UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Photo by: REUTERS / Philippe Wojazer

LONDON — Global education is facing a leadership crisis as the United Nations body responsible for learning sinks into irrelevance under the weight of funding cuts, politics and competition from other international actors, experts have warned.

While the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is best known among the public for its work preserving the world’s cultural heritage, education is meant to be the agency’s main focus. It is responsible for coordinating and monitoring the international community’s efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls for inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030. 

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But with recent projections showing that progress is way off track, and UNESCO in dire financial straits after losing 20% of its funding over a political row with the United States in 2011, questions are being asked about the agency’s political and financial capacity to lead the sector.

“In the past, UNESCO could have been counted on to be the central voice advocating for education … [but it] has become so weakened … by its internal politicization and inadequate budget, that it is no longer the respected international voice on education [it once was],” Nick Burnett, who was assistant director-general for education at UNESCO until 2009, wrote in July.

 “We could all argue for more funding and support for UNESCO … but the catch 22 is [that] … it has lost the confidence of lots of stakeholders.”

— Joseph Nhan-O'Reilly, head of education policy and advocacy, Save the Children UK

While some actors think the agency needs to be strengthened with more funding and political support, others said they fear it is beyond saving — but disagree over which body, if any, could take over from it.

Nonetheless, with new mechanisms emerging — including the SDG Global Education Forum, which was formed in July and met during the U.N. General Assembly this week — insiders said it is unlikely to be good news for the ailing agency.

Financial woes

Founded in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II to promote international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture, UNESCO has long been dogged by accusations of politicization, leading powerful members such as the U.S., the United Kingdom, Singapore, and the former Soviet Union, to withdraw and rejoin over the years.

Despite its chequered history, the agency was generally seen as the leading voice on education internationally, including championing education as a human right. It was behind the landmark Education For All initiative, the first global education target and a predecessor to the Millennium Development Goals. In the 1980s, the agency was also regarded as having the best education technical expertise, according to Burnett.

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However, observers describe a decline since the late 1990s, coming to a head in 2011 when UNESCO’s biggest donor, the U.S., cut off funding — and later withdrew as a member — in response to its decision to admit Palestine.

Having lost more than 20% of its annual budget, the agency’s then director-general announced major cuts and a hiring freeze, leaving it a shadow of its former self, insiders told Devex. An attempt to restructure the agency’s network of more than 50 field offices, completed in 2014, also “weakened capacity” and led to resentment among staff, according to a high-level insider.

“UNESCO is no longer setting the agenda,” said a former senior official, who spoke to Devex on condition of anonymity to preserve professional ties. There is now “very little space for innovation, bold thinking or analytical work,” the source added.

Since the cuts, UNESCO also appears to have deprioritized education, allocating less of its biennial regular budget to the issue in recent years. The agency plans to allocate $78.9 million to education for the period 2020-2021 — 15% of its proposed total regular budget of $535 million. This is down from the 18%, or $107 million, allocated in 2018-2019 from its regular budget of $601 million.

The cuts have also meant less funding for its education sub-agencies — the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, and the International Bureau of Education — which are widely considered to produce the agency’s most valuable work. They now “act like consultants,” according to Burnett, which means following donor money rather than setting the agenda, and raising concerns about mission drift.

Education experts both inside and outside the agency have also complained of a lack of strong leadership within UNESCO, with some suggesting that the agency’s funding difficulties have made it less willing to be critical and hold its members to account.

Others complained that current Director-General Audrey Azoulay appears disengaged when it comes to education, leaving it to her relatively inexperienced education chief Stefania Giannini, who insiders described as “overstretched” and “out of her depth.”

A missed opportunity

While criticism of the agency is far from new, it has ramped up in recent months in response to Burnett’s July paper on the “broken education architecture,” which was discussed at a roundtable in London hosted by the Center for Global Development in July. Another roundtable was held in Washington D.C. earlier this month. While invited, UNESCO did not attend either event.

Speaking during the London meeting, Joseph Nhan-O'Reilly, head of education policy and advocacy at Save the Children UK, said that many donors had lost confidence in the institution.

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“Everyone knows that UNESCO is not doing that well but it’s also, equally, not supported … and certainly not funded to do it,” he said. He added that “we could all argue for more funding and support for UNESCO … but the catch 22 is [that] … it has lost the confidence of lots of stakeholders.”

The agency still has its supporters. Following the U.S. withdrawal, some countries increased their voluntary contributions, although it remains severely cash-strapped.

Sweden is one of the agency’s saviors, increasing its voluntary contributions from $5 million in 2011 to $15 million in 2012 in response to the U.S. cuts, and rising to $38 million last year, Anna Rosendahl, head of global social sustainable development at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, told Devex. The donor has also agreed to make this additional funding flexible, where in the past it was tied to specific sub-agencies, regions, and activities.

“We definitely do not think that UNESCO has lost its way,” Rosendahl said in an email, adding that Sida has been pushing the agency to focus more on norms and standards and leave other areas to other global education actors.

“We believe it is important that UNESCO focuses on the global normative work and others could be focusing on education services on a broader scale,” she said.

For many, though, UNESCO is still trying to do too much.

“When the U.S. cut funding, there was an opportunity for UNESCO to stand back and decide on its priorities and comparative advantages. It could have cut and prioritized but instead it cut across the board,” according to Pauline Rose, professor of global education at Cambridge University and a former director of the “Global Education Monitoring Report,” which sits within UNESCO.

Rose believes the agency should “take the lead” in areas that are not given much attention by other organizations and where UNESCO has potential strengths, such as doing more on HIV/AIDS education, gender, and STEM.

Dankert Vedeler, who served as Norway's deputy permanent representative to UNESCO until 2013, agreed that it should have “prioritized better” but said the secretariat is hamstrung by conservatism from several of UNESCO’s member states.

“It’s extremely difficult within UNESCO’s existing structure to get member states to re-allocate and prioritize the budget,” he told Devex.

A path forward?

Vedeler, who was formerly co-chair of the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee, believes that UNESCO can still regain its leadership role, pointing out that the agency’s influence has ebbed and flowed in the past.

However, it now has more competition thanks to the emergence of new education bodies and financing mechanisms, including the Education Commission, Education Cannot Wait, and the proposed International Finance Facility for Education. The Global Partnership for Education, set up in 2002, “has partly replaced UNESCO’s functions on the ground,” according to a senior UNESCO official, and the agency faces competition from other U.N. agencies, especially UNICEF, which has come to be seen as a rival, according to Nhan-O’Reilly.

In July, two additional structures were proposed — a Global Education Forum, the brainchild of U.N. special envoy for education, Gordon Brown — and a new Multilateral Education Platform, put forward by UNESCO to convene multilateral partners around SDG 4. Both groups met during the UNGA meetings this week.

While UNESCO is a co-chair of GEF, education insiders said the agency initially opposed the forum, questioning the need for yet another mechanism within an increasingly fragmented education aid architecture.

Many agree, and see that growing fragmentation as a reason to support rather than scrap UNESCO, which they say is needed to coordinate the increasingly diverse education landscape.

“There are many diverse actors in the global education architecture and there is a need to further strengthen collaboration and synergies between these actors,” a UNESCO spokesperson told Devex adding that “it is UNESCO’s mandated responsibility as lead coordinating agency of SDG 4.”

But others remain unconvinced.

“I'm not sure what strengthening UNESCO would really achieve,” argued one senior education funder, who spoke to Devex on the condition of anonymity. “It’s so depleted that I’m not sure it can regain its position and fill the leadership vacuum.”

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.