Director-General announces new initiatives in education and culture during first visit to Iraq

Director-General announces new initiatives in education and culture during first visit to Iraq
  • © UNESCO

On 7 May 2009, the Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, made his first official visit to Baghdad, Iraq, to discuss the Organization’s support to national reconstruction efforts with the Iraqi Prime Minister and other top government officials.

The Director-General was joined throughout his trip by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, the First Lady of Qatar, in her capacity as UNESCO Special Envoy for Basic and Higher Education.

During Mr Matsuura’s meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the latter voiced his gratitude for UNESCO’s support in the areas of education and culture, underscoring that both were major concerns for his government and central to national reconstruction and development. The Prime Minister welcomed the Director-General’s visit as an opportunity to reinforce collaboration in these key fields. He spoke in particular of the need for enhanced assistance to national efforts to tackle illiteracy and provide education to the around 5 million Iraqis who are unable to read and write. Prime Minister al-Maliki also urged Mr Matsuura to scale up UNESCO’s in-country presence in order to boost the impact of the Organization’s action.

Mr Matsuura responded by expressing how pleased and encouraged he was at the close alignment of UNESCO’s assistance with national priorities. He said that the three memoranda of understanding which he would be signing with the Iraqi government during his visit were aimed at providing support to the important needs identified by the Prime Minister.

In the field of education, the Director-General announced a project to support Iraq in an ambitious campaign to reduce illiteracy by 50 percent in the next five years. He said that he would be signing a second agreement to expand cooperation in the field of higher education, with the establishment of a College of Archaeology, to be located at the universities of Samara and Kofa, for the purposes of strengthening national capacity to maintain and protect the country’s cultural heritage. Mr Matsuura said that this initiative would build on the important work UNESCO was already leading, with the generous financial support of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah, to help revitalize higher education in Iraq. He also referred to the creation of the new College as an important follow-up to the recent international conference hosted by UNESCO on education in Iraq, which put the spotlight on capacity-development in higher education as one of the priority needs facing the sector (see Flash Info N° 153-2008*). In this context, Her Highness, who had participated in and sponsored the UNESCO Conference, confirmed that Qatar would support the implementation of its recommendations through funding four UNESCO education projects focusing on literacy, curriculum review and development, higher education and teacher training.

Turning to cooperation in the area of culture, the Director-General announced the signing of a third MOU aimed at restoring the Al-Malawyah Minaret and the Great Mosque of Samara, which in 2007 was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. UNESCO has been actively involved in restoring historical sites in Iraq, including the Great Mosque of Samara, as well as in protecting Iraqi antiquities. Mr Matsuura said that the new MOU would help to carry forward and expand this important work.

One further issue which emerged during the Director-General’s discussions with the Prime Minister was the urgent need to strengthen scientific capacity in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki stated that this was vital to meeting key development challenges and spurring economic growth. Mr Matsuura responded that UNESCO had longstanding experience in assisting countries in developing effective science and innovation policies, and pledged the Organization’s full support to Iraq in this field. Her Highness Sheikha Mozah expressed Qatar’s willingness to back the initiative through the provision of both financial and technical assistance.

Mr Matsuura concluded by reaffirming UNESCO’s commitment to scale-up activities in Iraq, within the framework of UN system-wide support. He also answered the Prime Minister’s request to reinforce the Organization’s in-country presence with the announcement that UNESCO would very shortly be posting an international programme coordinator in Baghdad.

Following his meeting with the Prime Minister, the Director-General signed the three memoranda of understanding with the respective Ministers concerned, namely: the Minister of Education, Mr Khodeir Al Khouzai, the Minister of Higher Education, Mr Abed Dial Al Oujaili, and the Minister of Culture, Mr Mahar Dilli al-Hadithi. In the subsequent press conference, Mr Matsuura thanked the Iraqi government for co-financing these projects, which he said highlighted the importance of education and culture to development and represented a vote of confidence in UNESCO’s technical experience and expertise.

While in Baghdad, the Director-General spoke by telephone with President Jalal Talabani and with the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani. He also participated in a round-table discussion with Iraqi ministers to review bilateral cooperation and identify priority areas for assistance. Taking part in the meeting were the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Hoshyar Zebari, the Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Raes Fahmi Jahed, and the Ministers of Education, Higher Education, Culture.

Mr Matsuura also visited the National Museum of Baghdad, which will soon reopen to the public. The Director-General described the rehabilitation of this cultural landmark as “a sign of renewed hope and confidence in Iraq’s future”, highlighting how culture can be a force for dialogue and reconciliation in the country. UNESCO provided important support to the rehabilitation of the Museum, which was looted and severely damaged in 2003. This assistance included the refurbishment and supply of equipment to the museum’s laboratories and the provision of specialized training for staff. Mr Matsuura noted that more than one-third of the around 15,000 objects pillaged in 2003 had been returned to the Museum, and expressed his pleasure at seeing so many of them now on display. However, the Director-General lamented that many of the items taken from the museum, including several precious artefacts, had yet to be located.

Later in the afternoon, Mr Matsuura met with several bilateral Ambassadors to Iraq to assess international support to the country. He provided an overview of UNESCO’s activities in Iraq, highlighting the Organization’s commitment to providing coordinated assistance that is closely aligned with national needs and priorities. The Director-General also spoke with Iraqi professors, students, and other representative of the academic community in Baghdad about the higher education situation in the country. He said that UNESCO’s focus was on meeting immediate student needs and aspirations while working at the same time to restore the structural foundations of the Iraqi education system. “Rebuilding education in Iraq is essential to sustained peace, development and democracy”, Mr Matsuura underscored.

The Director-General’s visit to Baghdad was organized in close cooperation with the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General (SRSG) and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, Mr Staffan de Mistura, and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) staff. The SRSG accompanied the Director-General throughout the visit.

  • Author(s):Office of the Spokesperson
  • Source:Flash Info N° 084-2009
  • 13-05-2009
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