Politics & Policy

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.

But that might not even be necessary. The IOC has its own distinct membership of 143 nations, separate from UNESCO’s 195 member states. The IOC membership does not include “Palestine.” It is possible that voluntary funding for the IOC, as opposed to America’s direct contributions to UNESCO, may not be affected.

What about UNESCO’s role as a voice for moderation and integrity? In addition to granting membership to the Palestinians, whose territory is used by terrorists to attack Israel, the organization and its executive board have exhibited repeated lapses in judgment.

‐Last year UNESCO elected Syria (the same government currently killing thousands of its own citizens) to the organization’s human-rights committee. To add insult to injury, when the U.S. sought to reverse that decision, the board voted to maintain Syrian membership. As the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO asked, “How many dead and wounded journalists must be carried out of Syria before we recognize that the situation in that country is an affront to the very purposes for which UNESCO was founded?”

‐Also last year, UNESCO belatedly ended its financial support for a Palestinian children’s magazine when news reports revealed its anti-Semitic content and praise of Adolf Hitler.

‐Earlier this year, UNESCO’s board decided to approve under a new name a prize donated to UNESCO by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the corrupt dictator of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea since 1979 — a publicity stunt for Obiang decried by Western nations and human-rights groups.

‐Most recently, Director-General Bokova awarded Saudi king Abdullah with UNESCO’s “highest honorary recognition award” for his “efforts in enhancing the culture of dialogue and peace.” Saudi Arabia is accused of grave human-rights violations by the State Department.

These troubling actions are particularly damaging because UNESCO’s main product is its name and reputation. UNESCO’s 2010–2011 budget devoted 87 percent of all resources to staff costs (including temporary assistance and contracted services, travel, and general operating expenses, meaning they spend very little on actual, physical projects on the ground.

Indeed, UNESCO is, for the most part, not an implementer. It helps arrange meetings, facilitates information sharing, publishes reports and studies, provides the U.N.’s sky-blue stamp of approval to projects, or grants a U.N. imprimatur to projects largely funded by national aid agencies.

These activities can be useful, but UNESCO’s problem is that it is not the only U.N. body capable of fulfilling those duties. A 2011 United Kingdom report rated UNESCO’s performance poor, noting:

UNESCO’s significant under-performance in leadership means it is rarely critical in education and development. . . . It has poor systems and is unable to identify its results. . . . [It] has performed a useful post-disaster role in education planning and protecting cultural heritage, but needs clearer policies. . . . Administration costs remain high. Insufficient attention [is] paid to transaction costs. . . . Substantial room for improved financial resource management, in particular to address poor allocation mechanisms and inadequate management of poorly performing programmes.

The summary of that report concluded that if “measures are not implemented satisfactorily and performance does not improve, then the UK will consider whether it should continue to be a member of UNESCO, or whether there are more effective ways of supporting our objectives on education, culture and heritage.”

With American funding to UNESCO frozen, no doubt the U.S. will explore alternatives as well. UNESCO’s exaggerated claims of importance to U.S. interests are likely driven by fear that America, and possibly other nations, will recognize that the agency is not nearly as vital as it wishes everyone to believe.

— Brett Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.


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