Lien/Link, the newsletter of the Association of Former Staff Members of UNESCO, devoted two articles to memorializing Jack Fobes in 2005 (Issue 92, April-June 2005). That issue is no longer online, so we publish here the articles by Dick Arndt (Chair of the Advisory Council and former President of Americans for UNESCO) and Gérard Bolla (Former Assistant Director General of UNESCO -- in French).
John Edwin Fobes, or Jack as we all knew him, died at his home in Asheville, North Carolina, on January 20, as with his beloved Hazel he practiced their regular morning hour of meditation.
It is late for a traditional obituary. Reflecting on the rich and dedicated life of Jack Fobes, his American friends conclude that it is already time to move beyond tributes, testimonials and tears and to begin collecting the hundreds of tessera which must be assembled into the mosaic of this remarkable American life.
Jack himself was seized with the urgency of this task. Those who knew him best agree that he would have wanted us, by now, to cease our mourning and “get on with it,” as he might have put it. As early as the summer of 2003, he was thinking about it: his colleagues in Americans for UNESCO (AU) had collected a gift to enable him and Hazel to witness the return of the U.S. to the Organization and to attend the General Conference meetings in Paris; unable to make the trip, Jack sent back to AU a larger check, asking that it be devoted to an archival project with a university in the U.S. to preserve U.S.-related UNESCO documents, like his papers, for the world’s scholars.
The last chore he proudly completed before his death was to gather the complete run of the Newsletter he and his son Jeff designed and published from 19 years, the voice of Americans for the Universality of UNESCO (AUU); copies of this loose-leaf collection arrived in our office two weeks before his death. On a recent visit, I glanced quickly at the files in his Asheville office and store-room, perhaps forty full file-drawers, tightly packed with meticulously-labeled folders and already in the kind of preliminary order one would expect from this scrupulous administrator. In retrospect, various conversations during his last months make it clear that he was facing up to the task of preparing these papers for transfer to an archive.
His UNESCO friends do not always remember that UNESCO was only part of Jack’s life, even if it centered his thinking in the last four decades and lifted his global vision to new levels. When he came to Paris from the USAID mission in New Delhi in 1964, his arrival at Place de Fontenoy refocused his life. But there was already much of that life already in place.
With his academic background in public administration, it was natural that the U.S. Army Air Force should have detached this young captain, well before the end of World War II, for work with the Strategic Bombing Survey and the UN preparatory commission in London. In parallel and in the same building, the regular wartime meetings of the Allied Ministers of Education were taking place. And when the U.S. delegation headed by young Congressman J. William Fulbright came to London to attend those meetings in the Spring of 1944, he followed their work from his nearby vantage-point. Fulbright’s delegation to what would become UNESCO included Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish; Dean Mildred Thompson of Vassar College, surrogate for Eleanor Roosevelt; Nobel physicist Arthur Compton, President of Washington University in St. Louis; and President George Shuster of Hunter College in New York, among others. To honor the U.S. presence, the Allied Ministers elected Fulbright – a Rhodes Scholar and four-year veteran of Oxford – to chair their meetings. All this was happening while Fobes was laboring alongside men like Ralph Bunche to design the UN.
Returning to Washington, he helped design and administer the Marshall Plan for European recovery, from his base in the State Department, where he became a central architect of U.S. engagement with the UN and other multilateral bodies. Moving with his young family to New Delhi in the Kennedy years, he served Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith as Deputy Director of the USAID mission.
He began his life in, with and for UNESCO as ADG for Administration in 1964, then became DDG in 1971, a position he retained until retirement in 1977. Back in Washington, he was quickly named to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and in 1979 was elected to its Chair. By December 1983, overriding the Commission’s strong objections and those of the involved U.S. agencies in Washington, as well as a considerable number of NGOs across the nation, the U.S. announced withdrawal from UNESCO at the end of the following year, pledging that its sole purpose was to stimulate the kind of internal reform that Jack Fobes had been quietly putting in place for a decade. When it became obvious that the U.S. pledge to recognize successful reforms over time would not be honored, scholars like Roger Coate concluded that the withdrawal was part of a larger ideological agenda and that the call for reform was no more than tactical.
Whether out of principle or under pressure from political forces in the new administration, Jack Fobes resigned from the U.S. National Commission and its Chair that same December. Despite continued objection from his successor Chairman and the Executive Committee, U.S. withdrawal took place a year later (31 December 1984), when the Commission was disbanded and commissioners relieved of their duties. Fobes’ immediate response, with no financial backing, was to found AUU, a citizen support group which tried to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of the U.S. Commission. The purposes of AUU, as he expressed them, reveal his thinking at the time. From his base in North Carolina, he spent a great deal of his first year working with the UK but failed to persuade the British government not to follow the U.S. withdrawal one year later.
Early issues of the AUU Newsletter reveal the shaping of Fobes’ goals. He was as intent as ever on reforming UNESCO, but from within; he insisted at the same time that along with reform in Paris the U.S. had to look hard at its own house and its dreary record of engagement since 1946. He pressed the British to maintain their involvement. He knew that U.S. civil society would continue to cooperate with UNESCO and sought to facilitate such activity. He was looking for ways to re-educate the American public from the ground up, with particular focus on the utility of UNESCO’s agenda to broad U.S. goals. Soon he had begun to see that AUU, to carry out such an agenda, needed financial support – the pleas for contributions mount from issue to issue.
In February 1986, the fifth issue of the Newsletter told the sad tale of Fobes’ involvement in the death of the National Commission, during a Washington conference call in 12-13 December 1985. At dinner on 12 December, there were two speakers: Ivo Margan, Chair of UNESCO’s Executive Board, and Elliott Richardson, head of the American UN Association. The next day his successor Chairman James Holderman informed all commissioners of the Presidentially-approved decision to withdraw, cancel their appointments and disband the Commission.
During the half-day of meetings on 13 December, Fobes made a major statement, summarized in his own words in February. He was sad, he said, but not disheartened: sad about the handling of the UK withdrawal and “the bitterness it has engendered,” yet encouraged by the global outpouring of dismay over the two withdrawals.
He made four points. On reform, he believed it would inevitable reach far beyond internal adjustments once it took account of the new kinds of multilateral cooperation the world already needed; after forty years it was time to rethink the UNESCO Constitution; he called for “a synthesis of resolutions and declarations of the past 40 years,” what he called a “Meta Constitution,” as a roadmap to guide UNESCO through this period of transition.
On surviving the brutal budgetary consequences of the two withdrawals, he called for men and women “of strong faith and vision” inside UNESCO and urged that there be more “universality and renewal groups” around the world, akin to what he had in mind for AUU.
On international support, he noted the role of the Executive Board and Chairman Margan and the promise held out by a new DG in the Fall of 1987. He noted the importance of the “middle States” like Canada and the Nordic countries and called on them to enhance their cooperation with the key international NGOs. He anticipated help from “some” National Commissions.
On the broader context, he indicated his overarching belief that UNESCO’s crisis has its origins in a crisis of civilizations, felt with special acuity in “that part of the UN system which deals with the heart, mind, conscience and learning capacities of human society.”
Concluding, he turned to his own country: “It is unthinkable that this nation, rich in interests and ideas, can deal with its world relationships in a fragmented fashion, leaving NGOs, universities and business to work separately . . . from government agencies.”
The death of the U.S. Commission prompted his dream of “a proper citizens’ commission for UNESCO.” He went on to predict: America may re-invent a central citizens’ body similar to but more autonomous than the Commission…. The pattern of voluntary coalitions concerned with the advance of knowledge, learning, understanding and human dignity could be repeated at the level of communities all across the country…. In some cases, they will be groups for “the universality of UNESCO.” In others, UNA chapters, World Affairs Councils, World Federalist units and other bodies will expand their horizons. They should all have a voice….
Jack Fobes’ legacy to Americans for UNESCO went well beyond the crisis of 1984. The fall of this “mighty oak,” as one admirer called him, has left the burden to lesser trees, not only in the American forest but everywhere in the world. We are grateful to the editors of Liens/Links for this opportunity to share a fragment of Jack’s vision with the UNESCO family and to seek their help in assembling the mosaic of this rich, generous and noble life.
Richard T. Arndt
President Americans for UNESCO
President Americans for UNESCO
Jack Fobes n’est plus.
Comment ceux qui ont eu la chance et le bonheur de travailler auprès de lui et qui l’ont aimé et admiré, peuvent-ils, en quelques mots, faire comprendre ce que Jack a représenté pour eux et pour l’Unesco?
Deux choses me viennent tout de suite à l’esprit : Jack était un grand administrateur qui aimait les programmes de l’Unesco et Jack était un administrateur qui avait du coeur !
Profondément attaché aux idéaux de l’Unesco, Jack l’a été jusqu’à ses derniers jours. Responsable de l’administration, il a toujours aimé et protégé ves activités dites de programme et les functionnaires qui en étaient chargés. Ceux-ci le savaient bien qui frappaient directement à sa porte et trouvaient avec lui des solutions à leurs problèmes. Aux yeux de Jack, les services administratifs, qu’il dirigeait si bien, avaient pour táche essentielle d’aider leurs colleagues à mettre en oeuvre ces activités de programme qui étaient – et restent – l’unique justification de l’existence même de l’organisation. Pour lui, ces activités de programme, surtout celles en faveur du développement ont toujours en priorité sur les routines et les obstacles administratifs.
C’est bien avant de prendre ses fonctions au troisième étage du bâtiment de la place Fontenoy que Jack avait fait connaissance, par la biais de son budget, avec les activités d’une organisation à laquelle il allait consacrer de nombreuses années de sa vie. Représentant des Etats Unis au Comité de coordination administrative des Nations Unies un orange composé d’ « administratifs » purs et durs – Jack avait étonné Maheu qui défendait sur le plan technique le budget de l’Organisation, par des questions qui démontraient un grand intérêt pour les objectifs et les activités de l’Unesco, surtout celles sur le terrain. Ce sont ces échanges courtois au sein d’un Comité où les débats sont plutôt arides, qui devaient plus tard faire dire à Maheu que « Fobes » [sic] est un homme gentil », c’est-à-dire, dans le sense original et historique de cette épithète « dèlicat, généreux et noble ».
Ce sont ces qualités d’administrateur s’intéressant avant tout aux opèrations concrètes qu’une organisation comme l’Unesco peut avoir dans le monde et surtout dans sa partie la plus défavorisée, qui ont déterminé le choix que fit le Directeur général d’alors. J’ai rencontré Jack pour la première fois à Orly où il débarquait seul pour prendre ses nouvelles fonctions. Il a apprécié la vue « culturelle » de son bureau donnant sur l’Ecole militaire et la Tour Eiffel, alors que les dossiers commençaient déjà à s’accumuler sur son bureau. Chacun sait que l’arrivée d’un nouvel administrateur suscite toujours d’abondantes requêtes.
Amoureux des programmes de l’Unesco, Jack avait – je crois pouvoir le dire – un certain faible pour les sciences sociales, qui correspondaient à sa formation universitaire, et parmi les projets relevants alors du secteur des sciences sociales, ceux relatifs à la défense des droits de l’homme retenaient le plus son attention. Une des rares occasions où les veus de Jack ont divergé des miennes concernaient la place des activités d’architecture dans l’organigramme du Secrétariat. Pour des raisons – que je reconnais avoir été purement pragmatiques – je voyais l’architecture associée aux programmes de technologie ou de culture. Jack les considérait comme appartenent aux sciences sociales. Je dois reconnaître aujourd’hui que Jack, avec sa profonde connaissance de tout ce qui touche à l’humain, avait probablement raison.
Jack, l’administrateur, avait du coeur: premier responsable d’une gestion qui se devait d’être juste et transparente, Jack a su, avec son calme et son sourire, appliquer strictement les statuts et règlements de l’organisation tout en trouvant des solutions humaines et raisonnables aux nombreux problèmes financiers et de personnel que posaient alors une croissance très rapide des activités de l’Unesco et leur évolution en direction du terrain. Tout ce qui touchait à l’homme et à sa famille primait lorsque Jack, le gestionnaire, devait prendre des décisions parfois difficiles concernant la vie et l’avenir des fonctionnaires. L’experience que Jack avait eue en Inde, avant de joindre l’Unesco, le prédisposait aussi à bien comprendre les difficultés que les « experts » pouvaient rencontrer dans leur travail et leur vie familiale.
Ce sens de l’humain et sa fidélité à ses amis et à l’Unesco seront sans doute les souvenirs les plus marquants que Jack laissera à tous ceux qui l’ont bien connu et qui le regrettent aujourd’hui.
Former Assistant Director General
Former Assistant Director General
Read Remembering Jack Fobes: remarks by Kofi Annan, Federico Mayor and Richard Nobbe and a biographical sketch.
Read Tributes to John Fobes by Koïchiro Matsuura and Paul Schafer