Friday, April 18, 2008

Musing: UNESCO's Agenda for the 21st Century

Monday's class on UNESCO, focusing on the changes for the future, was very thought provoking. There was general agreement, I believe, that in the coming decades there will be forces that require major changes in UNESCO. If UNESCO does not reinvent itself to make itself more efficient, more effective, and more relevant to the emerging needs of the international system, it may well become irrelevant or even go out of existence. Not only is a reengineering of UNESCO's structure and processes needed, but so too is a restructuring of its relations with the governments of member states and the intellectual communities of educators, scientists and cultural leaders in those states that UNESCO was created to serve.

UNESCO not only is headquartered in Paris, the majority of its employees are there. It was suggested that, as the UN agencies are all concentrated in rich countries, they are seen by the majority of the world's population (which lives in poor countries or emerging economies) as tools of the rich isolated from the interests and concerns of the poor. As part of its reinvention, UNESCO will have to reach out and involve many more people in its work. Indeed, it would be well advised to reach out to make itself known to the majority of the world's population.

In its sixty some years of existence, UNESCO has had some major successes. USAID has been characterized as spinning off its successes in order to concentrate on its failures. Whether that is or is not true, surely UNESCO should emphasize and build upon its successes. These would include the networking of World Heritage sites and of bioreserves, the collaborations UNESCO has catelyzed through its intergovernmental science programs, and development of networks of international laws and agreements through its standards setting instruments in the fields of culture and education.

It was suggested that the governments of rich countries now see UNESCO as irrelevant to their domestic interests, and that UNESCO should seek seriously to again become something valued for its ability to serve its major financial donors domestic interests in education, science and culture.

There is a huge management challenge for UNESCO's management.
  • Management should find ways to clean out the dead wood, eliminating programs that don't work, that duplicate those of other agencies, or that would be better implemented by other agencies.
  • Management should find ways to either spin off subsidiary organizations that are able to go it alone, and decentralize management of subsidiary organizations that are peripheral to UNESCO's core business, allowing the secretariat and governing bodies to focus their attention narrowly on that core business.
  • Management should find ways adopt programmatic innovations that allow it both to respond to changing international needs and demands on the organization and simultaneously to focus on its core values and mission.
While some innovative programs may arise from the secretariat, the history of the organization suggests that the most important innovations have come from outside. Thus UNESCO's roles in Education for All and the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals arose out of the consensus developed in international meetings, while the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Program and the World Heritage Program arose from initiatives of the U.S. delegation, influenced by leaders in the U.S. scientific and environmental communities. UNESCO can play a key role building on its great power to convene leadership from government, education, science and culture and its bureaucratic power and outreach, but it needs to continue to innovate successfully to remain and gain in relevance.

In order for UNESCO to rise to these challenges, it needs a very strong secretariat and leadership. Director General Matsuura will complete his second term of office in a few years, and it is very important that the community of nations select a strong, effective leader to replace him. Many of the senior staff of UNESCO are nearing mandatory retirement age in the United Nations system, and therefore UNESCO will have to restaff by replacing many professionals. One suggestion is that the organization might move toward a system like that of the U.S. National Science Foundation, bringing in senior professional on a rotating basis. A cadre of senior people rotating through UNESCO for three to five year terms might help it to rethink its operations and reinvent itself.

The current governance structure of UNESCO will make major reform, reengineering and restructuring difficult at best. Not only is it expensive, it is unwieldy. When UNESCO was created, the number of nation states was relatively small and the strong Director General could deal effectively with its representatives. In the intervening years, the size of the governing bodies has grown with the number of member states. Moreover, the participation of leaders from the intellectual community has been replaced in governance by representatives of the diplomatic missions of the member states. The long meetings of UNESCO's 193 member state delegations every other year at the General Conference deal with so large an agenda as to overwhelm most delegations' capacities to absorb and analyze information. The Executive Board, now with more members than the original General Conference, is similarly cumbersome and overloaded. The Executive Board and General Conference take up a great deal of the attention of UNESCO's senior staff. Thus, reform of governance seems a precondition to rebuilding and reforming the organizations, and reinventing its programs and ways of carrying out those programs.

It seems clear that the United States must take a leadership role in the reinvention of UNESCO; the United States contributes 22 percent of UNESCO's assessed budget, and the United States has the world's strongest educational, scientific and cultural communities, as well as being a world leader in information and communications. It is important that the United States assume this leadership role, especially because this nation must reemphasize "soft diplomacy" and UNESCO can and should be a key element in America's soft diplomacy. To assume that leadership role, the State Department needs a very strong staff dealing with UNESCO affairs, the U.S. National Commission has to be given a stronger role not only in advising the government but in the governance of UNESCO, and State and the National Commission needs to reach out more effectively to involve the American intellectual community in their and UNESCO's efforts.

No comments: