Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nicholas Burnett on UNESCO's Education Program

Nicholas Burnett spent most of the last five years at UNESCO, first in charge of the production of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report and then as Assistant Director General in charge of UNESCO's Education Program. Before the snows hit Washington, he graced the GWU graduate seminar on UNESCO with a two hour class providing an overview of UNESCO's education program.

He began explaining that there are many reasons that the international community seeks to improve educational services -- they are a human right, they contribute to social and economic growth and to social stability, the enable students and graduates to participate more fully in their cultures, they meet a public demand for services, etc. He noted that in the past, international education efforts had tended to emphasize one or another of these objective, suggesting that a multi-objective approach might be more appropriate.

He briefly summarized the global state of education, summarizing the information in the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 1010, which emphasizes that socially marginalized populations are falling behind in education. He also stressed that illiteracy is underreported and that today perhaps one billion adults are unable to read. The EFA goals will probably not be met, and indeed progress on increasing primary enrollment has slowed in recent years, but a great deal of progress has been made, and there has been an explosive growth in secondary and tertiary enrollments.

Turning to the role of UNESCO, he emphasized that it is not a funding agency and indeed its education budget is very limited. As in all its programs, UNESCO is a laboratory of ideas, a standard setter, a clearinghouse, a capacity-builder in member states, and a catalyst for international action. It also is important as a convener, bringing the right people together in the right circumstances to promote cooperation and progress.

During his time running UNESCO;s education program, it was involved in key program areas, but was also responsible for organizing four large conferences which occupied a lot of staff time and resources.

Noting that during his time as DDG he was implementing a program designed by his predecessors and designing a program which is now being implemented by his successors, he described that new program -- more tightly focused, with more resources, and more oriented towards decentralized activities.

Dr. Burnett concluded his class explaining why education receives less donor support than do other sectors, providing some ideas on future directions for UNESCO, and sharing some realistic views as to the difficulties UNESCO staff confront in seeking to play a more expansive and effective role in international education.

The last hour of the class was devoted to a Q&A session in which the students sought to deepen their understanding of the materials presented. In addition to the students registered in the class, there were several visitors from Americans for UNESCO and the State Department.

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