Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why is UNESCO the Way it Is?

Michael Abiola Omolewa, President of the General Conference 2003
Photo by Andrew Wheeler © UNESCO

The Problem

Students in our UNESCO seminar are increasingly aware that the Organization has some quirks. For example:
  • UNESCO stresses programs in Africa but most of its staff is in Paris.
  • Its budget is tiny compared to the huge global challenges it faces in education, science, culture and communications.
  • While :Science" was added to the UNESCO Charter almost as an afterthought, there are now both "natural science" and "social and human science" programs; the combined science budget is larger than that for either the education or the culture programs.
  • The social and human science includes sports and philosophy, but not disciplinary programs in economics, sociology, anthropology and the other social sciences.
  • UNESCO is supposed to focused on promoting progress in developing nations, yet it has relatively little focus on promoting the applications of social science knowledge for that purpose, nor on promoting cultural changes that will facilitate such development.
  • While two-thirds of the UNESCO budget comes from assessed contributions, the rest is from extrabudgetary resources which are always hard to predict and which tend to bias efforts away from those directed by UNESCO's governing bodies.
  • The governance is vested in an unwieldy 193 nation General Conference that meets only every other year, but largely delegated to a 58 member Executive Board that also meets relatively infrequently and is also unwieldy.
Moreover, there are other governance bodies for portions of the program, and a couple of score of "Category 2" UNESCO Centers as well as hundreds of UNESCO Chairs which are not funded by UNESCO, nor effectively governed by its governing bodies.

The question comes up, how did the Organization come to be so quirky? One thing is clear. UNESCO is not the result of a rational decision as to how to allocate available resources to best achieve the Organization's mission.

The Charter

Perhaps surprisingly, there is and always has been a considerable effort to keep the Organization's programs closely linked to UNESCO's original charter which focuses the Organization on building the defenses of peace in the minds of men, promoting global efforts in education, science, culture and communications towards that end. (Students in our class have been treated to a lecture by Dick Arndt and Ray Wanner on how that charter was created, and have been provided with readings on the subject.)

The UNESCO Secretariat generally tries to do that which its member nations instruct it to do through UNESCO's governing bodies. It does so with the resources that are available for those purposes. While that is true, that statement does not respond to the fundamental questions about the decision making that resulted in the current structure of UNESCO and the composition of the portfolio of its programs.

Incrementalism and Fit

Clearly, an important factor in UNESCO's design is the niche that it fills within the web of intergovernmental organizations. That web itself has been evolving since World War II. UNESCO is clearly seen as complementary to the United Nations, and is deeply affected by U.N. products such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals. UNESCO seeks to work in ways complementary to the efforts of other decentralized agencies such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. So too, it seeks to complement the efforts of United Nations programs and funds such as the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF). It participates in United Nations interagency programs such as the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, and works in the context provided by other United Nations bodies such as the Human Rights Commission, the High Commission on Refugees, the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development and the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development.

UNESCO today is the result of six decades of incremental decision making. Decisions were made at each step that had to take into account the then existing staffing and organization of UNESCO, its existing programs and their importance and degrees of success. Essentially there is a kind of inertia in an organization and a program as large and complex as those of UNESCO.

During this long period there were major trends in international diplomacy that had profound affects on decision making affecting UNESCO. UNESCO's programs evolved from helping to repair the intellectual systems damaged by World War II, to dealing with problems raised by the Cold War, to helping with nation building that followed decolonization, to dealing with the cultural impacts of globalization.


To understand the decisions that have influenced UNESCO one must consider its governing bodies. The delegates to these bodies can be expected to function in predictable ways, forming coalitions, trading votes, etc. UNESCO's General Conference delegations each represent a member nationl each delegation is usually composed of government officials and representatives of the national educational, scientific and cultural communities, often as members of the national commission for UNESCO. The members of a delegation do not always agree on how to promote the interests of the country that they represent; delegations vary in success according to the interests and abilities of their delegations.

Our understanding of legislative bodies, as based on the Congress of the United States perhaps, must be adapted to the special features of UNESCO. American legislators get to know each other well, meeting frequently over a period of years. While the permanent delegates to UNESCO of the member states may get to know each other, most of the delegates to the biennial meetings may not have links to members of other delegations or even know other members of their own delegation well. The U.S. Congress delegates functions to a plethora of committees and subcommittees, each with its staff, which are in continuous operation; UNESCO depends only on its Executive Board, and the Secretariat of UNESCO both supports governance decision making and implements the decisions made.

Decisions made by a government with respect to UNESCO are affected by and affect the position of that government with respect to other agencies. This year a new Director General is to be elected by the UNESCO General Conference on the basis of a recommendation from the Executive Board. Few individual decisions are likely to have more impact on the organization and programs of UNESCO. Several announced and several unannounced candidates are angling for the post. Each will wish for his/her government to use all of its diplomatic means to advance his/her candidacy. However, the governments are concerned with the entire web of intergovernmental organizations and overall foreign policy. In choosing to offer or deny support to their own national they must consider other elections in other organizations. The debts incurred in lobbying for a candidate for UNESCO will generally have to be paid in some other venue at some other time; the favors given to other nations can be redeemed in other elections.

For the outsider, understanding decision making in UNESCO's governing bodies is difficult. The culture of governance of intergovernmental organizations tends to hide processes and disagreements. Public decisions are often made by consensus to project unanimity but only after it becomes clear to the delegates which option is most popular. While insiders in the delegations and ministries of foreign affairs may be very much aware of disagreements, the outside public seldom is.

The Secretariat

If in theory legislative bodies make policy and executive agencies implement policy, in practice executive bodies lobby and use other techniques to influence legislation and extend policy in implementation. In the case of UNESCO, the original planners of the organization -- in the belief that its legislative body would be unwieldy -- designed the Organization with strong powers in the office of the Director General. The eight elected Directors General have left the imprints of many of their decisions on the organization.

Decades of development of management science has revealed that decision making in bureaucracies is decentralized to varying degrees, is often done by committees rather than individuals and is often implicit rather than explicit. Even the explicit decisions are made with limited rationality and incomplete information. The cumulative set of bureaucratic decisions has profound influence on the structure, procedures and culture of the organization, and thus on organizational performance.

In the case of UNESCO, the Secretariat is multinational, multiethnic and multilingual, located in scores of offices spread across the entire world. Educational, scientific, cultural, and communications officials also come from different professional cultures. The come to the organization with different educations, different work experiences, in different countries. Decision making in a bureaucracy so staffed can not be simple.

The Professional Communities

The Man and the Biosphere Program of UNESCO is generally considered to have grown out of the consensus created in a scientific meeting. Similarly, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission is believed to have been created as a result of lobbying by Roger Revelle and other oceanographers. Indeed, the addition of science to UNESCO's charter is attributed importantly to the efforts of Joseph Needham to raise support among an international network of scientists.

These are examples of fundamental decisions affecting UNESCO which came out of the scientific community. Similar examples could be adduced for the other UNESCO programs of initiatives arising from the intellectual community served by the program. UNESCO was specifically designed to serve and link the intellectual communities of its member nations. Indeed, UNESCO's constitution, calling for national commissions drawn from civil society as well as government, is unique and was intended to involve the larger educational, scientific, cultural and communications communities not only in UNESCO's work but also in its governance.

As scientists network internationally via meetings and journals, so too do members of the other UNESCO communities network globally within their own professional communities. Indeed, with improvements in transportation and communications, this networking has become much stronger. Not only do professionals travel more often to international meetings, but journals have proliferated as has their international distribution, and the Internet and other modern communications technologies have resulted in a quantum leap in speed and a radical reduction of costs as compared with snail-mail communication.

Social scientists are improving their understanding of such professional networks. We know something about how their structure influences their behavior. We know that there are individuals who are especially important in communications networks, and that influence and authority are not uniformly distributed within the networks. Social science research is thus helping us to understand how professional leaders, well connected and authoritative within their professional communities, can lead decision making within the educational, scientific, cultural and communications communities.


UNESCO's structure, procedures and programs have thus evolved over time, under the influence of major global trends, based on the decisions made in its member states, its legislative bodies, the bureaucracy of its Secretariat, and its constituent communities. So too, reforms and improvements in the organization will come from decisions made in these arenas through a complex process of negotiation and compromise.

The history of the organization shows that individuals and non-governmental organizations (as well as governments) can have profound influence on UNESCO. Efforts to improve the organization will probably not work well if naively based on simplistic models of rational decision making, but may be quite effective if they are advanced through recruitment of allies, networking, and coalition building.

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