As a grand ethical endeavour, the founding constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states, ‘that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace need to be constructed’. From its inception, UNESCO’s mission statement thus positions the organization as a pre-eminently intellectual pursuit. However, quite unlike related academic disciplines, the UN specialized agency remains an international development agency officially composed of governments. Nation states, which constitute UNESCO’s core membership, provide the institution with regular budgetary contributions and expect it to operate as an efficient bureaucratic body capable of administering a range of specialized programmes. 1
This anthropologist’s interest in UNESCO stems from a one-year engagement within the division of ecological sciences at the organization’s headquarters in Paris between 1995-1996. In the description that follows, I go on to briefly introduce my own involvement as anthropologist in the conceptualization of an inter-sectorial programme designed to revalorize forms of ‘vernacular conservation’ of biodiversity based on indigenous knowledge. The proposed initiative provided a useful point of departure to explore a network of relations beyond the ‘tower of glass’ of the UNESCO-HQ secretariat, including ethnographic research at the annual Working Group on Indigenous Populations held at the United Nations in Geneva, as well as during a regional seminar held in India.
With over 30 regional offices worldwide, UNESCO is both scattered geographically, as well as dispersed conceptually in an array of symbolic transformations. Fieldwork thus attempted to engage multiple facets of the organization at headquarters, as well as in associated events further afield. By tracking a range of different UNESCO activities, I encountered numerous other actors also copying and adjusting themselves to fit the broad institutional discourse of the international organization. Much of the UNESCO process emanating from the central headquarters thus revolved around a template of action offering predetermined global categories, unfinished with local details, waiting to be sculpted or filled in at the periphery.