"The Preservation of Heritage is Linked to Development"
Dr Malama Meleisea
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has a global mandate to promote peace and prosperity through international collaboration in the fields of education, science, and culture. Dr Malama Meleisea has led UNESCO activities in Bangladesh as Country Director and Representative since February 2007. On the eve of his departure from Bangladesh, the charismatic Samoan sat down with the Star's Syed Zain Al-Mahmood to share his experiences and insights.
Looking back at your three years as Director of UNESCO Dhaka office, what are the achievements that stand out for you?
As you know, UNESCO implements its activities through the five programme areas of Education, Natural Science, Culture, Communication and Information and Social and Human Sciences. My strategy when I first arrived was to establish UNESCO activity in all five programme sectors. Back then, we only had Education, Culture and Communication and Information. Now I'm very happy to say we have activities in all five programme areas. So UNESCO has certainly made a lot of progress in Bangladesh in the last few years, and for that I must thank the sincere efforts of all concerned.
Has education been the priority under your leadership?
Education has always been a major thrust of this organisation. We have been working with the Bangladesh government and NGOs to make sure that the policy is right, the strategy is right, and to build capacity as the country moves towards the goal of Education for All. A lot of organisations are working in the field of education, and we are trying to help the government devise a systematic way to handle and coordinate everything.
I should mention that we are doing important work in the area of Non-formal education (NFE), in cooperation with the Bureau of Non-formal Education. NFE is a systematically organised form of education that generally occurs outside the formal institutions; it is designed to meet the learning needs of educationally disadvantaged persons of different ages and backgrounds, and has traditionally been a neglected area in Bangladesh.
Another area we have concentrated on is raising awareness about the threat of HIV/AIDS. UNESCO has played a key role in including information about HIV/AIDS in various stages of the school curriculum.
We are also working with the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education (MoPME) and Ministry of Education (MoE) with other aspects such as governance issues, teacher recruitment, school management etc. We have had some input in the draft education policy.
How do you view the growing trend towards privatisation of education services?
I would say there is definitely room for private sector involvement. In most countries, private providers of education exist alongside the government system. In Bangladesh, you can see that the government is struggling to provide education for everybody. So the NGOs and private groups have an important role. It also provides competition in terms of quality. It's good as long as there is no profiteering and the government agencies in charge of monitoring are doing their job. For example, at the university level the University Grants Commission (UGC) has an important role to play to ensure quality.
Bangladesh has placed a lot of faith in ICT. There is a belief that Information Technology can help bridge the gap between rich and poor.
Digital Bangladesh by 2021 -- another ambitious target! But it's always good to have a vision. The availability of information for all is at the heart of UNESCO's mandate. Not only should information be accessible to all, but that information must be updated and relevant. We were involved in the process leading to the Right to Information Act 2009. I firmly believe that ICT can play an important role in development. One programme that we are all excited about is the Community Radio programme.
Can you give details about Community Radio?
The aim of UNESCO's community radio programme is to address crucial social issues at a community level, such as poverty and social exclusion, empower marginalised rural groups and catalyse democratic processes and development efforts. The strength of Community Radio is that unlike the mainstream media, it facilitates a two-way information flow - media to people and vice versa. The Bangladesh government in 2008 invited applications for licenses, and I believe a shortlist has been drawn up. We have urged the government to expedite the process and to make sure that community radio is not used for political purposes.
You have been active in promoting gender equality through your programmes.
Yes, indeed. Gender equality is one of UNESCO's global priorities, along with Africa. We have programmes aimed at prevention of violence against women. We are aware that teachers' attitudes can be influenced by gender stereotypes, as can the textbooks used in class. We try to make sure that gender biased text is weeded out of textbooks.
What in your opinion is the link between culture and development?
The preservation of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, is very much linked to a nation's identity and overall prosperity. On one side it is a response to globalisation, and is also linked to the development efforts. The intangible heritage like music is alive and well in Bangladesh, but it is the tangibles I'm worried about. Bangladesh has three world heritage sites, which quite frankly, are not being properly preserved. The Department of Architecture needs much more funding and staffing.
During your time here, you have worked closely with government ministries and agencies, trying to influence policy. What was that like?
I must admit that it can be frustrating. There is a lot of red tape, but there are also dynamic individuals who want to get the job done. At the risk of sounding less than diplomatic, it is difficult to understand why there are two ministries -- Ministry of Primary and Mass Education (MoPME) and Ministry of Education (MoE). Human nature being what it is, there is often lack of coordination between the two. For an outsider that can be frustrating. That is just one example. Bangladesh must fix the system, and ensure that things get done in the greater interest of the nation. Once the political will is there, everything else will follow.
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