UNESCO chief: Millions can benefit from partnerships with private sector

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UNESCO increasingly counts on partnerships with the private sector to help fund projects, Director General Irina Bokova tells EurActiv. She identified Microsoft, Google, Nokia, Ericsson for being “very open to innovative methods of cooperation”. 

Irina Bokova is the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. A career diplomat from Bulgaria, Bokova is the first female and first Eastern European to head UNESCO.

She spoke to Georgi Gotev, EurActiv's senior editor.

You recently visited Mali together with French President François Hollande. In this country reportedly a lot of priceless world cultural heritage items reportedly have been destroyed by Islamists. The case of Mali must be a double challenge for UNESCO, to try to restore monuments and manuscripts, and promote the rehabilitation of cultural heritage as an instrument for reconciliation, peace and stability?

Mali is a country with cultural monuments attesting of century-long bright cultural tradition, the 12th-14th century, the 15th century, the golden age of Islamic civilisation. Manuscripts in Mali contain research in the field of philosophy, medicine, astronomy, the importance of which reach far beyond Mali’s borders. Not only the manuscripts, but also the mosques and mausoleums attest of once existing empires, of culture and dialogue.

The fact that they were destroyed, the mausoleums in particular, with the words “There is no such thing as world heritage, there are no common values for mankind”, made us aware of a new type of war. This is a war against culture, against cultural inheritance, which aims to hurt, cripple and delete the identity of peoples’, the identity of communities. This is absolutely unacceptable for us in the 21st century.

Moreover, in our globalised world we see that there is a new need to confidence and self-esteem to certain communities and peoples. This cultural Islamic inheritance, which has peaked in Timbuktu, in Gao, is deeply rooted in the people of Sahel, of Mali.

It is not by chance that my joint visit with French President François Hollande started at Timbuktu. I think this was a message of respect to the Islamic civilisation and of determination to restore the damages. Mausoleums can be restored. In the first moment when this will be possible we will send an experts’ mission who will make an assessments of needs. We work with partners from the EU, from different member countries, with Norway, with Japan, and basically work has already started.

And one last element is to prevent the illicit trade with objects of culture, including manuscripts. On this topic we work with neighbouring countries, with Interpol, with the World Customs Organization.

Our firm belief is that world heritage is not only about bricks and stones; it is not about buildings or inanimate objects. Heritage is transmission of values, of history, of contribution to the world civilisation. This is why we think that restoring and preserving the cultural heritage of Mali will help its people achieve national reconciliation, national unification, which is so needed at present.

Are you on the same wavelength, UNESCO and the European Commission, about culture being a tool to foster development, although it is not included in the Commission's Agenda for Change?

I think we are on the same wavelength, but maybe I should bring some nuance. We are on the same wavelength in terms of working very closely on issues such as the cultural industries, on applying the [UNESCO] Convention on cultural diversity. This is one of the few conventions of which the European Commission is part of. This is also visible from the agreement I signed last year with Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, according to which the Commission contributed €1 million to the special fund for cultural diversity. This fund is aimed at helping creative cultural activities and industries in developing countries, for setting up partnerships.

To this I would like to add the great contribution of the Spanish Funds-in-Trust, which accompanied several development projects. UNESCO has led 18 such thematic ‘Windows’ in this fund, relative to culture and development.

Our aim at UNESCO is not to position culture as an objective of development. Rather, culture is one of the ways which accompany the remaining objectives of development, as the fight against poverty. Through cultural projects in many countries jobs can be created, social cohesion can be improved. Cultural projects could help fight violence when it exists, like in some countries in Latin America, in Central America. Through cultural programmes we promote the participation of women in society. In a nutshell, the culture has many faces and can be used in many ways, but it is not a goal in itself. This is why we have the same views like the European Union.

Are synergies between UNESCO and the EU best developing in the field of education?

In the field of education our views indeed coincide, and we strive to deploy maximum efforts so that by 2015 the second millennium objective, education for all, to be reached in as many countries as possible, or that as many countries as possible to register progress.

Unfortunately, we know that many countries are still struggling to make headway. The big problem that exists is the quality of education and the access of education for girls, the problems of dropouts. We publish every year a Global monitoring report on the programme Education for All, with a different accent. Last year’s report was devoted to the problem of employment and education, about the kind of skills young people need to find a job.

Unfortunately, today 200 million young people cannot read and write, in spite of the fact that many have received school education. This is quite alarming and our efforts are aimed at making sure that young people receive quality education, rather taking care of the statistics of those attending school classes.

This is in fact the essence of the initiative of UN Secretary-General, “Education First”, of which UNESCO is the leading agency and which is in charge of its secretariat, and of which I’m the Steering Committee Executive Secretary. The initiative aims at mobilising all existing resources for attaining the second Millennium Development Goal, and on the other hand, to look at the real problems: the quality of education, as well as throwing a bridge between the present state of play of “Education for all” and the post-2015 agenda, which is so actively discussed at present.

I would also like to add that in terms of cooperation with the EU, the signature of the October 2012 partnership agreement, which established a strategic partnership between UNESCO and the Union, has helped greatly increase our action in a number of countries, such as the Arab world.

In many fields our activities have multiplied. This is a very good development, also given the fact that we are working for the promotion of our European values. I’m referring to the fact that we promote the freedom of speech and of the media, we provide assistance to journalists, with the help of the EU, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya. One of the projects is in the field of education and concerns the Syrian refugees in Jordan.

How does UNESCO cope with the budgetary constraints? I’m not referring only to the specific problem your organisation has in terms of the lost membership fee of the USA after it admitted Palestine as a member, but of budget cuts in general due to austerity in most of the Western world?

We see that there is a global tendency of reducing development aid. We hope that the EU will remain the biggest donor in development aid, which is even more needed in these times of crisis. Just two weeks ago I was in Senegal, in Burkina Faso, I see the efforts these governments are deploying, I see the progress they have made. But the necessity to continue these efforts, especially in the field of fight against poverty, of fight against illiteracy, is very big. I see that many European countries cut aid precisely in the field of education and will not stop from calling that education should not be depleted of assistance.

On the other hand, to cope with the financial problems and to make sure that we have more resources, we are increasing our partnerships with the private sector. We use new, innovative schemes such as promoting the use of smartphones to combat illiteracy; we work with Ericsson, with Nokia, we have interesting projects with a multinational such as Procter & Gamble for promoting girls literacy in Senegal, now we start similar projects in Kenya and Tanzania.

I think that in these difficult times we must be much more creative and seek financing from different sources, in order to be able to answer the challenges.

So everything works well with the corporations? Don’t they have hidden agendas?

Global companies have their global interests. But there is something new coming about, and that’s the common understanding that it’s in the private sector’s interest that people are well educated. It’s in the private sector’s interest that markets function, that people are solvent, that the countries are stable. And the private sector is very open to innovative methods of cooperation, especially the ICT companies, and I mean Microsoft, Google, Nokia, Ericsson.

We have very interesting programmes how to train teachers through mobile technologies. I just had a meeting with the Minister of Communication of Sierra Leone. We discussed that if Sierra Leone was to develop in the traditional way, and start installing fixed phones, it would take ages, but now with smartphones which are much cheaper literacy classes can be provided, key information can be disseminated on issues such as environment protection, water management, health, etc. This is a completely new phenomenon and we are determined to use these possibilities, to the benefit of millions of people.

You are the European head of a global organization. When you speak about promoting European values, do the representatives of other continents agree?

I think that when we speak of social cohesion, of fighting poverty, of promotion of quality education, of science as driver for social cohesion, of the climate change challenges, I think that these ideas are widely shared. Of course, on some subjects there may be a debate, but it’s definitely possible to promote values in an organisation, as long as we speak of human rights, human dignity, development, fight against poverty.

UNESCO is privileged in this respect because in our organisation consensus prevails. 

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