How Clare Short fired me

Observations on international development

Unesco is not one of the UN organisations that grab headlines - or people's imaginations, for that matter; but Iraq is changing that. Unesco has four major areas of interest - education, science, culture and communication - and all are crucial to Iraq's attempts to rebuild itself. Whether or not the organisation will rise to the occasion, it will have to do so in the absence of any significant input from British-based experts.

This is because just a few weeks before she flounced out of the cabinet, the former international development secretary Clare Short took the unprecedented step of abolishing what is known as the UK National Commission for Unesco. The decision was highly significant - particularly in the light of the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Unesco national commissions represent the only real part of the UN system which seeks to go beyond the traditional practice of governments talking to governments.

The creation of Unesco symbolised the spirit of progressive internationalism that lay at the heart of the postwar Labour government. It was founded in London in 1946, and its first director general was the scientist Julian Huxley. His aim was to create an organisation that was focused on "minds" rather than "bodies". Unesco was meant to be not just an organisation that brought governments together, but one that also brought people together. To this end, national commissions were established in every member country to attempt to involve broad cross-sections of "civil society" directly in the work of the organisation. The idea was that these bodies should talk to, and work with, their own governments, Unesco headquarters in Paris and, perhaps most importantly of all, their opposite numbers in member countries throughout the world. Of the almost 200 countries that are members of Unesco, every single one has a national commission - except Britain.

Here I declare an interest - I was a member of the UK National Commission and chaired its communications committee. In the two years of our existence, the commission's committees (which involved roughly 80 representatives from a variety of national organisations) did some impressive work.

But from the start it was clear that the international development secretary resented her resources being used to fund the national commission. Ostensibly this was because she did not see the work of Unesco as being relevant to her "anti-poverty strategy" - though I would have thought that even she could see why education was relevant to the war on poverty. Some have argued, however, that the real reason for Short's antagonism was that here was a body of people working for international development who were wholly independent of her.

Other ministers, whose work Unesco also touches, took a more positive attitude to the national commission. They privately urged Short not to expose Britain to the international ridicule that has now come our way because of her decision to disband the British commission.

It is now up to Baroness Amos, who took over from Short a few weeks ago, to show that Britain is still committed to the United Nations system. She can do so by signalling her intention to rethink her predecessor's intemperate decision. There are many people, both here and, more importantly, abroad, who are hoping that she does just that.