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Repositioning the UN development system – challenges and opportunities for UNESCO

Hubert Gijzen, Director and Representative, UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa

Following the adoption by the UN General Assembly of Resolution A/RES/72/279 on 31 May 2018 and the subsequent establishment of a Transition Team under the leadership of the UN Deputy Secretary-General, the implementation of the ambitious UN development system reforms to deliver on the 2030 Agenda will be picking up speed in the coming months. For UNESCO, this presents a landscape of significant challenges and opportunities. It is therefore of vital importance that the recently launched Strategic Transformation process will aim at minimising possible set-backs and maximising potential benefits and opportunities arising from the implementation of the UN reform.

Challenges include the substantially higher costs to establish a reinvigorated and independent Resident Coordinator system, estimated at 255 million USD annually; But also the proposals towards revamping the regional approach, a new generation of UN Country Teams and new UNDAFs could have major repercussions for UNESCO’s work in the field.

The General Assembly endorsed UN reform therefore requires a clear view of UNESCO on how to reposition its work at country and regional levels. An additional challenge is that this needs to be accomplished with very limited flexibility in terms of financial and staff resources. Besides, UNESCO continues to struggle with a divide between sectors and between HQ and field, and an unfinished field reform, which has resulted in two different field structures - one for Africa and another for the other regions.

These weaknesses and challenges, if addressed smartly, could in fact be turned into opportunities by maximising UNESCO’s comparative advantage and mobilising currently non- or under-utilised resources. To this end, I believe four areas of attention deserve special consideration:

  1. Repositioning UNESCO to effectively occupy the regional space.

The General Assembly Resolution calls for a better and clearer articulation, alignment and coordination of the roles, functions and responsibilities of the Regional UN Sustainable Development Groups, Regional Economic Commissions (RECs) and other regional entities including Regional Coordination Mechanisms (RCMs). The regional space for work is currently not well established by the UN, partly because of the disconnect between these entities and the strong focus of the UNDS on interventions at the country level. It could therefore be beneficial for UNESCO to develop clear regional strategies and partnerships, complemented by UNESCO Country Strategies (UCS), which link regional programmes to national ones. This would also require improving the sharing of information, resources, expertise and capacities between UNESCO Field Offices, and between Field Offices and Headquarters.

  1. A unified field structure aligned with the UN regional presence

The General Assembly endorsed revamping of the regional approach presents a challenge for UNESCO because the organisation currently operates with two different field network structures, none of which are fully aligned with the UN regional networks. It is therefore important that UNESCO seeks to achieve convergence towards a unified field structure, with a set of common conditions and functions for all regions, and which aims at full alignment with the UN system at regional level. This will also require the positioning of strong UNESCO Regional Directors as fully empowered members of Regional UN Sustainable Development Group, who can lead the process of repositioning UNESCO to effectively occupy the regional space, complemented by national programmes and projects.

  1. New programmatic approach to support Member States in Agenda 2030 implementation

Agenda 2030 and its 17 SDGs present a complex and ambitious agenda for which member states require support via a combination of high quality policy advice, capacity building and the testing and shaping of models via field implementation. Issues like the introduction of ICT in education, curricular approaches in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Citizen Education (GCE), innovative water management via water chain approaches, the long term safeguarding of cultural heritage via community engagement and livelihood support linkages, addressing inequalities, or positioning the media to support SDG implementation, all require such combined approach.

This calls for a new model for UNESCO’s programmes towards national and regional flagship projects with both regional, national and sub-national dimensions. This requires also that we bridge the current Headquarters-field gap via a clear division of labour and the establishment of project development teams with combined membership from field offices, sectors and support services. Such new model for UNESCO’s programmatic support to member states at regional and country level would also require a new approach to resource mobilisation and partnership development.

  1.  Mobilising UNESCO’s wealth

To be able to maximise the benefits and opportunities arising from the UN development system reform, it will be important that UNESCO compensates its current ‘poverty’ (financial and staff capacities) by mobilising its ‘wealth’ (partnerships and networks). This is therefore an opportune moment to review the UNESCO Comprehensive Partnership Strategy developed in 2013, and more importantly to develop an effective implementation plan. Over past decades UNESCO has developed a particularly strong set of networks and strategic partnerships via for instance the Intergovernemental Prorammes (IGPs), rapidly growing numbers of Chairs/UNITWINS, Category 2 centres, and professional networks. All of these present a wealth of cooperation potential to help amplify UNESCO’s capacity, impact and visibility. Also the National Commissions for UNESCO, which is unique in the UN system, present an enormous potential for effective coordination and advocacy towards national and international stakeholders, including development partners, with a view to raise awareness and help position UNESCO’s mandates.

The discussions in the four Working Groups of the Strategic Transformation are ongoing, and will reflect deeper on many of the challenges and opportunities summarised above. In doing so, it would be desirable that the Working Groups also establish inter-Working Group dialogue and discussions, because the issues are intimately inter-connected.

The UNESCO Strategic Transformation process comes at the right time, and it will no doubt help to minimise threats and maximise opportunities presented by the rapidly changing landscape of UN reform and Agenda 2030 implementation. The ultimate aim is to improve the effectiveness, impact and visibility of UNESCO’s support to member states in implementing the SDGs nationally, regionally and globally; or as Secretary General Guterres put it recently “In the end, reform is about putting in place the mechanisms to make a real difference in the lives of people.”


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of UNESCO