... the UNESCO should be more politically efficient

by Roland Bernecker

Heroes (Issue II/2018)

Interesting are the three reasons the State Department gave for its decision: Its payment backlog of 600 million USD ranked first. With the admission of Palestine to UNESCO, the USA stopped paying its membership fees in 2011. The second reason cited are decisions taken in UNESCO forums which are against Israel. The third point is the need for reform of the organisation.

One will not be completely wrong if one also understands "need for reform," in relation to the UNESCO, as a collective term for the unease that things aren’t turning out like one would like them to. From a political point of view, the United States is of course right when it sees a need for reform within the UNESCO. The decisions taken there by the various majorities of the 195 Member States were often contrary to their interests.

For us Northern Europeans, reforms are usually combined with the desire for more efficiency, i.e. more economy of scale, greater productivity. Efficiency is reflected by good organization, lean procedures, budget transparency, a good cost-benefit ratio and strategic focus. More efficiency in this sense is also desirable in UNESCO. Since 2000, in particular, it has been implementing major reform packages aiming for decentralisation, for the resulting budgeting and personnel development. The results so far, despite some of the organization's impressive program work, have not been very convincing. Why? In their book on the United Nations, Guillaume Devin and Marie-Claude Smouts state that the demands of the once more powerful member states (including the USA) for efficiency looked like a bid to regain lost political influence. That's a wise observation. After all, representativeness and legitimacy are key to political organisations. The degree to which UN organisations generate representativeness and legitimacy is central to their efficiency. Carlos Lopes, former UN Under-Secretary General, has pointed out the tension between management efficiency and legitimacy: "To be efficient, you just have to get started and do things. But you renounce legitimacy." This political dimension of efficiency, however, is increasingly lost to a focus on management and administrative processes.

For UNESCO, in particular, we must above all ensure political efficiency. The fact that the organisation is "politically instrumentalised" is an oft-used reproach to individual member states and it is also directed at the UNESCO Forum itself, suggesting that its procedures no longer have sufficient legitimacy.

Another problem is the urgent need for a strategic focus and adjustments to the organisation’s mandate, which is far too broad. Here, UNESCO has made little progress. Member States end up preventing progress. In the UNESCO, 58 government delegations meet like a permanent supervisory board and scrutinise management at every turn. Highly relevant questions regarding a meaningful strategic shift often fall by the wayside.

These central problems cannot be solved by adjusting flat-rate administrative costs, even if it is easier to achieve results. When it comes to reforming UNESCO, we must not be tempted to resort to focusing on our administration when we hit resistance to political challenges. 

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