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What Can Save Unesco? Advice From an Insider


Irina Bokova, the current director-general of Unesco, center, visiting the National Museum of Iraq in November 2014. Unesco, a new book suggests, is in dire need of reform. GYORGY BUSZTIN/UNESCO

Founded in 1946 with noble goals, namely “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture,” the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has in fact achieved considerable progress, above all in assisting its member nations in providing quality basic education for children, youth and adults worldwide and in preserving the cultural heritage around the globe through its daughter organization, the World Heritage Committee, and its compilation of cultural properties of outstanding universal value, the World Heritage List.

Despite these undeniable achievements, Unesco has time and again come into trouble because of its inclination toward overbureaucratization and centralization and its distinctive lack of coordination and program evaluation; and — as many critics add — its marked tendency for “politicalization.” These problems, being criticized inside and outside Unesco, caused the United States to withdraw its membership from December 1984 to October 2003 and Britain to withdraw from December 1985 to July 1997.

Even these considerable if not temporary financial losses in terms of membership fees were not enough to make Unesco tackle its structural problems through adequate reforms: while dozens of such comprehensive plans were presented, no consensus could be achieved on carrying them out.

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In other words, Unesco muddled through without essential reforms.

In recent years, the agency’s problems have again amounted to a crisis, as in 2011 when the US decided not to pay its share to the regular budget of Unesco because of the agency’s admission of Palestine as a member state. Twenty-two percent of the regular budget, the amount paid by the US, has been lacking since then.

Against the background of the current Unesco crisis, an experienced insider, Klaus Huefner, a German former economics professor, having been engaged in many activities of Unesco since the early 1970s through several boards and committees, offers a thorough analysis of the agency, its present situation, its structures and its need and prospects for reforms in his book “What Can Save Unesco?,” published this year by Frank & Timme in English.

Huefner sees the main problems of Unesco not only in the organizational structures (an overstaffed bureaucratic main office in Paris, insufficient coordination of the manifold activities, lack of program evaluation and efficiency control), but also in the political compromises made from the beginning to paper over the basic differences of opinion among its founding members. These concessions resulted in a broad comprehensive mandate and lead to a considerable expansion of the agency’s activities over time.

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To save Unesco, a fundamental transformation is needed, Huefner says, not only in its structures but also in its vast arrays of work: Unesco must give up its inclination to deal with every subject matter in the fields of education, science, culture and communication and instead “concentrate on specific goals in a corresponding structural-institutional environment.”

Huefner recommends, emphasized by his own italics, that Unesco focus on its main function, “to offer an intellectual forum where ideas, opinions and experiences on educational, cultural and scientific problems are exchanged at a global level (laboratory of ideas).”

Moreover, Unesco should provide intellectual inputs to “develop concepts and pilot projects (function as a think tank). . . . ” Unesco should also continue to serve as a clearinghouse for global information on cultural developments to provide other UN organizations with information for their work.

Klaus Huefner, the author.
Klaus Huefner, the author of “What Can Save UNESCO?”

As for the structures of Unesco, Huefner recommends a reduction of the executive board from 58 to 30 members and suggests the establishment at the same level as the board a “second board composed of representatives from internationally recognized non-governmental partners of the global science system,” called a research board.

As a necessary precondition for essential reform of Unesco, Huefner regards “political will for innovative change and also the active participation of civil society.” Accordingly, Huefner advocates for improving the working relationship between the organization and nongovernment organizations. This suggestion makes sense, since there is a lack of appreciation by the organization that it can rely on the large network of national commissions of Unesco in its member countries, which could act as catalysts for enhancing the cooperation of Unesco with civil society organizations worldwide.

As for prospects of reform, Huefner notes that Unesco is still “predominantly state-oriented” and “driven by [its] own priorities and strategies,” reluctant to begin substantial changes.

Huefner therefore calls for a broad public debate on the future of Unesco on “how to rediscover the organization ‘UNESCO’ and how to position it within the present UN system” — a challenging task.

Yet if the wider public among the member states can be motivated by the national commissions of Unesco to join the debate about how to reform the agency, the prospects might improve the possibility that member states and those people working for Unesco can rediscover its essential tasks and how to implement them.

Huefner offers a candid analysis of the strong points and the weaknesses of Unesco, making it an illustrative example of how an important international organization with a broad mandate is equipped by its member states with too many tasks over the course of time, making it ungovernable and ineffective.

With highly readable language and his detailed knowledge of Unesco’s structures, budget planning and reform concepts, Huefner takes the reader on an insightful “research expedition” in rediscovering if not saving Unesco.

“What Can Save UNESCO”? by Klaus Huefner, 9783732902163

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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