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UN101: What is UNESCO and why should we care about it?

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

At the UNESCO World Heritage Site Petra. Photo: Leilani Radaideh

Imagine an agency of the UN that focused on spreading and promoting peace and security through the means of international cooperation in the fields of art, culture, and science. Seems idealistic but it exists and it’s called the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)! Its main bodies consist of the General Conference, the Executive Board, and the secretariat. The constitution signed in 1945 under which the United Nations Charter, under Article 57, outlines the creation of the agency. It is signed by close to 200 States, including The Netherlands. What makes this agency unique is that UNESCO members do not need to be UN member States which is why Niue, the Cook Islands, and Palestine are also members.

This all sounds great, but what does UNESCO actually do and why is it important?

The Paris based agency initially had goals to restore various educational and arts facilities that were destroyed or badly damaged during WWII. Now, the main goal has shifted towards eradicating illiteracy and poverty as well as furthering sustainable development. It has evidently been successful all over the globe. A few good examples include: Royal Chitwan National Park in Nepal, where UNESCO in the early 1990s was able to question a proposed development project which would have seriously impacted the rich flora and fauna in the area. Additionally, the restoration of the Old City of Dubrovnik in Croatia after having suffered damage from shelling was sufficiently completed after UNESCO provided extensive technical and financial assistance to the Croatian government. Safeguarding is also another way in which UNESCO helps sites, which often then become world heritage sites, such as Temple of Borobudur, Indonesia where an international safeguarding campaign was launched in order to restore the famous Buddist temple. In this instance it was crucial that UNESCO intervened as, after attempts at partial restoration by Dutch experts, in 1983 the agency undertook an eight year renovation project restoring the temple to its former glory, allowing for the sacred buddhist temple to be safely used again as a pilgrimage site.

This brings us to a good question: what are world heritage sites? We often hear of them, visit them and read news articles written about them but what makes them heritage sites and why? A World Heritage site is a place that holds “universal value to society” and because of this they are protected in order to allow future generations to appreciate and enjoy the site. This heritage site may be monuments (such as paintings or sculptures), groups of buildings or sites, which can be natural or man-made (Article 1 of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage). We’ve already introduced a few examples of World Heritage Sites, but some more include Wadi Rum in Jordan (also where Dune was filmed!), Kinderdijk in The Netherlands, and the Taj Mahal in India.

So far so good! UNESCO has had plenty of success, plays a large role in furthering the achievement of its goals and continues to have a measurable impact. However, there have been a few bumps along the road. A major one included the treatment it receives at times from bigger member states, such as the US. Regarding its relationship with the US, they have left...twice. The first time being in 1983 due to the agency politicizing “virtually every subject it deals with.” (Ronald Reagan). The second being quite recently in 2019, as the Trump Administration claimed the organization has an anti-Israeli bias. Experts have also attributed the exit to the US not playing a dominating role, as more members joined throughout the years as well as feeling as though the US was left with most of the bill; as Kirkpatrick (who was a representative for the US to the UN) stated “The countries which have the votes don’t pay the bill, and those who pay the bill don’t have the votes” (TIME, 1984). Additionally, UNESCO faces ongoing struggles with losses of income, as richer countries stop paying as well as at times stepping too far in its work in communication and information sectors, which States aren’t too keen on.

Today, Member States continue to play a key role in helping facilitate UNESCO’s work. Political beliefs, tensions in regions, and relations between States have a significant impact on how effectively the agency can work to do what it does best (in addition to the level of funding needed). Perhaps UNESCO should take additional precautions to ensure it doesn’t overly politicize certain aspects of its work, but at the same time, this has been a prevalent factor in the organization since its inception. Hence, less politics and more focus would help ensure that UNESCO gets the funding it deserves; as more recently, the agency has urged action to help meet the $200 billion annual funding gap for educational facilities in the most impoverished countries, due to COVID-19. Additionally, remembering the impact UNESCO has, without it over 1,100 important historical sites would be left unprotected, nations would be held unaccountable in regards to educational commitments and peace would be at serious risk (as just a few examples). Hence, it is crucial that member states do their best to help pull together so that UNESCO can continue to achieve results around the world!


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