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Building trust and delivering quality results key to UNESCO’s sustainable partnerships


The COVID-19 crisis has underlined the importance and benefits of partnerships for UNESCO, especially in terms of expanding its reach for advocacy, knowledge sharing and solidarity. As UNESCO moves through the pandemic, and, critically, towards its new Medium-Term Strategy, Jessica Jeavons, Chief of Section for Strategic Partnerships and Donor Relations in the Bureau of Strategic Planning, reflects.

From a partnership perspective, the New Medium-Term Strategy is a huge opportunity for UNESCO because it carries the Sustainable Development Goals at its heart, which in itself provides a powerful organisational framework that is attractive to partners. It will also help strengthen the coherence of UNESCO’s dialogue with partners at global, regional and particularly at country level within UN Country Teams. This kind of clarity and drive is what builds constructive partnerships and helps deliver our mandate.

Jessica Jeavons

It all starts with sound delivery

In the framework of Strategic Transformation, delivery of the mandate – or more precisely, delivery of results and quality of reporting – provide an important foundation for UNESCO’s sustainable partnerships. UNESCO’s many strengths in delivery can be made more visible by better illustrating its activities and leveraging them to cultivate existing partnerships, and to seek new ones. An approach that reproduces these successes via a focus on adequate planning for results must be maintained and incorporated into UNESCO’s approach to partnerships – while a corresponding communication strategy can complement robust and transparent reporting.

UNESCO faces the challenge of establishing core support for a multidisciplinary mandate, while many partners seek reportable delivery on precise projects. The Organisation has received good feedback on improvements to the quality of its reporting, for example from Sweden and Norway, who have entered into ‘lightly earmarked’ funding arrangements based on trust that the Organisation will deliver high quality and well-reported results. Strong core support is key to the sustainability of UNESCO’s activities, and it is therefore vital that the Organisation nurture these kinds of relationships.

 “The strongest platform UNESCO has for building partnerships is sound delivery. Delivering on the promise of results builds trust and fosters the kind of long-term support that is ultimately vital to delivering UNESCO’s mandate.”

Partnership culture helps foster innovation in partnerships

For UNESCO to translate this strong platform of sound delivery into a successful network of sustainable partnerships, says Jessica, we need to establish a ‘partnership culture’ at UNESCO.

“Creating such a culture necessitates building staff capacity, identifying and making staff mindful of the many opportunities available, and fostering staff awareness for the importance of partnerships across all levels of UNESCO. Staff should be aware of the significance of UNESCO’s work, and its relevance and attractiveness to partners – and then be able to communicate that,” she explains.

One great strength of UNESCO is the broad recognition across the House of the value of in-kind partnerships, and the added value they can bring to programme delivery. Building a partnership culture does not just enhance funding opportunities – it also builds visibility, enriches projects, and boosts results, opening doors for scaling up, replication and South-South cooperation.

Jessica identifies two key steps in strengthening UNESCO’s partnership culture:

“Firstly, we need to diversify our partnerships, particularly in the private sector. Then, we need to focus on nurturing and scaling up our existing partnerships, by fostering trust through strong  delivery. We should explore more transversal – and less “micro project” – support, and privilege more flexible, long-term relationships, financial or no. When you enter a partnership, you need a view of a long-term commitment. Sometimes, of course, partnerships are short-term, or issue based. This can also be very valuable for creating visibility and tangible results that can be scaled up. But to achieve sustainability, we also need to nurture long-term partnerships”

 “One of UNESCO’s recent accomplishments is the Global Education Coalition for COVID-19 response, which was successfully launched during the pandemic. It represents a massive multi-stakeholder undertaking that has reinvigorated existing partnerships and attracted a wide range of new partners to UNESCO.”

These new partnerships are precious assets that need to be carefully nurtured by the Organization. This kind of innovation in partnerships helps UNESCO to not only broaden its reach and deliver results, but also build comprehensive responses through knowledge sharing and collaboration – an approach, says Jessica, that should be reproduced in the future.

COVID-19 highlights the importance of collaboration and visibility

UNESCO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed some challenges.

“One area we could work on more is communication and advocacy; we need to look, for instance, at how we can work better with media partners to help amplify our message,” points out Jessica. “A great model for this was the messaging around UNESCO’s COVID-19 response. Resiliart, for example, was very collaborative and engaged a wide range of actors very well.”

When UNESCO engages with partners and donors, it signs up for more visibility, and more transparency. These undertakings are both fundamental and useful to UNESCO’s work, and facilitating them in the realm of partnerships is vital. For example, going forward, all programs funded through voluntary contributions will be required to establish a visibility plan, and must allocate resources to communication. These kinds of approaches help UNESCO to better link its partnerships and its communications.

Private Sector represents a network of untapped relationships

The COVID-19 response has also highlighted another important area of work for UNESCO: private sector engagement.

“For now, I see our private sector engagement as quite modest. But the private sector represents an enormous network of potential partners. There is definitely scope for scaling up,” says Jessica.

In addition to strengthening partnerships, a key part of the Strategic Transformation focused on staff capacity building as a way of enriching UNESCO’s institutional knowledge and benefitting staff. Staff capacity building for private sector engagement likewise fits this bill. For example, training for private sector resource mobilization was recently piloted in March, with the Latin America and Caribbean field offices taking advantage of the know-how of UNESCO Brasilia, which has one of the largest portfolios of private partners globally. While it is too early to see whether this has had an impact on private sector uptake, it has certainly raised awareness and built capacity in this area, with enthusiastic follow up from our colleagues in the region.

More broadly, in order to facilitate private sector engagement, UNESCO needs a clearer image of the private sector opportunities in specific markets – every Member State context is different. We also need to better understand the variety of motivations of a range of potential partners. Understanding, for example, how the issue- or country-specific focus of a high net worth individual would differ from the stakeholder driven focus of a corporate partner, helps to clarify how best UNESCO can tailor its outreach strategy.

Knowing where to find partners, and understanding what their focus is, helps UNESCO to not only diversify its partnerships, but also to make them more impactful and sustainable.

Jessica Jeavons