This month, UNESCO celebrates its 68th birthday. It will also see member states decide on its future work and
role in the post-2015 development agenda setting.
Here are a few interesting facts about this U.N. specialized agency.
Irina Bokova is the first-ever female director-general. The first UNESCO chief, Julian Huxley, was a founding
member of WWF and an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker.
Although headquartered in Paris (on Place de Fontenoy), UNESCO was born in London, on Nov. 16, 1945.
From there, it moved to the French capital nearly a year later, and was initially housed in Hotel Majestic, where
“[w]orking conditions were not exactly ideal. The largest bedrooms were allocated to secretaries, several of
whom had to share them and store their files in the wardrobes, while middle-grade professionals were put in
disused bathrooms, where the only place to keep their papers was the bathtub.”
In 2012, for the first time in many years, voluntary contributions ($391 million) surpassed regular contributions
from member states ($353 million). The United States and Israel have frozen funding to UNESCO due to the
admission of Palestine as member in 2011, the same year South Sudan joined the intergovernmental body.
In the 1984, the United States withdrew its membership because it felt “UNESCO’s political and ideological
emphasis and its budgetary and managerial tendency have harmed the efficiency of the organization,” alluding
to the growing focus then on the so-called New World Information and Communication Order. Said to be
influenced by the U.S. decision, the United Kingdom did the same a year after. Singapore also pulled out,
citing increasing membership fees. All later rejoined (U.S., 2003; U.K., 1997; Singapore, 2007).
UNESCO houses the “largest artistic heritage” within the U.N. system, with more than 500 artworks that
include those by Picasso and span 6,000 years of history.
UNESCO maintains partnerships with 373 international NGOs and 24 foundations and similar institutions. The
partnerships are “essentially intellectual and moral” and not financial in nature, though “cooperation with
UNESCO can also have financial aspects in the form of activity-financing contracts.”
UNESCO has declared nearly 1,000 properties as World Heritage sites. Italy have the greatest number of
properties on the list (49), followed by China (45) and Spain (44). Today, 44 properties are “endangered” due
to the effects of natural and manmade disasters, including Timbuktu in Mali, the birthplace of Jesus in
Bethlehem, and all six sites in Syria.
UNESCO offers more than 20 different awards, including cash prizes ranging from $5,000 to $150,000 per
recipient. In 2012, it finally awarded the contentious UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for
Research in the Life Sciences, which is sponsored by Africa’s longest-serving leader accused of human rights
violations, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
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