In meetings about UNESCO’s programmes I often hear the following question: “How is UNESCO going to implement this?” This question is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. It supposes that UNESCO is an organization on its own that goes to countries to help them build their educational system, protect their cultural heritage etc. But on its own UNESCO would never be able to do this because UNESCO simply doesn’t have the means for that. First, it has only 1,500 staff members: that’s less than 8 people for each Member State and less than the staff of one single ministry in my country, the Netherlands. Second, it has an annual budget of only $650 million: this is less than the annual budget of an average university in Europe. It’s clear that with so little means UNESCO is not going to change the world.
But still UNESCO can change the world because it is not just an "organization on its own". UNESCO is rather a commitment between 195 Member States to cooperate in the fields I mentioned above: education, science, culture, communication and information. To translate this commitment into concrete activities and international cooperation, UNESCO was given the above mentioned Secretariat of 1,500 staff members. The common mistake here is to think that UNESCO is nothing more than this – relatively small – Secretariat.
In reality this Secretariat is not UNESCO itself – UNESCO refers to cooperation between Member States – but a unit that supports UNESCO. It enables consultations between Member States, coordinates international operations, finds the right (cultural, educational or scientific) experts for the right challenges, organizes meetings where experts can discuss solutions for these challenges, etc. It is also the coordinating link between the numerous global networks that UNESCO represents: UNESCO centers, UNESCO schools, UNESCO chairs, UNESCO water networks, Creative Cities, to name just a few. In sum, the Secretariat is not the “UNESCO engine” itself, but the “spark plug” that keeps it going.
In conclusion, it’s misleading to think that UNESCO is an organization that does things for Member States like a company or an NGO does. UNESCO is not an external service provider. It is the opportunity for 195 Member States themselves to meet and cooperate, including all stakeholders in these Member States like governments, NGOs, companies, universities, schools, water professionals, private companies, municipalities and citizens. So the right question is not “how is UNESCO going to implement this?” but “how are we going to implement these plans we made thanks to the convening power of UNESCO?”
So if you want cultural heritage, freedom of speech and scientific cooperation to be protected and promoted, then don’t sit and wait for UNESCO to come to you. Because whether you’re a student, a diplomat, a CEO, a water expert, a scientist, a policy worker or a journalist, the implementation of UNESCO’s programme (see link) depends on your participation too. In fact, you are UNESCO.