UNESCO’s Troubles

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UNESCO's Troubles
(Author) UNESCO Headquarters
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UNESCO’s troubles continue to mount.

On Thursday, the United States announced it was leaving UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Soon after, Israel followed suit.

The US rationale included finances, the need for reform, and anti-Israel bias. However, the last-mentioned was probably the determining factor.

UNESCO’s Troubles: Israeli-Palestinian dispute

UNESCO’s troubles reflect the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As one of Israel’s chief supporters, the US has long been irritated by perceived anti-Israeli UNESCO actions.

In 1974, the US suspended its contribution to UNESCO’s budget. This was after it criticized Israel and recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Ten years later, President Reagan withdrew the US formally from UNESCO. He cited UNESCO’s budget and its bias against Israel and capitalism. In 2003, President George W. Bush brought the US back into UNESCO.

When Palestine became a UNESCO member in 2011, the US stopped paying its annual dues. The dues represented a fifth of UNESCO’s budget.

Lately, Israel has objected to UNESCO decisions on heritage in Hebron and Jerusalem.

UNESCO’s troubles in the financial arena have added to its difficulties with effectiveness and efficiency.

UNESCO’s Troubles: Effectiveness and Efficiency

I worked with international organizations and dealt with UNESCO for several years. UNESCO has done great work in the conservation of heritage sites.

Unfortunately, UNESCO has a huge bureaucracy. With its Paris headquarters, UNESCO positions are very attractive to those with political connections.

Further, many at UNESCO are resistant to innovation. At the same time, it uses its expansive name to justify an ever-growing mandate.

As one UNESCO official told me, there is a tendency to “complexify” issues. Consequently, UNESCO’s lengthy tomes largely gather dust.

The United Kingdom routinely reviews global organizations. In its latest review, it gave its lowest ranking of “weak” to UNESCO on its “organizational strengths.”

Mindful of criticisms, current Director-General Irina Bokova has tried to improve UNESCO. Nevertheless, some of her actions and ties came under scrutiny.

Still, Bokova did manage to keep UNESCO afloat after the end of the US contribution. She had to cut the regular budget by a quarter, as also personnel.

Despite UNESCO’s troubles, there has been no shortage of interest in succeeding Bokova. That leadership struggle brings another set of rivalries to UNESCO.

UNESCO’s Troubles: Leadership and Rivalries

UNESCO is currently choosing its next Director-General. After several rounds of voting, three candidates remain.

Qatar’s candidate, Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, led in the last round of voting Thursday. Egypt’s Moushira Khattab and France’s Audrey Azoulay were tied.

Egypt and Qatar are on opposite sides in the Qatar-Gulf dispute. That dispute has made its presence felt in the UNESCO race.

Qatar’s candidate might be able to raise significant funds for UNESCO. Egypt’s candidate has the advantage of being Arab, African, and a Muslim woman.

Yet, France’s candidate may emerge as the dark horse. She is Moroccan-Jewish, with a father who is an adviser to the Moroccan royal house.

Whoever emerges as the next DG will have to find creative ways of dealing with UNESCO’s troubles. He or she can hope that the US withdrawal is not a divorce, but a separation.


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