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UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation is crucial in the face of today’s global challenges


Photo: UNESCO’s governing meeting in July 2020. The next General Conference in November 2021 will decide on the strategic direction of the Organization until the end of the decade.

It’s a refrain heard often and everywhere: the challenges of this era – such as climate change, mounting inequalities, violence, conflict, and global public health– are increasingly complex, increasingly rife, and, in many cases, increasingly difficult to surmount. UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation was born from the Organisation’s resolve to effectively address such challenges, by re-examining its modalities of action to deliver its programmes using a more collective, systematic and innovative approach.

At the 204th Session of the Executive Board in April 2018, UNESCO’s newly elected Director General Audrey Azoulay presented her vision for the Strategic Transformation, which was subsequently endorsed by Member States.

We need to take charge of our destiny, to regain the initiative; in other words, to begin a transformation, not by default, but by strategic choice, to ensure that this institution is better able to support the international community in the realization of the objectives it has set itself in Agenda 2030.

Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, at the 204th UNESCO Executive Board, 9 April 2018

Currently ongoing, the Strategic Transformation represents the Organisation’s determination to deliver the best possible approach to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while also positioning itself to be more efficient and effective in the long-term. This forward-looking process is designed to correspond with United Nations Reform, as a part of an overall endeavour to strengthen global efforts towards the 2030 Agenda and ultimately improve the delivery of the UN’s mandate. UNESCO is looking toward more transversal programming and focusing on interdisciplinary programmes and working methods which are based on cooperation and synergies. This acknowledges the scale and multiplicity of the challenges we face, whose many interconnections have only become plainer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A coherent timeline for change, starting with structure and means of action

The Strategic Transformation commenced with the establishment of the Sector for Administration and Management (ADM), headed by Assistant Director General for ADM Nicholas Jeffreys. This first step was designed to strengthen UNESCO’s management culture, changing UNESCO’s structure in such a way that support services such as human resource management, finance, security, information technology and logistical support would be better integrated and therefore more efficient, while also achieving greater transparency.

The ADM sector was successfully established in October 2018 and has streamlined many processes. For instance, the sector made possible a comprehensive response to the COVID-19 crisis, from Headquarters and Field Offices, through coordination of elements such as staff health and security, preventative measures for facilities management, coordination of communication, and provision of information technology services.

Other steps aim to improve the delivery of UNESCO’s means of action – the means by which UNESCO is able to concretely pursue its mandate in its areas of competence. As of now, two of three principal strategies have been successfully completed and are in implementation: establishment of firstly, the new communication strategy for public awareness and advocacy, and secondly, the new comprehensive partnership strategy. The third strategy relates to the sustainability of the field network, and aims to align UNESCO as much as possible with UN reform.  

Many other important initiatives and policies are also being put into effect, particularly in the area of human resources for the purpose of empowering staff. For instance, there have been noticeable improvements to performance management, with a new policy introduced in January 2020, as well as to the internal justice system, with updates to the complaint mechanism and enhancements to system transparency. 

Similarly, focus has been given to cultivating capacity building, with training for senior staff in the development of leadership skills, improving the circulation of competencies within the Organisation via an evaluated staff mobility exercise, and enhancing UNESCO’s uptake of expertise through changes in recruitment. Other key actions include the enhancement of UNESCO’s environmental management, and concrete actions taken towards strengthening transversality and synergies within the Organisation, such as through the pilot project for agile teams conducted in the Education Sector.

These initiatives, among many others, have been elaborated with the involvement of both Headquarters and field staff. They have led to the streamlining of many organisational processes, which ultimately facilitates clearer and more effective programme delivery. This rationale – of improvement, innovation, and strengthened means of action – has been tested during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the Strategic Transformation’s many actions have not only stood their ground but have allowed the Organisation to better respond. This is demonstrated in the inception of initiatives like the Global Education Coalition and communication campaigns like the #LearningNeverStops 'Girls back to school' video and #DontGoViral, which leverage advances in communication and digital transformation.

This Report to the 210th Executive Board, comprising the final report on results achieved under Pillar 2, illustrates the transformative actions taking place in 2020. 

A Strategic Direction built on collaborative effort 

Many of these endeavours are unfolding in parallel with elaboration of the Medium-Term Strategy for 2022-2029, which will define UNESCO’s strategic direction in the crucial decade preceding 2030. The Directors General’s Preliminary Proposals for the draft Medium-Term Strategy (41 C/4) and draft Programme and Budget for 2022-2025 (41 C/5) were made available for the 210th session of the Executive Board in document 210 EX/22. These proposals present a transversal and interdisciplinary approach with a limited and focused number of strategic objectives and integrated global priorities.  They set out a bold and innovative strategic direction for UNESCO that will allow the Organisation to address our most pressing global issues, which will need to be tackled head-on with strong continued commitment. They also have communication and partnerships explicitly integrated.

The innovative and inclusive process employed for the preparation of Preliminary Proposals and overall elaboration of the Medium-Term Strategy takes into account the views of a variety of stakeholders through a number of collaborative mechanisms, and demonstrates UNESCO’s determination to provide the most comprehensive and impactful approach to its areas of competence.                                                                                                      

This began with a series of dialogues with Member States in mid-2019, which have been followed up by further official consultations with Member States and their National Commissions. Such engagement of Member States drove the launch of the Strategic Transformation and continues to be a valuable motivator of visionary institutional change. Consultations continue throughout 2020.

Other initiatives have taken place since 2019 and will be continuing. These include activities of the Director General’s High-Level Reflection Group, an external and independent group composed of scientists, historians, writers, academics and others who reflect on global developments and provide their reflections to the Director General. Several online meetings and a series of interviews with group members were conducted this year.  Other initiatives included a very successful staff survey, the “World in 2030” public survey and exchanges with UNESCO youth.  

The Strategic Transformation will continue until the next General Conference, which occurs at the end of 2021 and will adopt the new Medium-Term Strategy. In saying this, transforming UNESCO is ultimately a process, which will carry through the implementation of the new strategy and the new programme and the budget, based on a strong foundation built by the transformative changes that have taken place within the Organization.