Four questions to UNESCO’s outgoing Assistant Director-General for Education


The tiger on the wall. A sign of strong leadership and commitment to lead through achievements and challenges. In the Chinese calendar, the year of the tiger is also when Qian Tang, the outgoing UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, was born. “In China, the tiger is considered to be the head of all animals,” he says. “If you’re leading a Sector at UNESCO, you need to be strong, committed and you really have to make great efforts to meet multiple challenges. This is also the character of the tiger, and it is the character that I need to drive this Sector. I am the type of person that strives to do his best at a job and I am not easygoing when it comes to my responsibilities.”       

After leading the Education Sector for eight years and a career at UNESCO that goes back 25 years, Mr Tang is leaving the Organization this week. We asked him a few questions to get some insights into his time with UNESCO.

What are some of your best memories at UNESCO?

One of them is the adoption of the Incheon Declaration in 2015 that paved the way to the Education 2030 Agenda and Goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. At the time, we were fighting to make the Education for All movement into a global commitment. When I became ADG, we faced many challenges due to the financial problems of the Organization. We decided to focus on key priority areas and themes that UNESCO can do best. The post MDG discussions gave a golden opportunity for UNESCO to demonstrate its capacity. We are the intellectual Organization of the UN and we are supposed to indicate a strategic long-term plan for the global education development. Through Member States’ support and our directions, we were able to eventually have a separate goal for education and specific targets. I will always remember when the Incheon Declaration was adopted: it was one of the proudest moments of my career, to see how UNESCO can lead and make education a global priority in order to change people’s lives. 

What have been some of the most challenging aspects of your job?

As a leader of a Sector, you need to set up the orientation of the Sector and make sure that you have the right people in the right positions in order to effectively mobilize your human resources. The big challenges at the start of my tenure was that we were spread too large with few people. We had to convince everybody that we needed to focus, especially in the midst of financial problems. There was also a need to create a favourable environment for people to work harmoniously. Today, we have a streamlined programme and we allocate adequate resources to obtain targeted results. Therefore, our Sector is now focused and our programme is solid. UNESCO as a whole should also be more focused in order to facilitate the programme implementation.

What advice would you give to yourself if you could back (25 years) in time – or to new colleagues joining the Organization?

I would say first, you should always believe in the mandate of this Organization. Whatever happens, you must be committed to the cause of UNESCO and the work that it does to make the world a better place. You will then be able to resist any situation and challenges – whether it is personal, working relationships or financial constraints of the Sector. The ultimate goal of UNESCO will always make you stronger and you will be able to withstand many challenges.

You have to be able to learn through experience but also from your failures along the way. Smart people do not make the same mistake twice. Learning from your mistakes is very important and is key to improving your capacities and advancing in your career. The worst thing you can do is to think that you are perfect and that you have nothing to learn. UNESCO recruits intelligent and talented people, but everyone has shortcomings – and everyone must be open and willing to learn, improve and adapt. 

The interest of the Organization should always come first. Your own interest should come second. But of course, as managers and leaders we also have to be able to take care of our staff and their career development. We are not living in a perfect world, but we must all learn to adapt and do our best with the interest of UNESCO at heart. 

Who or what is your source of inspiration for your work in education?

I cannot think of a role model. I am not a philosopher, but rather a practitioner. I am a third generation from a family of educators and professors. However, it was at UNESCO that I realized the long-term impact and transformative power of education. Without education, we have nothing. We need people to be enlightened in order for them to implement the various aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals that we are trying to achieve. We want to create a generation of responsible citizens. It all starts with quality education and that is what is needed to change the world for the better. Throughout my travels in different parts of the world, I have met children who are eager to learn and continue their education even in the most challenging circumstances. That always serves as an important reminder to myself about the significance of UNESCO’s mandate. It stresses that we have more obligations and responsibilities to help people change their lives through the power of education.

I am going to miss the great people that I have worked with over the years who are devoted to the noble cause of UNESCO. I am very happy and satisfied with my career especially because I have seen the impact of what we have been able to achieve together.

Qian Tang started his UNESCO career in 1993 and was appointed Assistant Director-General for Education in 2010.