Most of Us Could Use Some Energy Guidance: Unesco's Management of Social Transitions (M.O.S.T.) as a Model


The United States of America, from sea to shining sea, seems generally big enough to encompass 'the hopes and fears of all the years.' Thus far, JustMeans readers and others who have perused these paragraphs spilling forth have encountered U.S. citizens working, with the exception of Greg Palast, in their homeland. Today's story takes us for the first time abroad.

If we recall that the search for models has remained an important theme of these meandering yarns about energy and people and society, then we will see that today's effort fits right in. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has for decades offered a guiding light to communities, organizations, scholars, and other individuals who have longed to have a positive impact on the planet.

This desire for impact, 'to make a difference,' has actuated the work of every individual and organization--and arguably community--profiled in these pages. To an extent, this quality ranks alongside of striving for success and other manifestations long accepted as core components of what being human means: in a sense, "Business--Better" translates as finding a way to benefit the fashion in which we live together now.

Interestingly enough, many citizens of this land formed by an enforced unity bridle against any unification that extends beyond their borders. A feeling of 'exceptionalism', that somehow the United States is superior, or at least in some sense prior to other attempts to be united, may activate these feelings. On the other hand. the truth is that our cousins observe us from beyond our borders and wonder at this sense of exclusion.

Such chauvinism has ever joined, paradoxically and fervently, with an imperial thrust. So goes much of the foreign policy of the United States today: calls for energy 'independence' intertwine with thrusts into far flung jungles and deserts in order to 'protect interests' that are 'ours' even as our nation insists on standing apart and alone.

Perhaps anomalies like these are not typical of those of us here at JustMeans. Of course, that gives us all the more reason to pay attention to a standard that beckons from a higher level of wholeness, so that we might mediate between the forces of justice and rationality abroad and the promulgators of division and preeminence here at home.


The conjunction of forces that created Management of Social Transitions (MOST) includes a complex stew of factors. In some sense, the proximate cause of its 1994 formation was the collapse of a bevy of nations, that had called themselves socialist, from Central Asia through the Soviet Union and Easter Europe to Yugoslavia. In the aftermath of these seismic political shifts, monumental social transformations transpired that affected the core supporters of Unesco in Western and Central Europe.

At the same time as this 'triumph' of so-called 'free market economics' and the renovation of economic and social relations among hundreds of millions of people, a basically untrammeled expansion of corporate sway occurred in the world's markets. Many multilateral and national institutions---the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United States State Department, for example--promoted this 'New World Order' in expectation of an era of consolidation and unopposed impact of corporate hegemony.

However, these factors define merely the inception point of MOST. In operative terms, the process seeks to bring together policy-makers, scholars, communities, scholars, and stakeholders to consider ways to incorporate evidence-based best practices into policy discussion and creation. MOST also prioritizes policy-making that puts social justice and the reduction of poverty at the forefront. The main section of this essay discusses these attributes of MOST efforts since 1994.


From the various social inputs, which resulted from these interwoven political-economic skeins to give birth to MOST, has grown a sophisticated, if thinly financed network of advocates, goals, directives, publications, and actions. As MOST's primary portal suggests,

"The Programme, launched in March 1994, is part of the Social and Human Sciences Sector (SHS) of UNESCO. It was designed as a research programme to produce reliable and relevant knowledge for policy makers. The original mandate established a strong commitment to the promotion of research that was comparative, international, interdisciplinary and policy relevant. The programme was also designed to organize and promote international research networks, to give attention to capacity building and to establish a clearing house of knowledge in the social science field."

This introductory examination will look at just a few elements of the 'MOST programme.' One critical component was a linking of scholars and administrators and students and activists. The World University concept is one that shows up several times in this process. For example, in 2002, among the goals that Unesco supported for the next five years were these:

II. The UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks strengthen the capacities of higher education institutions in developing countries to enable them to provide or improve existing training programmes while cutting down on lengthy studies abroad. They also permit involvement of expatriate academics in their activities and encourage them to return (permanently or temporarily) to the countries of origin.

III. During the second stage of the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, the “Academics across Borders” initiative will be launched. It involves, in particular, the participation of higher education volunteers in order to give fresh impetus to world university solidarity and contribute to the humanization of globalization.

V. The UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN Networks should make it possible to attain the Organization’s constitutional objectives in the fields of peace, human rights, gender equality, sustainable development, intercultural dialogue that includes interreligious dialogue, and the preservation of cultural diversity. All Chairs will support the specific accomplishment of UNESCO’s intellectual and ethical mission as a specialized agency of the United Nations.

Such objectives obviously support the underlying rationale that MOST help to "produce reliable and relevant knowledge for policy makers" all over the world.

So often, though, contemporary parameters of academic departments impeded efficiency, or even conceptualization necessary to consider certain problems. The toxicity of mining or drilling for hydrocarbons, for instance, might cross disciplinary boundaries among human geography, sociology, geology, and industrial engineering at the very least. Or, utilization of micro hydro techniques might involve anthropology, hydrology, electrical engineering, and political science.

Only through decompartmentalization of social sciences, on the one hand, would such barriers be possible to surmount in the framework that former colonial countries often presented, of poorly developed 'human capital' resources, a lack of educational infrastructure, and so on. As Koichiro Matsuura, then Unesco's Director General, states the case in 2004,

"We all feel that the contemporary problems of sustainable development - be they climate change, preservation of biodiversity, or poverty eradication, peace and stability - could be solved if we are able to propose new scientific approaches based on a combination of different disciplines. ...(Thus,) the prevailing trend toward increasing fragmentation and compartmentalization of most academic disciplines runs counter to the pressing need for knowledge integration within our approach to sustainable development."

On the other hand, the separation, even the isolation, of the natural sciences from the social sciences, in addition to the parsing of each department--with its own grants, budgetary priorities, and perquisites, also made mince meat of any attempt to solve complex problems efficiently in so-called 'third world' or 'lesser-developed' countries. A group of authors at the World Conference of Science in Budapest propounded the problem in the following terms. "The countries of the North, richly endowed with major scientific organizations and facilities, are faced not only with growing social disparities and the exclusion of some categories of their populations but also with the disruptive effects of uncontrolled industrial and technological development on the environment and on society. These new challenges reveal the reductive and compartmentalized representation of the world used in the traditional scientific approaches...and show the need to develop new modes of democratic debate, expertise and decision-making." A replacement of this century long subdivision of knowledge became a key MOST goal for reasons such as these, which carried over with particular force to former colonial states.

Instead of adhering to patterns of increasing fragmentation, Unesco and the MOST program encouraged the networking of researchers, the free and open sharing of results, ongoing collaboration, and perhaps most critical, bringing both the work and the results of the social sciences into consistent dialog and ongoing interaction with policy makers. As The World Social Sciences Report of 2010 makes clear,

"The scale, rate, magnitude and significance of changes to the global environment have made it clear that ‘research as usual’ will not suffice to help individuals and groups understand and respond to the multiple, interacting changes that are now occurring.”

Changing this "'research as usual'" has been the longstanding goal of MOST's labors. The point was always to design "a research programme to produce reliable and relevant knowledge for policy makers. The original mandate established a strong commitment to the promotion of research that was comparative, international, interdisciplinary and policy relevant. The programme was also designed to organize and promote international research networks, to give attention to capacity building and to establish a clearing house of knowledge in the social science field."

"Bridging Research and Policy," a publication from earlier this year reemphasized this point in the most explicit terms. "The conviction that in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goals it is necessary to link political decisions to scientific knowledge is at the heart of the MOST Programme."

Absolutely critical to all MOST thinking, and this shows up especially in relation to climate-change, energy, and environmental impact issues, is the recognition that only through a programmatic and potent insistence on social justice are goals of better networking, better collaboration, and better educational linkages meaningful. One can witness this point in a powerful Unesco film, the eponymous Video on UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST) .

This "20-minute film puts into perspective UNESCO’s (MOST) Programme in the context of the global economic crisis and that of the UN reform."

And the ineluctable and brutal implacability of this economic meltdown persistently appears in recent Unesco and MOST output, amping up the necessity to address the needs of the roughly fifteen per cent of human cousins (and again, that's right, we are all cousins, and the destitute are our blood relatives) who are a few meals away from starvation, a few common microbes away from mortality, a few toxins away from succumbing to poison. As Mikhail Gorbachev noted, presciently, over twenty years ago, "All these factors make it necessary to look for a fundamentally new type of industrial progress that would be in accordance with the interests of all peoples and states... What I am referring to is the kind of cooperation that could be called 'co-creativity' and 'co-development'."

A historical contextualization of Unesco and MOST recognizes that "the alleviation of the poverty that was so prevalent in the newly independent nations" following decolonization led to a focus on attacking social determinants of penury as an agency priority. Today, "UNESCO's flagship program in the social sciences is...'the Management of Social Transitions,' responsive to the need of developing nations to better manage the social transitions in progress" in way that emphasizes social equity and economic justice.

Federico Mayor Zaragoza, in "Challenge of Sustainable Development and Ethical Mission of UNESCO", notes that "The numerous global problems, (especially) rapid deterioration of the environment, are not only parallel and simultaneous, but are interdependent and subordinated."

In this context, failing to pay attention to my neighbor's, and my cousins', problems as my own problems too will prove lethal. Zaragoza agrees:

"Indeed, the leitmotiv of our time, a time of growing interdependence of peoples, states and cultures, is the word "common"—common crisis, common concern, common challenges, common goals, common survival and our Common Future."

The Latin American focus on the elimination of poverty that both preceded and continued as a result of MOST projects and assistance are also emblematic of this centrality of social justice. The elections of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Evo Morales in Bolivia are just the most obvious manifestations of this 'best-practices' orientation toward social justice, what with programs that paralleled, or arose directly as a result of, the works of Unesco in its MOST endeavors.

This commitment by the Southern neighbors of the United States receives attention in the MOST video cited above. In addition, much more graphically, this MOST-inspired movement shows up in Attacking Inequality in the Health Sector: A Synthesis of Evidence and Tools, by Abdo S. Yazbeck. In each of the five Spanish speaking entries from this hemisphere, the sole focus of the work was to support improved health among the poor.

The reorientation of MOST, in 2003, did not abandon these decade-long focal points. But it did make clear an insistence to promote...a culture of evidence-based policy-making – nationally, regionally and internationally. " This was immediately prior to the Bush administration rejoining Unesco after a twenty year absence from this especially vibrant fold of our cousins.

The formulation, formally, that every child has a right to a primary education has become a key benchmark of progress toward a MOST program. Yet still as many as one-third of our future legacy, the progeny of humankind's cousins, "do not see the inside of a classroom" consistently. Similarly, increases in refugees and both internal and external economic migration are developments anticipated and addressed by MOST literature, such as the work of Nigel Harris, who considers the equities in a system that allows capital complete freedom of movement but, outside of the European Union, is increasing restrictions on the established human right of people to leave a place and go to another.

I mention these two particular offshoots of MOST's work within Unesco because they exemplify the typical conjunction of policy, justice, research, and community capacity that MOST enshrines. I also mention them because they articulate the 'evidence-based' and 'best-practices' standards that MOST has helped to midwife into political economic parlance and, at least on the regulatory surface, into bureaucratic practice.

But mostly I mention the MOST commitment to such specific objectives as codifying primary education and migration as human rights because a failure to do this guarantees that addressing such matters as energy policy and climate change, very important here on JustMeans, will be at best chaotic and weak. This only makes sense. As populations without recourse seek to survive, they will burn anything in order to find a little power and comfort.


Clearly, if one views the earth as a series of intersecting communities, then the efforts of MOST are hugely significant. Even if, as is all too often the case, one emphasized competition to the exclusion of social cohesion and cooperation, MOST's models and protocols are presently outflanking much of the vaunted American proclivity for winning, being competitive, etc.

And this is the upshot of this essay. The United States often either resists or ignores the community capacitation, interrelatedness, and social-justice underpinnings that have become the world's standards for 'managing social transitions.' Yet our country cannot avoid these transformative necessities as they burgeon repeatedly all round us.

Best Practices, Participatory Methods, Cooperative Creativity, and dozens of other protocols that have come to light in part as a result of development through Unesco, and that continue to fructify in the MOST program, are now de rigeur aspects of cutting edge creativity worldwide. But they receive little more than lip service in so many of the places and subjects about which I've reported: Muskegon County, Michigan; Lavonia, Georgia; Asheville, North Carolina; renewable energy policy development.

And this listing might extend to include much of the political milieu that currently predominates here, where a sense of 'American uniqueness' continues to prevail as the SOP for considering the future. This ideation justified Ronald Reagan's withdrawal from Unesco and continues to make adequate support for and integration with its programs politically problematic. How many JustMeans readers, relatively progressive and informed could even have guessed at the meaning behind the MOST acronym?

Such attitudes and lack of awareness fit an empire, yet is that part of sustainable business? Is that going to yield the energy politics that support the American people? Perhaps we would do well to consider again the sort of thinking that activated the insights of an annalist such as William Appleman Williams.

He would contend that "the pro-active, aggressive variant (of believing that American is unique) has almost always won out. Over time, as he famously put it in the title of one of his books, empire became a “way of life” for American society. For starters, it provided the economic surplus necessary to maintain a high standard of living, even if that surplus was more unevenly distributed than in any other industrial society. Moreover, it provided a kind of psychic substitute for the lack of real community in a society whose only common identity was consumption."

Moreover, he consistently recognized that energy was a central element of imperial policy, especially in regard to oil. But as Thomas McKormick, the above commentator notes, "that struggle has, for several reasons, reached a new and critical phase." Neither standing alone against the world nor 'business-as-usual' will suffice in these times that confront us. More than ever, the USA needs Unesco and MOST and the capacitated communities of the world for which it stands.


Models that yield impact can appear in a single person, struggling with a seemingly unique problem. Of course, all such appearances include intersections that extend each case to include the whole, but the apparent nucleus will occasionally seem capable of guiding the whole.

On the other hand, as in the matter of the work of MOST, operations at the highest levels can develop feedback loops that enrich all sectors of society, creating vectors that empower local work and strengthen the higher reaches both conceptually and operationally.

"Building Peace in the Minds of People" is the primary goal, the overarching objective of Unesco. And that cannot, the organization understands organically, coexist with systematic, widely accepted promulgation of injustice. Yet no one can deny the continued justification of such inequities as part and parcel of the policies of the world's richest nation, a country that also boasts the greatest social divisions in the history of humanity.

Edgar Morin, a radical French philosopher who fought in the French Resistance to the Nazis and has long promoted human rights and social justice as the only plausible outcomes of a rational philosophy, proffers an overview of the sorts of contemplation that Americans need to incorporate into their 'thinking caps.' This "reform in thinking is a key anthropological and historical problem. ...Never before in the history of humanity have the responsibilities of thinking weighed so crushingly on us. ...We need a kind of thinking that reconnects that which is disjointed and compartmentalized, that respects diversity as it recognizes unity, and that tries to discern interdependencies. We need a radical thinking (which gets to the root of problems), a multidimensional thinking, and an organizational or systemic thinking. History has not reached a stagnant end, nor is it triumphantly marching towards the radiant future. It is being catapulted into an unknown adventure."

Photo Credits:

Map Eastern Europe: public domain
Diploma: gadgetdude
Sustainable Garden: Dominic Alvez
Declaration of Human Rights: Val Kerry
Poverty Trash: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi
Participatory Methods Schools: NESRI
Billboard: Jon Collier