Sunday, September 7, 2014

UNESCO's budgetary situation: No UNESCO without the USA

Since Palestine joined UNESCO as a full member on 1 November 2011 the USA discontinued its funding. The reason for this is that domestic US law does not allow the USA to fund UN organizations that accept Palestine as a full member. As a consequence, from one day to the next UNESCO had to face a budget cut of 22%, meaning $72 million per year. Just imagine something like this happening to your company.

I do not wish to comment here on the complex political context of this situation. But I would like to address some rumors that this situation “just” forces UNESCO to cut some fat. Here are some relevant facts and official statements.

How is UNESCO’s annual budget composed?
UNESCO’s activities are financed by a regular budget of $326.5 million ($653 for the biennium), which is the sum of mandatory contributions by Member States. These contributions range from approx. $3.000 for very small or poor countries to $72 million for the USA. How much contribution each Member States pays is shown in the annex of this document. The regular budget covers UNESCO’s basic expenses like staff, buildings and the core of UNESCO’s activities. Fortunately many countries want to support UNESCO beyond their mandatory contribution by providing extra funding. The sum of this extrabudgetary budget amounts to $402 million. Mostly these extra funds go to specific activities in which UNESCO has unique expertise and clout like freedom of expression, holocaust education, open educational resources, major reports about the global status of education, of our oceans, of our fresh water resources, disaster risk reduction, science, etc. Before 2011 the USA extrabudgetary contributions were approx.. $3.7 million per year and benefitted projects listed here.

What happened after the suspension of USA contribution to UNESCO?
As a consequence of the temporary suspension of its contribution to UNESCO the USA lost voting rights in 2013. This further weakened the position and influence of the USA in the neutral United Nations platform that the international community provides through UNESCO to promote democracy, education and human rights in places that are often hostile to or suspicious of direct American involvement. Nevertheless the USA still remains member of UNESCO’s Executive Board, the governing body of 58 Member States that oversees UNESCO’s work.

And in terms of UNESCO’s functioning and impact?
The more tangible consequences for UNESCO are clearly beyond just some “healthy loss of weight”. To survive the biennium without the full $653 million budget that was voted for the biennium 2012-13, expenses had to be reduced sometimes by 80%. This was achieved by restricting expenses related to administration, translation and logistics, but also to suspend or even abolish staff posts and activities that were planned. UNESCO successfully managed to end the biennium without a deficit, but only thanks to an Emergency Fund that the Director-General does not consider a sustainable solution.

Can you give some examples of UNESCO’s loss of impact?
All of UNESCO’s activities were reduced, thereby diminishing UNESCO’s presence and impact both on high political levels and in the field. Again, this loss of impact goes beyond the removal of superfluous fat. Hit were for example UNESCO’s work with respect to disaster risk reduction and management of the world’s oceans, the lungs of our planet and global economy. One example: UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), which enables the international community to design a common scientific agenda for the management of our oceans, had to cut projects on ocean observation due to loss of staff. Also affected was the implementation of Tsunami Warning Systems: scientific networks that potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives by simply warning populations on time when a tsunami occurs. The reason why these areas of UNESCO’s work were hit particularly hard is that they were not only supported by USA mandatory contributions, but also by the extra budgetary funding and expertise the USA provided before November 2011. Fortunately, the USA is still as active as possible in the IOC, inter alia by chairing the Intergovernmental Tsunami Coordination Group for the Caribbean.

What are the consequences for UNESCO’s cultural activities?
Another example is the area where UNESCO is best known: the protection of cultural heritage. UNESCO’s culture conventions cover all kinds of cultural heritage, including underwater heritage, heritage in conflict situations and living, intangible heritage. The most well-known convention is the World Heritage Convention. This is a commitment between 191 countries to preserve “things” that both man and nature have created and that are so outstanding and so unique that the international community decided to preserve them as common heritage of whole mankind. UNESCO is the platform that made this decision and its implementation possible. The world heritage sites are inscribed on a very prestigious list like Grand Canyon National Park and Independence Hall. Given the constant rise of the number of heritage sites and the decreasing funding, a recent UNESCO report concluded that the situation is “unsustainable”. This situation does not “just” cause the discontinuation of more heritage protection programmes. It also endangers UNESCO on a higher level, namely the organization of meetings of governments that ensure the governance of the World Heritage Convention and world heritage list as such. Although the quoted recent UNESCO report provides suggestions to UNESCO’s Executive Board to address this situation, it is clear that the lasting lack of contributions does not improve the situation.

What did UNESCO do about it so far?
To prepare the budget for the biennium 2014-15, UNESCO’s Member States had to do something as they knew that the full $653 million would probably not be available. Therefore they engaged in a difficult but successful process of prioritization. The outcome was a document in which they attributed priorities A, B and C to all UNESCO’s activities. Subsequently, UNESCO’s Director-General and her staff were asked to translate these rankings of activities into budgetary envelopes. The result was included in an annex of the $653 million budget for the biennium in the form of a reduced “expenditure plan” of $507 million (see previous link).

Where does UNESCO stand today?
This reduced expenditure plan is currently being implemented. At the same time, UNESCO’s Executive Board is preparing the new budget for 2016-17. One of the questions to be answered is what measures UNESCO should undertake if the reduced expenditure scenario has to be maintained. For example: what to do about the fact that UNESCO currently still employs 64 staff members more than the total of 1454 foreseen under the reduced expenditure plan? The Director-General faces enormous challenges in this respect as she has to reduce a total of 280 posts during this biennium because the initial full budget included 1734 staff posts. On 15 October 2014 the Board will discuss the first budget proposals by the Director-General. A brief outline of the scenarios is already available on the internet. Knowing that a rise of UNESCO’s regular budget is unlikely, further prioritization and further abolition of staff posts cannot be excluded.

Conclusion: No UNESCO without the US
While the Director-General is working hard to achieve further efficiency gains and to make choices to stabilize the situation, UNESCO Member States have to continue to build UNESCO’s future. Next year will be a landmark opportunity for this debate since UNESCO will celebrate its 70th birthday. During this event governments and experts will point out the serious risks weighing on our planet, its population and its economy: increasing tensions and extremism, growing threats to democracy and freedom of expression, decreasing natural resources, global warming, just to name a few. UNESCO Member States will seize this opportunity guide UNESCO’s work towards impact by identifying and exploring, in the words of Ban Ki Moon’s Special Advisor Jeffrey Sachs, practical steps to sustainable development based on serious scientific and technological scenarios. These steps can only lead to the expected results if all stakeholders in all parts of the world accept to participate and cooperate.

Given UNESCO’s unique position to unlock the potential of the human mind I believe with my US colleagues that UNESCO will have a sizeable role in implementing this development agenda. I therefore hope that American Congress will be convinced of UNESCO’s usefulness and changes the law to bring back the financial US support to UNESCO.

Only this way will UNESCO preserve its legitimacy and impact as a global organization for peace and security.
Only this way will the expertise and influence of USA as a champion country for education have the necessary global outreach.
Only this way will the opening lines of UNESCO’s Constitution, written by the American Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, have a chance to empower all minds including the majority (girls and women):

"Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed."

Twitter: @Oosterenvan


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