Lack of funding leads to UNESCO cuts | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 31.10.2012
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Lack of funding leads to UNESCO cuts

A year ago, the USA stopped its payments to the United Nations' cultural organization. UNESCO has since had to make cuts in its projects - including those supporting education and democracy.

It was a shock when UNESCO released its figures last October. More than a fifth of the UNESCO budget, 22 percent, was suddenly gone.

First and foremost, the $72 million that the USA should have paid at the end of the year was missing. It was a massive blow, despite the $20 million each which Saudi Arabia and Norway paid into an emergency fund.

Now UNESCO is struggling with a shortfall of around $144 million.

Even a year ago, UNESCO general secretary Irina Bokova spoke of a "crisis." That crisis was triggered by UNESCO's decision to recognize Palestine as a full member.

Ahead of the vote, the Americans had threatened to freeze their financial contributions. But the Palestinian application for full membership was approved by an overwhelming majority on October 31, 2011.

Germanystood shoulder-to-shoulder with the USA in support of Israel, which also immediately stopped making payments to the organization.

Counterproductive for the USA?

Bulgarian former foreign minister Irina Bokova after being elected Director General of the UNESCO.

Bokova finds the US cuts in funding 'regrettable'

UNESCO immediately took strict austerity measures, which were intended to affect administration rather than projects.

But Irina Bokova has described the cuts as a "big blow to the organization" - and one which has been ultimately counterproductive for the USA.

The importance of the organization is often overlooked. It's not only responsible for awarding the world's cultural treasures with the honor of being a "World Heritage Site."

The United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage project is indeed one its more popular activities among the wider public.

But one of UNESCO's main aims is "to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Education and democracy

Education is one of the most important factors in achieving that goal. Not for nothing is UNESCO a leader in the worldwide Literacy Decade, the aim of which is to halve illiteracy among adults.

A school in the province of Ghazni, Afghanistan, which has been closed by the Taliban.

UNESCO's programs provide education in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is closing schools down

It is also about the building of civil societies. UNESCO's funding of educational programs for journalists in crisis regions and politically unstable countries is one example of that.

UNESCO maintains an office for Iraq and a team in the country supporting "Education, Science, Culture" and "Communication and Information."

This work, as Bokova made clear after the US decision, is now in danger, as is its literacy program in Afghanistan - projects which the US administration until now was keen to see implemented.

In the past few months, the American ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion, and the Obama administration actually undertook an attempt to re-enter the circle of paying UNESCO members. But the unpopular move was quickly put on ice.

German contributions

And what about Germany, which has until now been the third biggest contributor after the USA and Japan? The German Foreign Ministry was reluctant to answer questions on the issue.

A spokeswoman did however say that the failing contributions from the USA had made the UNESCO's work "harder," although the speedy introduction of austerity measures had "reduced" the severity of the problem.

"By paying its contributions early in the current year, Germany has helped to ameliorate [UNESCO's] financial difficulties," the ministry said in a short statement. And Germany had made additional payments for projects in the areas of science, education and culture.

An external view of UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

The balance of power is changing at UNESCO headquarters in Paris

However, UNESCO projects have been canceled at the planning stage, while others have been shut down or frozen.

"I can't think of a single program that was not affected," the general secretary recently complained in the New York Times.

She also criticized the USA for limiting its own ability "to outreach to the Muslim world, to talk of democracy building in Arab countries" by its withdrawal of funding.

"I think it is regrettable that the US is not with us when we are upholding some important values, I believe, for the American people," Bokova added.

Power shift

So, has the US scored a cultural-political own goal? UNESCO was forced to operate without American funding from 1984-2003. Back then - under President Ronald Reagan - the USA left the organization entirely.

But now it looks like the balance of power inside UNESCO is shifting. As well as Saudi Arabia and Norway, other countries like China, Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia, Qatar and Algeria have all sprung to UNESCO's aid. Even Gabon and Chad donated funds.

The west, which has until now set the cultural agenda, is losing its predominance. The political power structure within UNESCO is changing.

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