Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Musing About the Future of UNESCO

Last night we held a panel discussion in our graduate class on UNESCO. The class focused on UNESCO's future in the 21st century. The discussion focused on how UNESCO could adapt to the changes that will surely occur over the next 40 years or so.

Coincidentally, I have been reading Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity by William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan, Carl J. Schramm. The authors focus on innovation as the basis of economic success of nations. For advanced developed nations, working at the forefront of technology and having relatively high costs of labor, companies must invent, not only innovate by copying. The authors also realize that most invention comes from individual entrepreneurs and small firms. However, they note that it is large firms that have the resources to take an invention and develop it into a widely used, high quality, reliable product. Successful large firms not only continue to innovate by acquiring and building on ideas from outside (and occasionally inventing from within(, they also get rid of activities by decentralizing management, selling off divisions, or closing down things which are no longer profitable.

Perhaps UNESCO, with its 2000 people can take the successful commercial firm of a comparable size and learn from their approach. It seems clear that would be better served by a sharper focus. Many of its most successful programs have their own oversight bodies and receive most of their financing from other sources, not UNESCO. Perhaps a process of formally either turning activities into independent agencies, or of decentralizing by delegation of full authority to the staff and directors of some of these activities might help. This sounds easy, but in fact is very difficult. The management of the reengineering and restructuring of relations in downsizing processes requires great leadership if it is to be done well.

UNESCO often finds innovations thrust upon them -- new standards setting documents, new centers, new programs. Some of the best programs were started in this way. Russel Train was the motive force behind the invention of the World Heritage program, which the secretariat carried to success, as Roger Revell and a few other scientists were the originators of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Committee, which UNESCO also made a success. Indeed, even in the cases of Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals, UNESCO took on tasks developed outside and ran with them. Again, the management of innovation in a large, complex organization is also very demanding of skills and time.

UNESCO needs very good management to select among all the innovations suggested each year those which are really practical and important, those which fit with UNESCO's mandate and capabilities, and those which UNESCO can do well. It also needs good management to decide which of its current activities not to do, and to make the best, most appropriate arrangements for their termination or decentralization.

John Daly

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