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UNESCO’s commitment to reform

Irina Bokova started down the path to reform as soon as she was elected Director-General in 2009.  Her vision: to make UNESCO more relevant and more visible.   She knew from her time as a UNESCO ambassador that the Organization’s programme needed more focus and its administrative procedures required more rigour.   But how does a new leader go about modernizing a bureaucracy that’s been around since the end of WWII?

To start, the Director-General formed Task Forces of staff to look at different aspects of UNESCO’s work.  She also decided to implement the recommendations of an Independent External Evaluation (IEE).  Together, the IEE and Task Forces developed scenarios for change and took them to an Ad Hoc Working Group of the Executive Board.  Working as a team, these three groups developed 86 recommendations to stimulate fundamental reform along five major lines:

  • Focus the work of the organization; 
  • Deliver programmes more effectively in the field;
  • Define UNESCO’s niche within the United Nations;
  • Develop partnerships; and
  • Streamline governance. 

The change process was underway. This exercise was driven by a fierce desire to position UNESCO more effectively in the world around it – to make it more relevant to the UN system and to deliver development assistance with more impact.

Then the financial crisis hit.  When the U.S. with-held its funding after UNESCO voted to admit Palestine, UNESCO lost 22 per cent of its budget:  $160 million.  Suddenly, it had to raise money and cut costs at the same time as it moved ahead with reform.  For a while it was touch and go.  Discretionary spending stopped dead.  The cost of travel and consultants was reduced by more than 70 per cent.  The cost of equipment was cut by 64 per cent.  But it wasn’t all about cuts - UNESCO also set up an Emergency Fund and raised $75 million.  And the books were balanced.

It wasn’t easy; lots of people thought the cutbacks would derail reform.  But somehow, the reform effort and the budgetary shortfall supported each other.  Today, 65 of the 86 recommendations in the IEE’s reform package have been implemented.  Many others - from the Task Forces - have also been put into place.  Now, UNESCO is a more focused Organization both at headquarters and in the field.  It’s been given the lead on new initiatives in Education and Science by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General.  And the Executive Board has nominated Irina Bokova for a second term in office.  Reform has become part of UNESCO’s organizational culture.