Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs: UNESCO on the right track

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

The Dutch want their contribution to the UN to be as results-oriented, effective and transparent as possible. Therefore the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assesses the performance of UN organizations in so-called “score cards”. The Dutch scorecard for UNESCO is particularly relevant because the Netherlands is an influential member of UNESCO: 5th biggest voluntary contributor to UNESCO’s activities, member of the Executive Board that governs UNESCO, Chair of the group of western countries and host-country of UNESCO’s water university Unesco-IHE. This blog summarizes how the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs assesses UNESCO in its most recent scorecard from 19 June 2015 (see this link).

UNESCO's Headquarters in Paris

UNESCO is relevant: Charlie Hebdo, Palmyra....
The scorecard starts by observing that the relevance of UNESCO's mission (“building the defences of peace in the minds of men”) is increasing because intercultural and interreligious tensions are escalating. This is tragically illustrated by the recent attacks on journalists in Paris and by the destruction of unique and irreplaceable cultural heritage in Mali, Syria and Iraq. UNESCO offers a place and convening power to the international community to do something about these threats.

To do what? Some examples: UNESCO coordinates all UN-activities that help protect journalists. The Dutch expert Albana Shala chairs a special UNESCO programme that contributes to this (see this link). UNESCO also leads a global discussion on how to ensure an open and free internet. Furthermore UNESCO is a useful tool to put the words of the UN Security Council in practice. For example when it wants to do something about the destruction of cultural heritage and the selling of cultural goods to generate funds for terrorist attacks. UNESCO concretely raises awareness of these threats (education) and brings partners around the table to take action together (Interpol, World Customs Organization, Governments, heritage institutions and many others).

Generate impact by focusing
UNESCO could generate more impact by focusing on other areas in which it has a clear added value. One example is “Open Access”: the idea that science works better if scientific publications and data are not locked behind insurmountable paywalls. Why should scientists (and you and me) have to pay for scientific journals if the research in it has already been paid with tax payers’ money? Removing these financial barriers to information would help development countries to participate more in scientific research and contribute to development.

Nice activities but: "so what?"
The scorecard appreciates UNESCO’s efforts to manage its activities on the basis of results. On a Dutch initiative UNESCO is now changing its way of reporting on results: it will report not only on what UNESCO does (activities) but also specifically on the changes these activities cause (outcomes). This information is crucial to decide what activities should continue and which activities should be changed or closed. Very positive is also UNESCO’s recently launched transparency portal (see this link). Here you can see where the money goes, for example to this cultural heritage project in the Palestinian territories financed by the Netherlands:

Leverage the power of networks
One added value of UNESCO is that it's not just an office in Paris but a “global network of networks”. UNESCO knows how to leverage the power of these networks: it has a well-defined strategy that indicates per partner how to “use” them to implement UNESCO’s priorities. Positive is also its increasing engagement with private partners like Philips, who became sponsor of the UN International Year of Light (2015). However the management of UNESCO’s field offices (58 all over the world) needs improvement.

Keep looking in the mirror
UNESCO has an excellent audit and evaluation unit that guarantees a constant critical look at UNESCO’s work. It noted the risk that UNESCO’s cultural conventions are becoming the victims of their own success, like UNESCO’s 1970-convention. This convention is a commitment between Member States to combat the smuggling of cultural goods (see this link). UNESCO’s job is to help Member States put this commitment in practice by involving relevant stakeholders in workshops and education programmes, by setting up international databases, etc. However UNESCO currently has so few staff members to do this work that an evaluation report qualified the situation for this particular convention as “absolutely untenable”.

Keep changing
Innovation requires change: staff needs to rotate to keep a "fresh look" at things. While the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff changes position approximately every 4 years, UNESCO’s professional staff sometimes stays 10 years or more. Improvement is also needed with regard to staff and skills management (see link).

"Continue to count on the Netherlands"
When Minister Liliane Ploumen sent the scorecard to Parliament she introduced it with a letter stating that UNESCO's performance has "improved" since 2013 (see this link). Being an important element in the global development process, she wrote, "UNESCO can continue to count on intensive cooperation with the Netherlands.”

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Heritage and social media: interview with Professor Julia Noordegraaf

Twitter: @Oosterenvan 

Our present is being written in documents, painted on paintings and captured in films. How can we make sure this documentary heritage is preserved for future generations? Experts from all over the world came to UNESCO on 1 and 2 July 2015 to discuss a Draft Recommendation that gives countries ideas on how to preserve this heritage (see this link). I spoke with professor Julia Noordegraaf from the University of Amsterdam, who represented the Dutch delegation together with Vincent Wintermans (Dutch National UNESCO Commission) and myself.

Julia Noordegraaf intervenes on behalf of the Netherlands ("Pays-Bas").

Do we preserve our documentary heritage well enough?
Let’s look at social media. Certain memory institutions keep a lot of what happens on the social media. The Library of Congress even keeps all the tweets sent since twitter was created. But the real value of archives is their user-friendliness: can the public access the tweets? And if so, are tweets accessible by theme, year or category of twitter-user? This is currently not the case. So if you want to study the twitter conversation about the Pope’s election it will be very hard to find it, let alone to map it.

Why is it so important to keep tweets and facebook posts?
Because they are our modern correspondence and diaries. In large parts of the world most people don’t write physical letters anymore. Instead they post their impressions on facebook. If nobody takes responsibility for preserving this information we will lose track of our past and our future capacity to understand it. To put things in perspective: we used to be very happy when we found a 17th century diary that tells us how people lived and thought in those days. The same applies to our posts on twitter and facebook: they are our documentary heritage of the future (see also this link).

What kind of research do you lead as a professor of heritage and media culture?
I focus on digital heritage. My first concern is how to preserve digital heritage that, because of the rapid developments in technology, might become inaccessible very soon. My second concern is that of a user of digital heritage: once we are able to preserve it well, what do we do with this growing stock of digital information?

Indeed, what can we do with all these digitalized archives?
They open completely new and exciting avenues for research. Take cinema for example. Researchers now have the possibility to search decades of cinematographic newspapers and administrative documents for specific words. So instead of analyzing cinema in terms of how many cinemas there were and which films they played, one can now study new questions like: which individuals lived near which cinema? What social class were they from? We didn't have these possibilities until recently.

Was this sociological perspective on culture really absent in research so far?
Not absent, but the link with other perspectives was missing. Research on cinema used to be concentrated either on the films itself – the artistic substance – or on the structure of the cinematographic sector and of society. The digitalization of archives has made it possible to connect these different approaches and to study them together. For example by adding “layers” of historical and sociological information on a map of cinemas to see literally who lives near which cinema, what education they received, what their electoral preferences are, etc.

Digitalization costs money. What do museums get in return?
First of all, digitalization makes archives and museums more relevant by increasing access and outreach to the audience. But it also helps science to generate knowledge that is valuable for society and for heritage institutions. For example, we collaborated with the historic Amsterdam Museum to enrich their digital collection database with biographic information about citizens of 17th century Amsterdam who were related to the Amsterdam art market. The result was a database built by researchers and students who dug up all those names from 17th century archival sources and from publications. Connecting these two sets of information now allows us to study the art of the 17th century in relation to the social and economic networks in which it was produced, circulated and used. This information in turn is very useful for museums as it brings paintings to life with biographical details about who is on it. It makes the collection more understandable, more attractive and therefore more valuable.

What about the internet: what do we keep of it?
That’s another conservation challenge indeed: will we later remember what internet looked like 40, 50 years ago? The good news is that libraries do keep parts of it. They regularly “harvest” the pages of a selection of relevant websites. The “bad” news is that they keep only screenshots. Screenshots do give you – literally – a picture of what a website looked like. But you lose the interactive aspect that makes a website what it is: a web content connected to other web contents in which you can “click your way forward”. In other words we do archive something but not in the way it appears to us and in which we use it.

Is this really a shortcoming? I mean you can’t keep the whole internet.
Imagine you want to keep a truthful record of a painting. Is one picture of the painting enough? No, because you want several pictures from several angles to see the layers of paint. Or maybe a video. You also want to know what the exact colors are independent of the lighting, and so on. This “depth” of the painting is what “surfing” is to websites, it’s an essential part of our perception of them. In fact the question of how you archive something is ontological first: what is it that you want to archive? Is it really something you can photograph?

You cannot fully appreciate this Karel Appel painting offered by The Netherlands to UNESCO....

...if you can't see how thick the paint was brushed on the canvas and what the exact colors are like (here photgraphed behind a window and exposed to daylight and artificial light at the same time)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bioethics is everybody’s business

Bioethics is everybody’s business

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

“Bioethics”: what is it? For some it may sound like a highly technical discussion about new technologies transforming human life, like human cloning. This is in fact the example provided in the definition of bioethics in a famous French dictionary: “Cloning poses a bioethical problem.” Others associate it with controversial medical issues like euthanasia: helping a person to end his or her life to avoid extreme and hopeless suffering. In sum, bioethics looks like a discussion that seems very complicated and – like we say in Dutch – “far from our bed.”

But bioethics isn’t far from our bed for several reasons.

First because we’re equal with regard to at least one thing: our lives will end. And most of us will have to deal with suffering before we die. Medical science can avoid unnecessary suffering, so what will be our wish once we get there? This is clearly an important debate that concerns us all here and now, before it’s too late.

Secondly the beginning of life poses bioethical challenges too. Imagine you or your girlfriend is pregnant and a routine prenatal test reveals that the fetus has a serious disorder. The doctor tells you that this disorder will probably cause your child to suffer and that it will reduce its life expectancy to 20 or 30 years maximum. Imagine the responsibility for you as the future parent of this child. This situation can happen to any of us, or to our friends and families. It’s a situation in which you need something to go on. That’s what bioethics is for: it helps you ask the right questions like what’s most important for the child, what are the medical statistics, what do they mean for your case and so on.

You might think: “this is just a very extreme situation, it won’t happen to me.” Hopefully you’re right. But there might be other medical problems on the path of your children that can be identified. But do we need to test for all potential problems? Of course not. But DNA techniques are becoming so good and affordable that it might soon be a matter of routine to know what the future medical history of a child will be like. And maybe it’s not you but a family member who finds out that there’s a “risky gene” in the family, because DNA-tests are available via the internet. In other words: before you know, you know what's coming and then you have to deal with it. Unless we decide what we want to know, when and how.

This is exactly the type of problem that bioethicists address. Like in this article in Nature (see this link) written by Annelien Bredenoord, a Dutch Senate Member, and Hans van Delden, a Dutch member of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee. They note that on the one hand it’s getting increasingly easy to learn about genetic risks but that on the other hand the ethical basis for dealing with this information hasn’t evolved much. The authors agree that it is good to keep the child’s future open by not informing him or her about incurable diseases it has a good chance to develop later. But for them this doesn’t mean that it’s unethical to run a complete DNA-test on the child that would reveal this information. The ethical matter is not the test itself, but our decisions as to how and when its results will be disclosed to the child and its parents. A bioethical debate can help propose options for this.

As complete DNA-tests will soon be cheap and possible anywhere on the globe it’s obvious that this debate needs to be global. In fact most bioethical dilemmas are global because, a UNESCO report puts it, “what becomes legal in one single country becomes allowed” (see this link). Take the practice of gestational surrogacy. As this practice is not legal on French territory, France refused to recognize children born to surrogate mothers abroad as it would “encourage this practice”. However the European Court of Human Rights found that this would undermine the children’s identity in France and ordered France to recognize them anyway. In this case a human right, the right to family life, came under pressure due to a lack of international bioethical consensus regarding a medical practice or technology.

To reach consensus on important bioethical aspects of human life, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee (IGBC) will gather in Paris on 16-17 July 2015 to discuss bioethical issues (see this link). Experts from 36 governments will try to provide a basis for consensus and guidance for all countries of the world with regard to bioethical dilemmas. This debate will address fundamental values in the field of bioethics which are not a business of only governments, philosophers, doctors and pharmaceutical companies. They are everybody’s business.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Linguistic immigrants and semantic holes

I am always on holiday. Not physically, but mentally. The explanation: I live in three languages at the same time: Dutch (my native language), French and English. I created this situation almost 20 years ago by moving from the Netherlands to Paris. By moving into the French language I became a permanent “linguistic immigrant”. When I met my wife, whose native language is English, it felt like moving into another language again. Another linguistic immigration, but without leaving the city. As she doesn’t speak Dutch, I constantly have to do what people do who are on holiday: find my words in other languages. That is how it feels to me: I’m always on holiday.

Is it frustrating not to be able to express myself in my first language? No. On the contrary. It gives my mind new alleys, new paths to new meanings. It keeps my mind in shape. When you constantly have to go look for something it stimulates your creativity. Think of the Nietzschean image of the river that develops its power thanks to the obstacles it encounters. I always feel like that river, because the words that are available to me often don’t feel good enough. I have to jump obstacles to express what I mean: “there must be a better word”. I enjoy that feeling because it means I have to try out other words and test new meanings. No, it’s not frustrating to be permanently limited to a foreign language. 

A part of my dictionaries. They are like friends to me. They permanently live on my desk. They're like countries, different linguistic landscapes I can travel in.

Living in a foreign language is like living with a second skin. There’s a sort of distance between you and the words. To me this distance does not cause frustration. On the contrary it causes passion: the passion to find the right word. I’m so used to the feeling that “there must be a better word” that I’m always in the mood for a linguistic trip to find it. Even if that word doesn’t exist; it drives my wife crazy sometimes.

The distance between me and my foreign languages also causes something else: esthetic appreciation. It’s like reading poetry in your native language: you don’t understand it 100% but it sounds and feels so new and nice! I have that feeling especially with Italian which I speak a little. Reading out a manual in Italian is like reciting an opera. It’s just beautiful. It’s so wonderfully different from my own, down-to-earth, “first-skin” native language. It’s like a “trip to meaning” that’s a bit longer than in Dutch but that’s worth the detour.

The pleasure of living in other languages is not only that you discover new meanings. You also discover that other languages lack meanings you have in your own language. I recently discovered for example that both English and French don’t have the equivalent of the Dutch word “contactgestoord”. It literally means “contact disturbed” and refers to a person that has trouble communicating with other people; a socially handicapped person. My French dictionary gave me this: “a person subject to relational inhibitions”, clearly not a satisfactory equivalent. I call this a “semantic hole”. Even though “socially handicapped” is a pretty good translation for “contactgestoord”, it doesn’t seem to express the same idea. My wife would argue that it is the same, but to me that would make things too easy. It would deprive me of a trip to new linguistic horizons. I don’t want to return from holiday, not yet.