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Palestine poison pill paralyses UNESCO

By David Singer - posted Thursday, 9 February 2012

Palestine’s admission as the 195th member state of UNESCO - in possible breach of UNESCO’s own Constitution - has become a poisonous pill for UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova to swallow.

It is becoming increasingly evident as she addressed a special information session of permanent delegations to UNESCO on 26 January to present her assessment of the crisis that has enveloped UNESCO since its controversial decision to admit Palestine on 31 October 2011.  

Putting on a brave face Ms Bokova disclosed that the establishment of her much vaunted Emergency Multi-Donor Fund on 10 November 2011 had fallen far short of recouping the $72 million shortfall in unpaid American dues for 2011. Even worse, pledges made by some states still remained unpaid.


Ms Bokova initially claimed on 10 November that this shortfall - caused by American laws dating back to the 1990‘s and amounting to 22 per cent of UNESCO’s budget - had stimulated an unprecedented outpouring of support for UNESCO from individuals, associations and private corporations from all corners of the globe. 

Having announced that the Fund would be open to all donors including public institutions, foundations and individuals, Ms Bokova revealed that the fund had received just $30000 from these sources in the two months since the fund was established.

Incredulously Ms Bokova had the effrontery to tell the delegates: “I would mention that this amount is much higher than that collected during previous campaigns…it is a sign of popular support”. Ms Bokova pointed out the following measures that had been taken to try and make up the 2011 shortfall: Cutting down the number of missions from an average of 319 per month to 70 in December, with a saving in mission costs of 65 per cent in November/December; reducing the number of temporary consultants and temporary contracts from 482 people to 160 people; and postponing or cancelling a number of activities - all of which no doubt affected UNESCO's delivery of help to millions of people world wide relying on UNESCO to bring some hope into their distressed lives.

The position for 2012-2013 appears to have worsened in the space of three weeks from a projected deficit of $167 million to $188 million, as Ms Bokova announced that her budget of $653 million was now only funded to $465 million due to the suspension of contributions from America and Israel.

Drastic measures to cope with this crisis will be presented by Ms Bokova at the next meeting of the UNESCO Executive Board on 27 February. The 58 Board members will not be hearing any good news.

Ms Bokova made no bones in telling the representatives of the permanent delegations: "In terms of the reduced funding available, I requested all Sectors/Bureaux/Offices to prepare Work Plans for 2012-2013 that reflect an overall reduction of 29 per cent in the Approved Budget. I determined 29 per cent as a realistic measure of good contingency planning in the face of the accumulated deficit.”


No UNESCO program will be spared the axe, but the cuts will not be 29 per cent across the board as Ms Bokova hastened to add: “Rest assured, the Global Priorities of Africa and Gender Equality are programmatic priorities, and targeted action will be identified in favor of youth, least developed countries, small island developing states and countries in post conflict and post-disaster situations.”

How Ms Bokova hopes to achieve this delicate balancing act will make for fascinating reading. She continued by issuing this stern warning: “Early analysis of work plans for the five Major Programs and the rest of the organisation as of 20 January 2012 shows the profound impact of the severe funding constraints across the entire organisation, which reaches into core priorities and operations.”

Jobs in UNESCO and programs world wide are set to go in this massive shake up, which will be devastating for those affected. For many who view UNESCO as being an over staffed and bloated bureaucracy this will be seen as a blessing in disguise. Others who see a severe contraction in UNESCO‘s current and future programs will be alarmed at the prospects of what lies ahead. Yet others will rejoice in seeing UNESCO wallowing in a problem of its own making that could have been avoided.

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About the Author

David Singer is an Australian Lawyer, a Foundation Member of the International Analyst Network and Convenor of Jordan is Palestine International - an organisation calling for sovereignty of the West Bank and Gaza to be allocated between Israel and Jordan as the two successor States to the Mandate for Palestine. Previous articles written by him can be found at

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