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Fastidious on UNESCO

ACCORDING to the State Department, many of the problems that bedeviled UNESCO in 1984, when the United States withdrew from the world organization, still vex it today. Consequently, says State, ``the time is not yet ripe'' for the US to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The announcement, contained in a report released Tuesday, is disappointing to those of us who believe that the US should not stand aloof from any gathering place of the world's nations.

Although we opposed America's withdrawal from the 161-member UN affiliate whose purpose is to foster and share learning, science, and culture, the reasons given by the Reagan administration had substance. Under former Director General Amadou Mahtar M'Bow of Senegal, UNESCO was said to be inefficiently managed, and to be imbued with a third-world outlook inimical to the West.

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Of special concern was some members' push for a ``New World Information and Communications Order,'' a proposed communications protocol permitting government licensing of journalists and restraints on the free flow of information.

Under pressure in 1987, however, Mr. M'Bow didn't seek reappointment. His successor, Spanish biochemist Frederico Mayor, pledged to make reforms desired by the US and Great Britain, which also withdrew in 1985.

Some American observers believe that Mr. Mayor has started to make good on his pledge. They say he has tightened budgetary practices, softened the rhetorical tone emanating from UNESCO's Paris headquarters, and largely suppressed the flirtation with sanctioning press restraints.

Yet the State Department and other outside observers contend that Mayor is well-meaning but ineffectual. They say the organization is still top-heavy with be-perked bureaucrats and uses a scattershot approach to programs. And they say that Mayor's attempt to ``balance'' the free flow of information with governmental interests leaves open a back door to censorship.

Whom to believe? It would help to have wider input from government agencies and private-sector organizations engaged in the fields UNESCO covers. US backers of UNESCO claim that American scientists, educators, and scholars are hurt by the country's absence from UNESCO's information-sharing forums. Congress should hold hearings on this question.

In our view, unless conditions in UNESCO are utterly unreformed, the US should start working again to improve it from within, rather than throwing brickbats from without.

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