Sunday, June 29, 2014

What I must take into account when assessing UNESCO’s results

Is the United Nations useful? My daily job is to ensure that the answer is “yes” in regards to one of its agencies, UNESCO. But what is usefulness? For my job I use the following definition: producing results, impact, positive change. To assess usefulness I look at as many of UNESCO’s activities as I can to assess the extent to which these activities actually bring us closer to the changes they were designed to bring about. Some examples: more and better educated children and adults, better protected world heritage, better scientific management of our oceans and a more free and accessible flow of ideas by word and image. In this blog I would like to highlight two challenges that this results assessment needs to take in to account.

1. UNESCO is not just an “implementation machine”
UNESCO is not a typical development organization that mainly implements projects in the field where it is relatively easy to measure impact. UNESCO is only partly an “implementation machine”: it is first and foremost a table with 195 chairs around it (one for each Member State) where the world’s governments can sit down to address the challenges they cannot deal with on their own. Amongst these challenges are: climate change, tsunamis, freedom of expression, attacks against cultural identity, guiding the global education effort by providing the international community with the right data, etc.

By providing the international community with this table or “meeting point” in Paris UNESCO motivates countries to achieve what they can’t achieve alone: exchange ideas to spark international action and cooperation. Some successful examples are the world famous World Heritage Convention and CERN in Switzerland, which were created by decisions of UNESCO’s General Conference. These decisions are important accomplishments by themselves and should be assessed as such. But they should also be seen as only the first step in a long causal chain that leads chronologically from proposed solutions (ideas) to conventions, to capacity building, to – eventually – the actual implementation of the proposed solutions in the field (schools, research labs, heritage sites, etc). This causal chain is facilitated by UNESCO’s networks comprising approx. 150 field offices and centers around the globe. These networks are the second step to be taken into account when assessing UNESCO’s usefulness. They ensure that UNESCO is more than just a “talk shop” by enabling UNESCO Member States to concretely implement the good and innovative ideas that their governments validated at the General Conference table.

2. UNESCO has a relatively small budget to generate impact
Contrary to what you might think UNESCO does not have a lot of money to fund both this global laboratory of ideas and its implementation networks. You’ll be surprised: UNESCO’s budget to generate impact (approx. USD 500 million/year) is about one tenth of what more typical UN development agencies like UNDP and UNICEF can spend (approx. USD 5 billion/year). You’ll be even more surprised. Although UNESCO’s mandate is to strengthen global cooperation in the UN system in five different areas (education, culture, science, communication and information), it has a budget that is lower than that of the University of Amsterdam (USD 760 million/year).

These two aspects of UNESCO (its “laboratory of ideas” function and small budget) don’t mean that we can’t expect much from UNESCO. Because even a laboratory of ideas produces concrete results that can be assessed: excellent innovative ideas fit for implementation in the field by UNESCO’s many networks. And also because even a small budget can generate what the University of Amsterdam can’t: international initiatives and solidarity thanks to innovative use of UNESCO’s tremendous convening power, status and outreach. I’m dedicated both to help produce these results and to assess them.