Iowa City will likely keep City of Literature designation despite U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO

Photo courtesy of the Iowa City Book Festival

The U.S. plans to withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, but Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature Executive Director John Kenyon said he doesn’t believe the decision will have much of an impact on the local designation or the activities of the local organization.

“Our designation is a direct relationship between the City of Iowa City and UNESCO, and this doesn’t change that,” Kenyon said, although he added that the organization would be closely monitoring the situation. “We have been active members for the last nine years and have forged great relationships both with UNESCO and the other cities. We plan to continue our mission and the things we have done both to earn our designation and maintain it.”

Iowa City, which became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008, is one of over 100 creative cities around the world, including 20 cities of literature.

“Iowa City’s membership in that network and its status as a City of Literature simply means that we are looking to celebrate the literary culture that we have here and are looking to help spread that around the world,” Kenyon said. “And those are all things that we will continue to do regardless of whether the U.S. is a member of UNESCO or not.”

The decision comes in the midst of the Iowa City Book Festival, an annual event organized by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature in celebration of books and writing.

Kenyon said that he was personally very disappointed by the decision.

“I know the good that UNESCO does around the world, and I think it’s important for the U.S. to have a seat at the table and help direct that,” he said, stressing that this was his personal opinion, not the stance of the organization.

The withdrawal, which reportedly comes as the result of financial concerns and allegations of an anti-Israel bias, will go into effect at the end of 2018, reducing the U.S. to a nonmember observer state.

Although the U.S. helped to found the organization in the post-World War II era, this isn’t the first time that the two entities have parted ways. The U.S. withdrew from the organization during the Reagan era (citing a pro-Soviet Union bias that time), before rejoining in 2002 under George W. Bush.

The U.S. decided to withhold funding in 2011, after UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member. The U.S. had previously contributed 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget, meaning the decision left a $65 million shortfall.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova issued a statement following the withdrawal expressing “profound regret:”

At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations agency leading these issues.


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At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack.

This is why I regret the withdrawal of the United States.

This is a loss to UNESCO.

This is a loss to the United Nations family.

This is a loss for multilateralism.

According to Bokova’s statement, although the U.S. withheld funding since 2011 UNESCO has continued to partner with organizations within the U.S. on programs like the Creative Cities, UNESCO University Chairs, World Heritage sites and projects with organizations ranging from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to private businesses like Microsoft and Procter & Gamble.

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