Auroville's connection with UNESCO goes back to the mid 1960s. At that time some members of the Sri Aurobindo Society who were taking an active role in promoting Auroville wanted to approach UNESCO for an endorsement of the planned project. Their reasoning was that nobody would open their purse strings for such a project unless UNESCO endorsed it first.
When Mother heard of the plan she was scornful. “I said to those who look after Auroville, I told them ‘Those people (UNESCO) are two hundred years behind the earth's march, so there's little hope they'll understand'.” But, She added, “I didn't tell them not to deal with them – I don't give any advice.”
The UNESCO link was duly made. In fact, so successful were Auroville's promoters that within the same year the General Assembly of UNESCO unanimously passed the first of four resolutions of support for Auroville, inviting “member states and international non-governmental organizations to participate in the development of Auroville as an international cultural township designed to bring together the values of different cultures and civilisations in a harmonious environment with integrated living standards which correspond to man's physical and spiritual needs.”
Since then UNESCO has supported Auroville in various ways. It has sponsored international conferences, it has provided financial support for specific projects and UNESCO's top people have continued to say nice things about us (two Director-Generals were also members of our International Advisory Council).
The question remains, however, how far are Auroville and UNESCO natural bed-fellows? Are the aims of the two organizations really consonant? Or is this merely a marriage of convenience?
Luigi of Auroville's Future is in no doubt. Quoting one of UNESCO's founding-fathers to the effect that “Lasting peace must first be born in the minds of Men”, Luigi pointed out that Auroville's aims were almost identical, “except that here we are trying to create peace not only in the mind but also in the heart and body of Man. ” He was speaking on the occasion of the recent visit to Auroville of Ms. Minja Yang, the new Director of UNESCO, New Delhi .
Ms. Yang gave her take on the relationship.
“At UNESCO we are dealing with the grand politics of mission, but beautiful words can only be translated into action through very tangible actions such as those engaged in by you. So for UNESCO Auroville represents a dream. What you are trying to do here is a microcosm of all the things UNESCO is trying to defend at the global level.”
UNESCO has been accused of being over-bureaucratic and of being an expensive talking-shop which is out of touch with the needs of those at the bottom of the pile. Ms. Yang accepted some of the criticisms, but noted they were sometimes based on a misunderstanding of UNESCO's role. “We are not a funding agency but a normative one.” UNESCO's job is to engage in dialogue with governments to ensure that certain internationally agreed-upon norms are adhered to. While its guiding mission remains the promotion of world peace through education, social and cultural development, it is seeking innovative ways, she said, to promote gender equality, poverty alleviation and to foster alternative forms of development through making information technology available to all.
All very praiseworthy, if a tad jargonistic. What really brought Ms. Yang into focus, however, was when she described the educational difficulties of her dyslexic son. He was rejected by school after school until she found the right educational environment for him where, suddenly, he bloomed. The point she was making was close to Aurovilian hearts. “Examinations should not be used to eliminate those who trail behind. The important thing is the quality of education, not statistics about how many children are receiving schooling or taking examinations.”
Ms. Yang is full of drive and of idealism. But she's also a pragmatist. When Luigi presented to her the idea of Auroville being designated a UNESCO Heritage Site of the Future, she said it would be very difficult to get such a status. She was interested, however, in Bhagawandas's proposal to set up village centres for the production and distribution of dynamised water. “But these are expensive projects. Can't you scale these machines down to the size of a household?” Ms. Yang received other presentations during her visit. They included Joss speaking about Nadukuppam High School , Gilles Boulicot on bioregional water management and Uma on the Tsunamika initiative.
So does UNESCO really understand what Auroville is about? Mother implied that it didn't, and perhaps never would. (When UNESCO refers to the need to “manage social transformation” it doesn't appear to have the supramental in mind.) But does that really matter as long as the tracks don't diverge too much?