Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs: UNESCO on the right track

Twitter: @Oosterenvan

The Dutch want their contribution to the UN to be as results-oriented, effective and transparent as possible. Therefore the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assesses the performance of UN organizations in so-called “score cards”. The Dutch scorecard for UNESCO is particularly relevant because the Netherlands is an influential member of UNESCO: 5th biggest voluntary contributor to UNESCO’s activities, member of the Executive Board that governs UNESCO, Chair of the group of western countries and host-country of UNESCO’s water university Unesco-IHE. This blog summarizes how the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs assesses UNESCO in its most recent scorecard from 19 June 2015 (see this link).

UNESCO's Headquarters in Paris

UNESCO is relevant: Charlie Hebdo, Palmyra....
The scorecard starts by observing that the relevance of UNESCO's mission (“building the defences of peace in the minds of men”) is increasing because intercultural and interreligious tensions are escalating. This is tragically illustrated by the recent attacks on journalists in Paris and by the destruction of unique and irreplaceable cultural heritage in Mali, Syria and Iraq. UNESCO offers a place and convening power to the international community to do something about these threats.

To do what? Some examples: UNESCO coordinates all UN-activities that help protect journalists. The Dutch expert Albana Shala chairs a special UNESCO programme that contributes to this (see this link). UNESCO also leads a global discussion on how to ensure an open and free internet. Furthermore UNESCO is a useful tool to put the words of the UN Security Council in practice. For example when it wants to do something about the destruction of cultural heritage and the selling of cultural goods to generate funds for terrorist attacks. UNESCO concretely raises awareness of these threats (education) and brings partners around the table to take action together (Interpol, World Customs Organization, Governments, heritage institutions and many others).

Generate impact by focusing
UNESCO could generate more impact by focusing on other areas in which it has a clear added value. One example is “Open Access”: the idea that science works better if scientific publications and data are not locked behind insurmountable paywalls. Why should scientists (and you and me) have to pay for scientific journals if the research in it has already been paid with tax payers’ money? Removing these financial barriers to information would help development countries to participate more in scientific research and contribute to development.

Nice activities but: "so what?"
The scorecard appreciates UNESCO’s efforts to manage its activities on the basis of results. On a Dutch initiative UNESCO is now changing its way of reporting on results: it will report not only on what UNESCO does (activities) but also specifically on the changes these activities cause (outcomes). This information is crucial to decide what activities should continue and which activities should be changed or closed. Very positive is also UNESCO’s recently launched transparency portal (see this link). Here you can see where the money goes, for example to this cultural heritage project in the Palestinian territories financed by the Netherlands:

Leverage the power of networks
One added value of UNESCO is that it's not just an office in Paris but a “global network of networks”. UNESCO knows how to leverage the power of these networks: it has a well-defined strategy that indicates per partner how to “use” them to implement UNESCO’s priorities. Positive is also its increasing engagement with private partners like Philips, who became sponsor of the UN International Year of Light (2015). However the management of UNESCO’s field offices (58 all over the world) needs improvement.

Keep looking in the mirror
UNESCO has an excellent audit and evaluation unit that guarantees a constant critical look at UNESCO’s work. It noted the risk that UNESCO’s cultural conventions are becoming the victims of their own success, like UNESCO’s 1970-convention. This convention is a commitment between Member States to combat the smuggling of cultural goods (see this link). UNESCO’s job is to help Member States put this commitment in practice by involving relevant stakeholders in workshops and education programmes, by setting up international databases, etc. However UNESCO currently has so few staff members to do this work that an evaluation report qualified the situation for this particular convention as “absolutely untenable”.

Keep changing
Innovation requires change: staff needs to rotate to keep a "fresh look" at things. While the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff changes position approximately every 4 years, UNESCO’s professional staff sometimes stays 10 years or more. Improvement is also needed with regard to staff and skills management (see link).

"Continue to count on the Netherlands"
When Minister Liliane Ploumen sent the scorecard to Parliament she introduced it with a letter stating that UNESCO's performance has "improved" since 2013 (see this link). Being an important element in the global development process, she wrote, "UNESCO can continue to count on intensive cooperation with the Netherlands.”

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