UNESCO seeks to reclaim its leadership of global education

UNESCO is “entering a phase of renewal,” according to Director-General Audrey Azoulay. Photo by: REUTERS / Philippe Wojazer

LONDON — The United Nations’ beleaguered education body is getting itself back on track, thanks to a small budget increase and a new strategy that will see the agency step up its coordinating role for the global education community, according to Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini.

This comes as the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization seeks to reassert its position after some voiced concerns about its capacity to deliver after years of crippling funding cuts, politicization, and growing competition from other education actors.

“UNESCO is in a very positive condition … [and] it's up to us to develop the road map, it's up to us to take the lead.”

— Stefania Giannini, assistant director-general for education, UNESCO

Critics are especially worried about UNESCO’s ability to coordinate and monitor the international community’s efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, which calls for inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030. UNESCO’s own data shows that progress is far off track, and campaigners say a new approach is badly needed.

Has UNESCO lost its way?

The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was once the leading voice on education internationally — but funding cuts and politics have raised questions over its future.

But UNESCO is fighting back. Director-General Audrey Azoulay said during its 40th general conference in Paris in November that the agency is “entering a phase of renewal,” which includes a more focused education strategy, new programs, and a 3% boost to its regular budget — the first increase in 20 years. Some member states have also expanded their voluntary contributions to the agency.

Giannini told Devex the budget increase shows that member states “trust” the agency and have given it the “political capital” to develop a plan for addressing the SDG 4 targets.

“Now, UNESCO is in a very positive condition … [and] it's up to us to develop the road map, it's up to us to take the lead,” Giannini said.

UNESCO’s integrated budget for the next two years currently stands at $1.3 billion, of which $446 million is for education — $85 million from the regular budget and the rest from voluntary contributions. However, the agency’s budget remains far below that in 2011, when the U.S. cut off funding, and much of the extra money is earmarked for specific programs.

Giannini, who was formerly Italy’s minister of education, said the agency planned to prioritize the so-called learning crisis, especially in Africa, with hundreds of millions of children out of school. Education campaigners have also welcomed new work by UNESCO on setting norms and standards, which many see as its core strength. In Zambia, the agency recently launched a pilot UNESCO Qualifications Passport, which summarizes a person’s education level, work experience, and language skills and could help refugees study and work in host countries. It is also preparing a plan for a new global convention on the mutual recognition of higher education qualifications.

“This is UNESCO at its best … No one else is doing norms and standards,” a senior official told Devex.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics is also taking on the politically and technically tough job of developing new benchmarks for some SDG 4 indicators in a bid to set realistic but achievable goals for countries.

This comes after the World Bank, using the Institute for Statistics’ data, proposed halving “learning poverty” in low- and middle-income countries by 2030 as a new global target for education.

While the move provoked opposition among some education actors, who said that only UNESCO has the mandate to set benchmarks and targets, Giannini said she does not see an issue. The institute and the World Bank collaborated on the indicator, which is “very close” to the institute’s own work on benchmarking, according to Giannini, adding that she agrees that countries need intermediate education targets.

“If we choose a kind of approach with benchmarks and intermediate targets, they [the SDG targets] are feasible,” she said. Without them, quality inclusive education for all “will remain a fantastic dream and not reality.”

Convening power?

Despite the developments, some still doubt whether the agency has what it takes to lead on SDG 4.

“The convention on higher education was a really positive development … No one else could have done that, and it’s the sort of thing UNESCO should be doing more of. But it doesn’t speak to UNESCO’s ability and competence as a convening agency … getting us to SDG 4,” one insider said.

David Edwards, head of Education International, agreed. “There can be no question that a reinforced and reinvigorated UNESCO should be playing a leading role. The only question now is if UNESCO can fully recognize its central role, rally and inspire the builders and constructors to realize the 2030 plans with urgency and leadership,” he told Devex.

For Giannini, UNESCO’s “unique” convening power — more than 100 ministers of education and 15 heads of state attended last month’s general conference — makes it best placed to “take the lead” on addressing the global education challenge. The agency has already stepped up its SDG 4 coordination work by convening the multilateral education partners, which she described as “the operational war room” for SDG 4 and which brings together the heads of the major multilateral agencies working on education.

The group has met twice and is set to do so again alongside the World Bank meetings in April. But Julia Gillard, chair of the Global Partnership for Education, appeared to question in a recent blog post whether UNESCO should be in charge. Writing in her personal capacity, Gillard argued that a “coalition of donors should be willing to step forward at the outset to support MAP” — referring to the Multilateral Education Platform — “and to bolster the capacity of UNESCO, or an alternative convenor, for the task.”

Some in the sector also fear that a new global education platform — proposed by Gordon Brown, U.N. special envoy for global education, at the same time that UNESCO first convened its new platform — could further crowd the education architecture and spoke of “power struggles” between UNESCO and Brown.

Giannini is clear that she sees the Global Education Forum playing an advocacy role and said it may convene a big event next year “to say, ‘guys we are not on track.”

“It’s supposed to convene donors and convince them to become more brave and fund education with real big money,” she said.

Others want GEF to play a bigger role and urge UNESCO not to interfere.

“Rather than resist the emergence of much needed momentum, UNESCO should lean in and help co-create new solutions and support others to take the lead where it can’t,” said Joseph Nhan-O'Reilly, head of education policy and advocacy at Save the Children U.K.

But ultimately, the multilateral system and UNESCO can only do so much — it is up to national governments to implement change, Giannini said. As a former minister of education herself, Giannini said she understands the competing agendas politicians face and that education can sometimes prove a hard sell compared to sectors such as health.

That’s why advocacy is so important, she said, and an area in which “we have to do better.”

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.