UNESCO Goes to Washington
The organization plans to open a new office to influence U.S. policy.

UNESCO’s Bulgarian director general, Irina Bokova


When the member states of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization voted last October to confer membership on the Palestinian Authority, they knew their decision would trigger the withdrawal of U.S. funding, which in dues alone accounted for more than $78 million per year, or 22 percent of UNESCO’s core budget. Current American law requires the U.S. to pull funding from any U.N.-affiliated organization that tries to confer statehood on the Palestinians before they have qualified for it through negotiations with Israel. UNESCO did it anyway, the assembled delegates clapping and cheering as they voted. The tally was 107 to 14, with 52 abstaining.

Since then, UNESCO’s Bulgarian director general, Irina Bokova, has been campaigning — not to undo UNESCO’s admission of “Palestine,” but to persuade U.S. authorities to resume forking out money to UNESCO. Bokova’s efforts have included two trips to Washington these past four months, including a U.S. tour starting in Washington this week. UNESCO’s website features press releases with headlines such as “UNESCO Director General Presses Washington to Restore US Funding,” over a photo of Bokova meeting in December with a U.S. congressman.

To this I can add the news that to supplement Bokova’s forays to the U.S., Paris-based UNESCO is now quietly planning to open an office in Washington, sometime in the next few months. Were the aim simply to represent UNESCO to the U.S., there would be no need for this. UNESCO already has a liaison office at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York. But this new office, in Washington, will be positioned to maximize access to U.S. policymakers, especially Congress. UNESCO’s current plan is that this office will be run by a former congressional aide, George Papagiannis, who has been working since 2007 for UNESCO. Papagiannis’s résumé includes a stint in the late 1990s as communications director for Representative Nancy Pelosi.

Not that UNESCO has made any official announcement of plans to open a Washington office. Nor has UNESCO released any budget or job descriptions for setting up and staffing this new operation. The choice of Papagiannis has apparently been made already, by Bokova herself.

But a whiff of this plan turned up in a set of “Talking Points” that Papagiannis dispatched recently to various UNESCO advocates in the U.S., and that I obtained. In his talking points, Papagiannis lauds various UNESCO programs, such as literacy training in Iraq and Afghanistan, that he says will suffer unless the U.S. resumes bankrolling the organization. (There is no mention that UNESCO wastes millions, according to its own auditors, or that UNESCO could preserve its better programs by scrapping its worst.) At the bottom of these talking points, Papagiannis’s name and U.S. and French mobile-phone numbers appear, along with the label “UNESCO Washington Office.”

This was surprising to me, because currently, UNESCO has no “Washington Office.” I queried UNESCO’s liaison office in New York about whether they had any companion premises in Washington. They replied, by e-mail: “We don’t have an office yet, but one will be opening. You need to contact George Papagiannis.”

So, this past weekend I phoned Papagiannis, reaching him in Paris, where he is currently based with UNESCO. He confirmed that UNESCO is in the process of creating a full-time presence in Washington, that the organization has already begun seeking premises, and that “once we have an office, there will be a liaison in that office, and that liaison would be me.”