Sunday, October 20, 2013

Understanding UNESCO

I helped teach a graduate seminar for several years on UNESCO. It served students interested in international careers in areas such as education, foreign policy and museum work, and as such had an obvious relevance.

Still, I tried to see that students in the course learned some lessons on how to understand an organization, and especially an intergovernmental organization. I suggest that a multifocal approach is most useful, including

  • Understanding of the history of the organization, especially its founding and its response to major changes in its environment.
  • The mission, as defined in a mission statement (in the case of UNESCO in the preamble to its constitution) and as it has shifted over time.
  • Governance: UNESCO is governed by its General Conference in which the representative of each member state has a single vote, and its Executive Board, elected from the member of the General Conference.
  • Leadership: UNESCO has an elected Director General who in turn appoints Deputy and a number of Assistant Directors General; they have considerable power over the organization.
  • The program, which includes not only the subjects (education, science, culture and communications for UNESCO), but also the kinds of activities that they conduct (discussion forum, clearinghouse for ideas, etc. for UNESCO).
  • The budget.
  • The staffing -- where they come from, their skill sets, and where they work.
  • The structure of the organization, the organization chart.
  • How the organization gets its funding, its staff, etc.

I find that the traditional discussions of organizations fail to deal very well with UNESCO. For example, a great deal of UNESCO's work is done in partnership with governments, other international organizations, non-governmental organizations, businesses, etc. Organization theory as I studied it in grad school didn't deal with such partnerships as a major theme.

UNESCO staff does not actually implement the global Education for All program or the World Water Assessment, but rather helps and encourages others to do that work.

I also note that to understand UNESCO, one should understand:
  • The international conventions that have been negotiated there and for which it acts as caretaker. There range from those protecting museums from plunder during wars, to agreements on recognition of educational credentials, to those underlying cooperation in marine science and the protection against tsunamis.
  • The work of a vast network of centers that are affiliated with UNESCO, some of which receive part of their financing through UNESCO and others which are fully financed by members states.
  • A vast network of university chairs, university networks and affiliated schools that have voluntarily affiliated with the Organization.
  • National Commissions or similar bodies in the 196 member states, in principle composed of intellectual leaders from those nations, which link the larger intellectual community in each nation with UNESCO and its work, and in some times with each other.
  • A vast network of World Heritage sites, bioreserves, geoparks and wetlands that are affiliated through UNESCO but maintained by the countries in which they are located.
In some sense most of the global impact of UNESCO is achieved outside of buildings occupied by UNESCO's staff and by people other than that staff. Thus UNESCO leadership and staff depend on the voluntary action of people only loosely affiliated with the Organization to accomplish its mission.

1 comment:

JTawfilis said...

I agree that it is many of the people outside the headquarters offices that help make UNESCO a vital organization. I just wish they would recognize and acknowledge it...especially for so many of the small grass roots and loyal organizations and groups like you have started and maintain.