Sunday, September 28, 2014

Don't let UNESCO's engine get overheated!

Imagine you own a small car with a small trailer behind it to go on holidays. Imagine that a couple of friends who go in the same direction ask you if you mind if they hook up their trailers to your car too. You agree, because of course you want to help them. Then your car starts having trouble because it can't pull the weight of the extra trailers. Then other friends start asking you if they can hook up their trailers too. If you don't do something quickly your engine will burn. So what do you do? You decide to ask your friends to give you some money so you can have your car's engine upgraded. Otherwise the whole caravan will ultimately come to a standstill and everybody will be very unhappy.

This parabola describes the risk UNESCO is currently running according to this document we will discuss in the upcoming 195th session of the Executive Board. Let me explain this in terms of the parabola.

The poor little engine is UNESCO's staff that is paid with the mandatory contributions its Member States pay to the organization. This engine produces UNESCO's "corporate" activities like the recruitment of staff and financial management, and some programme activities like the official meetings of Member States about world heritage.

The extra trailers are so called "extrabudgetary projects" financed by donors. These projects come on top of UNESCO's standard programme and represent most of UNESCO's actual work in the field. It's very good that donors (often governments) ask UNESCO to implement these extra activities because it will increase UNESCO's impact. But it can only work if the donors pay for these extra projects. How do donors pay for this?

The extra activities they ask for generate two types of costs. Firstly they generate costs for extra staff and logistics that are directly related to these extra activities (consultant fees, travel costs, rental of meeting rooms). The donor pays for these costs directly. Secondly these extra activities generate indirect or "invisible" costs that put an extra burden on the corporate (administrative) services of the organization. Some examples:
  • the Human Resources Department has to work harder (e.g. recruit more consultants) 
  • the Legal Advisor will have to study and draft more contracts
  • the Financial Departement will have to take care of more financial administration
  • the Audit Department (IOS) will have to do more audits
  • etc.
The good news is that donors also pay for these indirect "invisible" costs, meaning that UNESCO "recovers" these costs. This is how it works: UNESCO ask donors to pay a supplement between 10% and 13% on top of the total direct costs to pay for extra indirect costs (extra work done by staff in the corporate services for the organization).

But then the UNESCO engine starts getting overheated because the supplement UNESCO currently receives from donors to pay for "extra hands" in the corporate services is not enough to pay for all the extra work. Because the extra activities don't only require extra work from UNESCO's corporate/administrative staff but also from UNESCO's programme staff, meaning the staff that directly manages the work related to education, oceans, cultural heritage etc. This extra time spent by these programme staff members should also be "recovered", meaning that donors should pay for it so that extra staff can be hired to do this work for them.

However I just read that the Organization only recovers less than 1% of programme staff time:


I once again pay tribute to UNESCO's transparency about its own shortcomings, like its insufficient cost recovery pointed out here in this official Executive Board document.
This is a problem because in reality programme staff spends much more than 1% of its time on supervising extra projects.

One of the reasons for this "under recovery" is that international organizations often have to compete for donors, so they all try to keep their project fees as low as possible to attract donors. This is an understandable, but unhealthy situation. UNESCO must recover all its costs because otherwise its staff will become so overburdened that it can no longer implement even its standard programme activities.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Water and Peace: How can UNESCO protect it even better?


UNESCO does not only help protect cultural heritage. It also has a large Science Sector that deals with water, both salt and freshwater. The idea is simple: both our oceans and our drinking & irrigation water are facing unprecedented challenges that no country can solve on its own. So it’s in the interest of the countries to bundle their research capacity to design a common scientific agenda. By sharing our scientific capacity we can better understand and address water challenges that we share too: sealevel rise, drought, pollution, floods, etc. A simple example: if you want to protect transboundary groundwater reservoirs from pollution and depletion, you first need to know where they are. So UNESCO maps them with help of UNESCO’s groundwater center IGRAC in the Netherlands.

Water is UNESCO’s scientific top priority
It might surprise you but UNESCO’s freshwater programme is one of UNESCO’s largest intergovernmental programmes. And did you know that Member States decided last year that water is UNESCO’s top priority in the Science Sector? The freshwater programme is called the International Hydrological Programme (IHP). It’s about 40 years old and it gathers 36 Member States in the so called IHP Council of which the Netherlands is a member since 1996. To effectively address global water challenges it designed a scientific and educational water strategy divided into 6 themes. But how does UNESCO actually implement this paper strategy in the field?

How UNESCO implement its IHP Water Strategy
One of its implementation instruments is the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands which delivers more than 700 alumni each year. Thanks to the experience the students acquire they can help concretely improve water management in their home countries when they return. You can find their stories here.

Another implementation instrument is UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Programme that produces the World Water Development Report (WWDR). This flagship report is not just one of these big books nobody has time to read, but a focused 100 page overview of the state of the world’s freshwater resources. This year’s WWDR focuses on water and energy because the global water withdrawal is projected to increase by some 55% by 2050, and a significant part of this water is used for (energy) production. The international water community needs this report to implement the new Sustainable Development Agenda because the 6th goal of this agenda is to ensure sustainable water management for future generations. Don’t forget: the same water that flows out of your tap today was drunk more than 200 million years ago by the Dinosaurs. It needs to remain drinkeable for at least another 200 million years.

IHP: what are the challenges?
In the upcoming UNESCO Executive Board Session, Member States will discuss how effective UNESCO’s water programme is and how it can be improved [1]. The relevant Board document concludes that IHP “effectively promotes leading edge research” but also lists 5 challenges:
  1. Lack of resources;
  2. Insufficient involvement of IHP’s extensive global network comprising more than 160 national IHP-Committees, around 30 water centers, UNESCO-IHE in Delft (Netherlands), the World Water Assessment Programme Secretariat (Italy) and 35 water chairs;
  3. Lack of transparent decision-making;
  4. Lack of focus; and
  5. Lack of visibility.

How can these challenges be addressed?
Therefore my hopes are respectively that Member States take the following 5 initiatives to address these challenges:
  1. By helping UNESCO financially to translate its water priorities into concrete actions in the field;
  2. By motivating the members of UNESCO’s global water network located on their territory to actively contribute to the implementation of UNESCO’s water strategy;
  3. By supporting UNESCO’s transition to a results-based organization that works on the basis of these two simple questions: (i) did activities meet targets and do they have impact? (ii) how do we go forward given their (lack of) impact? [2];
  4. By making choices and by better defining IHP’s niche instead of continuing business-as-usual; and
  5. By helping to make IHP more visible by providing UNESCO with success stories related to UNESCO’s water strategy (like on UNESCO-IHE’s website).
I hope this advice will be heard because – and I quote the Board document – “unless some quite drastic changes are implemented, IHP will continue to cede ground to competitors and lose its global prestige”.

UNESCO’s niche: Water and Peace and data collection
The reason why I think it’s worth supporting IHP is that UNESCO has a niche with regard to water and peace. A good example is the programme From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP). This programme helps avoiding or solving conflicts not by asking governments to discuss the (potential) conflict, but by enabling water experts to analyse scientific and practical solutions to the problem. By bringing together managers of transboundary water ressources, PCCP creates the scientific foundation for better understanding and eventually the material basis for political solutations. In our jargon this is called Track II Diplomacy.

Another niche of the scientific programme IHP is its capacity to provide the international community with scientific methods to measure development progress. You can’t drive a development process towards more sustainable water management if you can’t measure “improved sustainable water management". UNESCO shares this niche with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which is also a platform for hydrological research.

The key is visibility
If you want UNESCO to continue to grow and strengthen its peace promoting work via water cooperation, you can help in several ways. Let me just mention the easiest way: start directly with point 5 on the list above by spreading this message. Because UNESCO can only be effective as a platform for and multiplyer of best practices in Member States, which requires visibility. To quote former Spanish Director-General of UNESCO Federico Major: UNESCO cannot bake all the bread in the world, but it can provide the yeast to make it happen.

Twitter: @Oosterenvan


[1] See p. 4-47 of this document and also p. 19-20 of this document. 
[2] As was requested on p. 62 of this document.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A short definition of diplomacy



I found this very clear background paper by the Research Service of the US Congress to help Congress answer the following question: should the US resume payment of its contributions to UNESCO or not? The paper recalls several US criticisms regarding UNESCO: politicization, lack of budget discipline and programmatic focus, perceived leanings toward anti-democratic countries, too inward oriented and a human resources policy with too little consideration of merit. It also mentioned what triggered the withholding of the US contribution to UNESCO in 2011: the recognition of Palestine as a full member of the organization.

I recognize large part of this criticism. It is indeed true for example that given the consensus-based nature of the decision-making process “approved resolutions are often not very specific, even those addressing budgetary issues.” As a matter of fact, I am paid by my own government to help improve this situation by systematically addressing the financial aspect of decisions. Not because we prefer to discuss money to education or culture, but because as Member States we are responsible for making sure that our decisions about programmes also receive the necessary means for achieving their objectives. It’s not reasonable to ask your car to drive 100 miles extra when its gas tank is almost empty.

It is a tricky job, because talking about money and results is easily perceived as a way to eliminate programmes or committees that other Member States appreciate so much. Each time I address an agenda item from the dollars-and-results-perspective I can be perceived as a person who’s not really interested in education, culture and science but in more results-reports, bureaucracy and sometimes even in killing the organization. And yet nothing is further from the truth: if you want your tree to flourish you need to prune and take care of it! It's not for nothing that the best wines come from vineyards where the winegrower only lets the best grapes reach maturity. In other words: quality and excellence are a matter of choice and concentration.

Of course I regret that these choices are difficult to make and sometimes cause suspicion. But I gladly accept this risk as the price you have to pay for working in a truly global organization where the method of work is based on the constructive principle of consensus and not on the law of the jungle. The starting point at UNESCO is that we are all very, very different but that we stick together to valorize and promote this diversity. Not out of idealism, but because we understand that diversity is not a weakness but a strength. It’s true that diversity can “slow down” negotiations, but in the end you learn more about both the other and yourself. This is one of the founding principles of UNESCO: by valorizing cultural diversity, nations build self-awareness and self-confidence, thereby enhancing their capacity to interact with and learn from others. 

Everything at UNESCO reminds you of its global character: its work, its Member States, its art collection and its building. This view is the reward I get when I leave the building after a late meeting: the globe offered to UNESCO by Denmark with the Eiffeltower in the background.

Obviously this learning process is not about producing food and jobs like the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Labor Organisation (ILO). UNESCO is not about ending physical hunger (FAO) but about avoiding mental hunger (ignorance). UNESCO is neither about producing physical labor (ILO) but about disclosing humanity’s mental potential through education and science. This is a delicate mission because education and culture are windows on who we and others are, on what our nations and communities stand for, on our heritage, on our very different but interconnected histories and on our values that we teach our children and that we consider of the highest importance. Culture and education are the building blocks of our identity and everybody has something to say about them. That makes them such difficult topics to agree on. But that also makes them fantastic opportunities for Member States to show that they really want to understand and learn from each other by sharing things like our (world) heritage, tsunami warning systems and expertise in educational planning.

You’ll understand my point by now: I have trouble accepting that these unique opportunities to overcome our diversity by valorizing it are not used to the full extent. It’s frustrating to see one of us slowly leaving the negotiation table even before we can start building on the major improvements we just achieved. It delegitimizes UNESCO and creates a general feeling of failure. It’s bad for the ambiance, and therefore bad for diplomacy. No matter the reason for which a member decides to withdraw its support of the “club of all” (UN), it hurts the club and its members.

This is one of the reasons why I’m so attracted to diplomacy: because it aims to avoid drawbacks like these by keeping the dialogue going. No matter what happens diplomacy requires that you never give up the dialogue to preserve our chances of improvement. I write "our" chances because although we might think that we’re rowing our own little (or big) boats, the truth is that we’re all in the same big boat. So when there are leaks we better act as a team and help each other to repair them because otherwise we’ll simply go under, slowly but surely. Therefore I keep my definition of diplomacy is as short and simple as possible: keep smiling, keep talking!

Two major improvements at UNESCO


I regularly write about things that UNESCO could do better because that’s how you improve an organization and raise support for it. Examples are the findings of the Independent External Evaluation (2010) that was partly financed by my country, the Netherlands. One of the findings is that UNESCO lacks focus. This finding was corroborated by a study ordered by the US Congress stating that UNESCO’s governing bodies “often approve new themes, activities, and programs for UNESCO headquarters to implement; however, no additional resources are allocated to implement such activities, and many contend that they are not sufficiently prioritized.”

Let me now move the spotlight to something more delightful: what has UNESCO actually done about this? Here are two major improvements UNESCO achieved recently.

Major improvement #1: The Independence Day Prioritization Exercise

On the 4th of July 2013, UNESCO Member States decided to sit down and do what they had never done before since the creation of the Organization in 1945: prioritize all UNESCO’s activities in one transparent and coherent prioritization debate. The result of this was a complete list of all UNESCO’s activities in which Member States had given them rankings A, B or C. The Director-General of UNESCO was then asked to translate these rankings into budgetary envelopes. Six months later she presented UNESCO’s prioritized Programme & Budget to UNESCO’s General Conference[1].

Why is this a major improvement? Didn’t UNESCO prioritize its activities and allocate budget like that before? Not really, because UNESCO has no Budget Committee that allocates UNESCO’s budget to UNESCO’s activities in one comprehensive and transparent debate. It is true however that UNESCO’s General Conference (the biennial meeting where all 195 Member States are represented) approves a comprehensive draft Programme & Budget that UNESCO’s Secretariat prepares. But besides incidental requests of some Member States to move some budget from one activity to another, there is no discussion about whether allocated programme priorities have been correctly reflected in the draft Programme & Budget. As a matter of fact, until the 4th of July 2013 there was no process in which programmes were systematically ranked and that could serve as transparent and reliable basis for budget allocation. The great thing is that the 4th of July changed this. Not surprisingly UNESCO’s External Auditor applauds this and recommends to the upcoming Executive Board session that “experiential feedback must be drawn from that episode as useful input to discussions. (…) The necessity of prioritizing action, duly taking resource constraints into account (…) was highlighted in particular during that procedure.

Major Improvement #2: Increased Member States involvement

On what basis can activities be prioritized? Following the principle of Results-Based Management, which UNESCO does, a high priority (and budget) is allocated to activities that are successful while a low priority (and budget) is allocated to activities that are less successful.

This means that Member States need to know how successful UNESCO’s activities are. For this they use a tool called “results-report.” Until now UNESCO’s results-reports looked like this. The problem was that Member States often found that these reports were not useful enough for programme prioritizing because they only reported on what UNESCO did (its activities) and not on the positive changes and causal effects that these activities were supposed to bring about in society. As a consequence, as pointed out by the US document mentioned earlier, “existing programs widely viewed as weak or incoherent are often not eliminated.

That is exactly what Member States set out to change during two sessions of the Preparatory Group. The challenge was to do more than just point out where UNESCO’s results-reports needed improvement. This time Member States not only said what they did not want but they drafted a very precise proposal explaining what they exactly they wanted and, even better, what it should look like. The result was this proposal containing a recipe for a new type of result-report that would present results (effects in society) instead of activities (meetings, documents, etc.). This proposal was successfully merged with another proposal made by UNESCO's Secretariat. If the next Executive Board approves this new, merged results-report, it will enable Member States to pursue the prioritization UNESCO needs.

The major improvement here is not only that a new proposal was elaborated, but also that it was done with active involvement from both Member States and UNESCO’s Secretariat. This was a much more constructive and effective process than the traditional procedure, in which Member States only react to proposals from the Secretariat by giving instructions. This time improvement was greatly accelerated. Instead of waiting 6 months until the next Executive Board Session to verify if instructions have been implemented correctly, Member States took the time to participate in the implementation themselves. Member States actually did what’s in their own interest: they helped UNESCO’s Secretariat to help them.

It felt great to be a part of this highly efficient, effective, cooperative and inspiring process. I’m convinced that many other major achievements are to come if Member States are ready to repeat this modus operandi that until now proved quite successful.



[1] In the Addendum of this prioritized Programme and Budget you find the same A, B and C priorities that Member States had allocated, but this time accompanied by budget envelopes corresponding to these priorities (A: received most of the available budget, B: less, C: least).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

UNESCO's headquarters in Paris: a promenade to Peace



UNESCO is best known for world heritage sites,  which is only one of UNESCO’s many programs.  The root of all these programs is a commitment between 195 Member States to contribute to peace and security by promoting cooperation in the fields of education,  culture and science.  To steer this global initiative,  Member States built a headquarters in Paris:  an outstanding architectural statement containing an art collection of exceptional diversity and symbolism.


The first function of the building is to host the staff of the United Nations – the “Secretariat” – that helps the 195 countries work together in intergovernmental programs.  Secondly, the building has 12 large meeting rooms where representatives from Member States periodically meet to discuss the strategy and to oversee the organization’s work.  The commitment guiding this work,  laid down in UNESCO’s Constitution[1],  starts as follows:  “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”  This sentence is inscribed in 10 languages on a stone wall in the Square of Tolerance,  which was inaugurated on May 1,  1996 in tribute to Yitzhak Rabin,  the former Israeli Prime Minister assassinated a few months earlier.  For symbolic reasons,  the Israeli artist Dani Karavan carved the Arab and Hebrew versions on the top,  next to each other. 


The Square of Tolerance. (Copyright UNESCO)


Angel of Nagasaki
Paradoxically,  UNESCO’s “house of peace” is surrounded by avenues named after French war heros Suffren,  Löwendal,  De Saxe and Ségur.  It is also located right across from the Military Academy,  where the young Napoleon Bonaparte was taught the art of war that he later put into practice on many battlefields.  UNESCO is the exact mirror image of this Academy.  It aims to prevent new wars by “the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity,”  thus vaccinating society against the devastating effects of “the propagation,  through ignorance and prejudice,  of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races.”  One of the most powerful reminders of this commitment is probably the “Angel of Nagasaki.”  It is an Angel’s head that was part of a small church in Nagasaki that miraculously survived when the atomic bomb destroyed the city and the church on August 9,  1945. 
Nagasaki Angel: This fragment of a church in Nagasaki destroyed by the atomic bomb was donated to UNESCO in 1976,  in Paris,  on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.  The contrast between its elegant frailness and the brutal devastation it was saved from,  make it a poignant sign of hope for mankind’s future. (Copyright UNESCO).


Japanese garden
Nagasaki’s angel overlooks one of the most appreciated parts of the complex:  the Japanese garden.  Like the building itself,  the garden was designed as a promenade in a unique environment where the visitor can find inspiration.  The promenade starts at the Fountain of Peace:  a big stone from which water pours over the word “Peace” carved in it.  It is written in mirror writing,  so it can only be read in its reflection on the water in which the stone stands.  This symbolizes the complementarity of the “hard” and the “soft” forces composing reality.  The visitor then crosses the water on stepping stones,  a purifying passage that is supposed to take him to another level of awareness and thinking.  The American-Japanese designer Isamu Noguchi said that as the delegates walk through it “it is hoped that they will experience a release from the tensions and the prejudices of the moment giving rise to a fuller and more impassionate consideration of every problem.[2]  This happens automatically he said,  because “to enjoy it,  one must walk in it,  and thereby perceive the relative value of all things.[3]  Once you enter the garden,  there is indeed no overview and no absolute truth.  There are only paths and perspectives that symbolize human diversity,  which they slowly hide and reveal to the visitor as he walks on. 

Japanese Garden: This sculptural landscape is an encounter between east and west like its designer Isamu Noguchi,  whose father was a famous Japanese poet and his mother an American writer.  Although the ideas upon which the landscape was based hardly stem from the conventional Asian mold,  the UNESCO community has always referred to it as the jardin japonais (UNESCO Copyright).


Meditation Space
From the Japanese garden the promenade continues towards the Meditation Space by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando.  This landscape also takes the visitor on a winding path,  but not in a hide-and-reveal experience with nature like the Japanese garden.  Instead the path – a zig-zagging ramp – brings the visitor above a floor of granite slabs that were radiated during the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6,  1945.  Above this rough granite surface,  that had to be decontaminated before transportation to Paris,  the visitor is called to meditate upon the destructive power of mankind.  Further down,  the ramp leads inside a 6.5 meter high concrete cylinder.  Here the visitor suddenly finds himself in a small confined space which conveys a strong feeling of intimacy with the other visitors.  Ando created this confined space to symbolize the need to go beyond the differences of race,  religion or nationality in order to build peaceful cohabitation on earth.  This peace inducing effect is strengthened by the round form of the space,  which keeps the visitors focused on the fact that they – literally – stand closely together.  This feeling of “togetherness” is further enhanced by the absence of windows.  Ando only created a narrow opening in the ceiling allowing a thin curtain of light along the walls,  to convey the spirituality propitious to a place of meditation.