UNESCO: Not Exactly Indispensable
Contra Obama and the agency itself, there’s no reason for the U.S. to keep funding it.


Last fall, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, granted membership to the Palestinian Authority, which is not a state. It did so despite clear warnings from Washington that this would entail an immediate freeze on all U.S. funding to the agency. After the vote, President Obama rightly followed through, as required by U.S. law.

But since then, UNESCO and the Obama administration have been pressing Congress to change the relevant law and allow U.S. funding for UNESCO to continue. They allege that the loss of funding threatens the viability of UNESCO programs vital to U.S. interests and that the cut improperly punishes a valuable voice for integrity and moderation.

A number of these claims do not stand up well to scrutiny. On the program side, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova has argued that the loss of U.S. funds endangers UNSECO programs for literacy in Afghanistan, Holocaust education, and tsunami-warning systems. A closer look reveals that UNESCO’s role in these areas is not vital and in some cases is minimal.

The literacy programs for Afghan police and citizens are funded not by U.S. assessed contributions to UNESCO but by Japan’s voluntary funding. UNESCO merely manages the programs in coordination with the Afghan government, particularly its education and interior ministries. UNESCO is not the only group — either within the U.N. system or outside it — capable of performing these activities. UNESCO has recently acknowledged that these programs are voluntarily funded by Japan and not significantly affected by the U.S. funding freeze.

As for Holocaust education, Claudia Rosett of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reports that “the lone full-time staff member on this project is paid out of a donation from Israel, which also kicked in a large chunk of the $536,000 collected in recent years for projects related to this program. UNESCO’s annual contribution comes to a niggardly $215,000.” The U.S. share (22 percent) of that is $47,300, about 1.5 percent of the amount spent annually by UNESCO, which, Rosett explains, squanders it “via bad management and a taste for business-class airline tickets.”

UNESCO’s alarm about undercutting the tsunami-warning system also seems overblown. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) leads UNESCO’s tsunami efforts. It was allocated $9.487 million (about $4.25 million per year) in the 2010–11 two-year budget. The U.S. share of that is less than $1 million.

Not all IOC funds go to its tsunami programs. The IOC also focuses on pollution, climate change, oceanic research, and other activities. Even so, that total IOC budget is a fraction of the amount spent annually — $42 million in FY 2009 — by the U.S. on its own tsunami-related programs. This funding not only supports the U.S.’s warning systems but also assists tsunami programs in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. In fact, USAID has provided millions of dollars for the construction and development of these regional sytems.

It is worth noting that in its 2013 budget the Obama administration proposed cutting U.S. funding for tsunami programs by $4.6 million — more than UNESCO’s total annual allocation for the IOC. This is a curious policy if the administration is truly concerned that tsunami-warning systems would be greatly affected by the UNESCO funding freeze, which involves a comparatively minor reduction.  

Indeed, some scientists and managers involved in regional tsunami programs seem oddly sanguine about the suspension of UNESCO funding. The IOC’s performance indicators for its tsunami programs and the accompanying benchmarks — for example, six intergovernmental meetings, four workshops and six missions to raise awareness, four training workshops — provide insight into the relative unconcern about losing UNESCO support. The IOC’s main contribution is not to actually fund or construct the warning systems but rather to assist coordination among partner nations and hold and organize conferences and other meetings. These activities can be useful but could easily be assumed by other U.N. agencies such as the World Meteorological Organization or the International Maritime Organization.


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