a senior consultant on Latin America local development for IADB and OECD. In 2012, she joined the Scientific Council of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, Venice (Italy), as a member. She has since also served as chairperson of the council. We were interested to know what her experience and thoughts were.

Prior to joining the Office’s Scientific Council, could you tell us what had been your experience with UNESCO?

My first contacts date back to the 1980s when I was working at ENEA, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Environment. Federico Mayor, the Director-General of UNESCO then, was an exceptional man whom I had the pleasure to meet a few times on the occasion of conferences and seminars on the dissemination of knowledge and on the economic and social implications of scientific research. This subject - had fascinated me since my youth - led me to choose a career in chemistry. Federico Mayor’s humanistic and historical interpretation of is subject opened my mind to a new way of thinking that, since then, I have tried to cultivate.

At that time, the ENEA President, Umberto Colombo, was a member of a Science Commission for UNESCO; because of his busy agenda, he could not follow personally at times the Commission’s works in Paris and thus I was asked to participate on his behalf. I partook in some very interesting meetings in which a variety of high personalities of different traditions and nationalities exchanged their ideas on theoretical results and applications of new discoveries, but also on the implications and perspectives of history, politics and philosophy of science. I also attended debates and meetings on strategic different issues, such as the manipulation of genes or the energy crisis and its possible solutions, including the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy. My participation in these events further solidified my belief that UNESCO is an extremely useful organization at the service of knowledge and peace, the latter of which, I believe, can only truly be found as a consequence of knowledge.

How does your background contribute to your present role in the Scientific Council of this Office?

My father was an intellectual who valued culture and explained in a very convincing way that art was the only real antidote against war, in all its aspects. As a child, he took my sisters and me to visit the main capitals of culture. It was a curious childhood, spent visiting museums and listening to poetry readings. Later, I was re-introduced to the "world" of Italian cultural heritage when ENEA established a working relationship with the Ministry of Culture, as the scientific expertise of the Agency, which was relevant at the national level for development and research in the nuclear and environmental fields, was being used for the diagnosis in view of restoration projects.

After having later worked at the Ministry of Economy and undertaking a period of study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States of America, I was drawn towards working in politics. I decided to change my job in order to address the social implications of knowledge, technological development and innovation. It was with this background that I was attracted by politics. With that experience and after 10 years I became a member of the Government, in the Ministry of Culture.

It is my hope that with this background in Culture and Science I can contribute to the work of the Scientific Council of this Office. My experience in Italy, Europe and other countries - that one in which the UNESCO Venice Office works - has helped the discussions we have had in the fields of culture, science and even in the city of Venice. This "double vision" on the content and the policies had led to an understanding of the Office, and therefore also of UNESCO, as a much more unique entity in the UN system due to the intricate complexities and interactions amongst the various fields in which it works.

What do you think are the opportunities this Scientific Council could provide to the Office? Are there are any challenges to be overcome?

I think the main opportunity for this Council compared to other ones of the past is the diverse cultural backgrounds and fields of expertise of its members. In our meetings, professors with different academic visions have been able to remind us of the rigor of the dissemination of knowledge, its tools, benefits and forms, but always respecting the design work and identification of strategically important issues as prepared by the staff. The cultural and technical debates amongst ourselves and between us and the Office’s staff, at least from my point of view, has resulted in a greater diversification of projects and actions, as well as in the establishment of some new partnerships. It is my hope for the future that this Council could also contribute to the search for additional funds for new activities for the Office, in line with its mandate.

Could you tell us about a recent project you have worked on that you believe to be of particular interest?

In that context of years of work in projects relating to territorial development in various areas of Latin America, I have had many opportunities to be in contact with extraordinary products, fruits of ancient knowledge which sometimes have almost disappeared. Multilateral donors are luckily rediscovering these initiatives and trying to make them sustainable.

I have been able to contribute to the design and implementation of various activities for the exploitation of these goods in countries which are poor from the economic point of view but rich in skills, creativity and ideas. In Bolivia and Peru, for example, I had recently helped groups of women with high abilities in designing and embroidering; this initiative has been transformed into a cooperative that will collaborate with a famous Italian fashion company.