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UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay charts a new strategic direction


Photo: UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, examined the damage to a school after the devastating port blasts in Beirut in August 2020. As a part of its Li Beirut initiative, UNESCO is helping to rehabilitate the city’s damaged education infrastructure. According to UNESCO’s World in 2030 Survey, education is a major solution to the world’s global challenges.

“The last few months have confirmed two convictions which I think this Executive Board shares. The first is that the recovery of our societies must have for pillars not only health systems, but also education, culture, the sciences, and information, the very fields which form the mandate of UNESCO. The second is that international cooperation must have the capacity to better respond to these common challenges, drawing on the solidarity of nations, and guided by common values, those enshrined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Responding to these common challenges, in taking action and setting new standards, is possible; I believe we have started to demonstrate that collectively, here at UNESCO, including at the peak of the pandemic.”

So says UNESCO’s Director General, Audrey Azoulay, at the opening of the Organisation’s 210th Executive Board session – due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the very first to be held online in the history of UNESCO. The convictions she expresses help set the stage for her proposed ‘pathway to a new UNESCO’: four major strategic objectives to guide the Organisation’s new strategic direction.

Photo: UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, addressing the 210th session of the Executive Board, the very first to be held online in the history of UNESCO.


“This moment that we are living is also a special moment for our Organization, a pivotal year that we are approaching with important assets… that [have] allowed us to put ourselves back at the centre of the game in the areas of our mandate. A mandate that was born in the aftermath of a World War and whose fundamental importance we recognize at a new time of global crisis. But the medium-term perspectives remain to be drawn together, which capitalize on these orientations and give Member States added value that rises to meet the challenges they face.”

Education is an essential solution that promotes innovation and reduces inequalities

In order to reduce inequalities, while also promoting learning and creative societies, quality education must be made accessible to all. It must also take into account the digital era we are living. This means surmounting many of the barriers to education that exist in the world – but it also means recognising, as reported in the results of the World in 2030 survey, that education represents a key solution to the world’s global challenges.

The first challenge to which UNESCO must respond is of course that of education, in the unprecedented context of recent months, from which we must draw lessons for the future. Because with COVID-19, the world has experienced, and is still experiencing, a real global educational disaster

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General

This disaster encompasses the millions of children still out of school, the many who will not return, and the inequalities – whether digital, geographic, or gender-based – which continue to mount because of it. In response, says Azoulay, UNESCO has, amongst other projects, mobilised the Global Education Coalition, radio-assisted distance learning in Sub-Saharan Africa, online learning materials in Samoa, practical guides for safe school reopening, and awareness campaigns to support the return of girls to school. This work, she says, has also underlined the importance of UNESCO’s Global Priority Africa, which will play an important role in the Organisation’s new strategy.

Nonetheless, she says, facilitating the return to school will not suffice without reinvestment in education, for more resilient and inclusive education systems. This will be vital to address the global funding shortfall in education, which has worsened, and which threatens the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4: quality education for all by 2030. Reinvestment in education, says Azoulay, is fundamental for the common public good.

Likewise, she points out, rebuilding our education systems also means rethinking them. To this end, UNESCO is using its Future of Education project to promote global reflection on this subject – a participatory initiative unprecedented in its scale, and of relevance reinforced by the crisis. This relevance was underlined by the World in 2030 survey, where education and learning was chosen as the top area of society to be rethought in light of COVID-19.

We must preserve the environment to build sustainable societies

If we are to build sustainable societies, the environment must be preserved through the promotion of science, technology, and natural heritage. Respondents to the World in 2030 survey named climate change and biodiversity loss the greatest challenge to peaceful societies this decade – and also called for the relationship between humans and nature to be rethought. Fittingly, Azoulay tell us that the second great challenge of our time lies in the imperative need for humanity to find a sustainable way of interacting with nature.

“Through our new strategy, we must respond to this challenge, mobilizing knowledge, but also education and culture, and disseminating information, to achieve a decisive change in humanity's relationship with its environment.”

One way of achieving this – one with growing global consensus – will be to protect 30% of the planet for nature. UNESCO’s networks of biosphere reserves, geoparks and natural World Heritage sights, says Azoulay, are tried and tested tools to this end. Recently, 25 new sites have been designated as biosphere reserves. Other important UNESCO projects that help improve the relationship between humans and nature include a new agreement with Italy to establish a network of international experts for nature preservation, and the UN Decade of Ocean Science, for which UNESCO has a leading role.

The Organisation also focuses on the interplay of culture and the environment – for example, it has worked closely with the Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change so that its recommendations incorporate a cultural dimension – as well as education for sustainable development.

“True to its historic mandate, UNESCO can also contribute to laying the new foundations for a relationship with nature through education, in particular education about nature, science, the oceans, and the mechanisms of life.”

UNESCO’s focus in this sense includes support and preservation of indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems, promoting the inclusion of environmental education in school curricula, supported by the production of a global report, teacher training, and the pursuit of Sustainable Development Goal 4.7.

Reinforcing UNESCO’s core mandate for the creation of peaceful societies

To build inclusive, just, and peaceful societies, we must promote and protect heritage, freedom of expression, cultural diversity, and global citizenship education.

The third challenge we face in our time is ensuring that the societies we live in are peaceful and fair. This goal builds on transversality and the combined forces of education, the sciences, culture, and information. We should work, of course, to prevent crises, but also to respond to them and repair harm.”

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General

UNESCO, says Azoulay, tackles this challenge through its work in Mosul and Beirut, with rehabilitation of educational and cultural fabrics – tangible and intangible – in the aftermath of conflict and disaster. It has also recently offered technical support and expertise to parties in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, reflecting its conviction that action must be taken to protect the region’s cultural heritage.

UNESCO also works to respond to racism and discrimination – on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic – through research, consultation, awareness-raising, and global citizenship education. In addition, it does significant work in the fight against anti-Semitism. Further, in an issue likewise amplified during the COVID-19 crisis, the Organisation supports the right to accessible, reliable information, including by promoting media and information literacy, media independence, and the safety of journalists, so they can report freely and safely. Similarly, the Organisation affirms the importance of ensuring safety in schools, for students and teachers, as, like journalism, education comes increasingly under attack.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed the crisis in culture – with many museums and institutions severely impacted, and the precarity of cultural professionals like artists and creators brought to bear. UNESCO’s Resiliart debates, and the resulting Culture in Crisis report, measures this impact.  The pandemic has also highlighted threats to heritage which must be dealt with through a strong and enduring international solidarity – in situations of crisis, and on a daily basis, to fight the illegal dispossession of cultural property. The pandemic has also showed us that, faced with the complexities of a changeable world, we must be able to adapt, by anticipating and looking toward the future – which also means looking to young people.

“When it comes to thinking about the future, youth are our best resource. Young people are full of imagination and ideas. They are the largest generation, and they are also the most educated in history.”

Positioning technology in the service of humankind

The fourth challenge that we face in our time, to which UNESCO has a duty to respond, says Azoulay, is ensuring that the scientific revolution serves the common good. To do so, we must foster a technological environment that is in the service of humankind – through the development and dissemination of knowledge and skills, and the development of ethical standards.

“We are experiencing one of humanity’s greatest technological disruptions, the consequences of which are already clear in our daily lives. The pandemic has reminded us of this technology’s usefulness, in monitoring, for instance, the spread of the disease and better understanding how the virus works. But its scope is likely to expand further, to the point that it will test the boundaries of humanity itself.”

In the face of this challenge, UNESCO has led the preparations of a Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, which will be submitted to the 41st General Conference for approval at the end of 2021. UNESCO has also become the United Nation’s agency of reference for Artificial Intelligence.

Leveraging Strategic Transformation to chart a new strategic direction

Much of the work outlined above, including UNESCO’s COVID-19 response, has been helped by the Strategic Transformation, which aims to ensure a more effective and efficient delivery of UNESCO’s mandate, now and in the future. 

We will be able to build on the reforms already implemented, on UNESCO's record during this COVID crisis, and on the strategic perspectives that we are charting at this time.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General

The four strategic objectives, also outlined above, form a major part of the Director General’s Preliminary Proposals for UNESCO’s new Medium-Term Strategy, which will guide the Organisation from 2022 until 2029. At this stage, the proposed strategic objectives for this new strategy are defined by a transversal and multidisciplinary approach. They were created through an innovative and inclusive consultation process – the largest in the history of the organisation – with Member States, and with the assistance of an important internal reflection carried out within the Organisation, supported by the work of the High Level Reflection Group.

The Medium-Term Strategy will form the major output for the last stage of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation, underway for 3 years. And, as Azoulay explains:

“The ongoing development of a new Medium-Term Strategy constitutes a major opportunity, in this pivotal moment, to confirm and amplify the Strategic Transformation of UNESCO, and to project ourselves in the future.”