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.
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.
 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).