Irina Bokova is the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). She was re-elected for her second four-year term on 5 October. A career diplomat from Bulgaria, Bokova is the first woman and first Eastern European to head Unesco.
She spoke to Georgi Gotev, EurActiv senior editor.
Congratulations for your re-election as Unesco director general for a second term. How do you feel following the election battle?
I am of course very happy, because the past four years have been quite difficult and challenging, and the election gave me the opportunity to defend what I was able to achieve, and also to propose new ideas which would motivate the Unesco executive board to entrust me with four more years for leading forward our organisation.
I also had to demonstrate that in spite of the fact that USA stopped paying its membership fee, consisting of 22% of our budget, over the last three years, I was able to move on forward with the organisation, and I am happy the member states gave me again their confidence.
I have always said that I feel responsible to the member states that they are to a great extent my judges, and this is why I am even more satisfied with the outcome. This has been a recognition for my handling of the crisis, for the decisions I took, and a sign of trust that I should continue further.
How can you describe the United States' relations with Unesco? If I understand correctly, the US supports your organisation, but a law impedes them from funding Unesco after Palestine joined. Isn’t it possible for them to amend the law and find a compromise?
There are two laws actually, adopted in the 1990s, which lead to the situation we have, and this legislation actually don’t allow to the US executive, to the president, to waive or circumvent it. Unlike the previous time that the US left the organisation in the 1980s, when they continued to finance certain projects such as world cultural heritage, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and several other programs, including in education, this time the new law stopped all payments and financing of individual programs. This is why the situation became so difficult.
But I hasten to say that this is not a decision of the administration. The administration supports Unesco…
... Which is illustrated by your recent meeting with President Obama and a photo, among other things, that I can see here in your office…
Indeed, the administration has said time and again that what Unesco does is in the interest of the USA. I have in mind initiatives I launched with the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the education of girls and women, the Global partnership I announced with the UN secretary general in 2011, our actions in the field of freedom of speech, media freedom, of protection of journalists across the world, of what we do in the field of oceanography, of water management, through our scientific programs, of our cultural heritage action, which again was an American idea. We are intimately linked with the USA, and I have repeatedly said that in today’s globalised world I cannot imagine that we would divorce, that we would separate. It is even less likely to happen with Unesco, since we are a platform for broad international cooperation, for multi-cultural and multi-religious dialogue, for providing specific response to challenges such as extremism, terrorism.
I have always said: Unesco is a universal organisation, it really needs all its members, big and small.
From the US, let’s jump to the EU. According to my information, all EU countries have supported your re-election, although the Union didn’t adopt a decision to have a single candidate. Is this correct?
Yes, as far as I know, there has not been such a common decision, but what was important for me was to receive the support of the EU member states in the executive board, and I thank them for that.
What are your plans for cooperation with the EU, with the European Commission?
First, I would like to stress that it was my initiative to establish a Unesco Representation in Brussels, with the EU institutions, which opened its doors in 2011. Also, on my initiative we signed last year, with [EU foreign policy chief] Catherine Ashton and [Development Commissioner] Andris Piebalgs, agreements for strategic partnership between the EU and Unesco. In this agreement we spelled out all the orientations in terms of values and of fields of activity where we want to work together.
As a result of this agreement, there are more and more projects or programs financed by the EU where we jointly work. And it’s not a matter only of transfer of funds, but of elaborating common positions. The EU supports a very wide range of activities of our organisation, to the amount at present of $30 million.
To my knowledge some of them are in the field of media freedom in the North African countries…
Indeed, in the Middle East, in the Arab countries. In fact, one of the first projects we stared after the Arab Spring was in the field of freedom of speech, of journalist training, of assistance for putting in place new related legislation, including texts in constitutions guaranteeing the freedom of speech. Last year we celebrated the World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, in Tunisia. This was a symbolic act, it took place while the country was elaborating its new constitution, and in the context of the new democratic surge in the Arab countries, we wanted to issue the message to them, how important it is to integrate media freedom in their system of values.
We have similar projects in Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, financed by the EU or EU member countries.
With EU assistance we work for putting in place an educational system for Syrian refugees in Amman, in the biggest refugee camp of Za’atri.
There will be a need for this effort to continue for many years it seems?
Unfortunately it seems to be the case, but we work very well with the EU, with Unicef, because we cannot accept that the children would not have access to education during this time.
We are also in the process of obtaining financial support of $30 million for the preservation of cultural inheritance in Palestine, for capacity-building in managing their cultural economy, we work in Afghanistan, also in Mali…
You were in Mali with French President François Hollande, who said this visit was the most beautiful day of his political career…
Indeed, in the beginning of February, two or three weeks after the military operation by the French forces, together with military forces from Western Africa. It was a very emotional visit, because we first went to Timbuktu and then to Bamako, and it was heart-breaking to see the burned manuscripts, which were kept for 800 or 900 years in private libraries and collections, with families transmitting them from generation to generation.
We saw the devastation in the Ahmed Baba library in Timbuktu, we saw the destroyed mausoleums around the big mosque Djingareyber. But we also saw the joy of people for feeling free again. And I would like to share with you my enormous satisfaction, as I have recently received the first photographs of the restoration works. I really hope that this would inspire the people of Mali to continue with their lives, to move forward, and to give resistance to extremism.
There is a lot of talk how the post 2015 MDGs should look like. What is Unesco’s view on that?
Unesco as an organisation and its secretariat participate actively in all discussions among the UN agencies on this subject. And we have also a very active discussion held within our services. Today [10 October] we have held an executive board meeting and discussed what proposals our organisation should make.
Together with Unicef we are leaders in the global consultations concerning education, and especially after the [UN] secretary general’s initiative 'Global Education First', in which Unesco is in the driving seat of all efforts in the UN framework, and I would say even beyond.
We propose a new concept, a new framework as to what the education in the 21st century should look like. We would even want to change the language, as we speak of 'learning', of knowledge. There are different ways in our times to get access to knowledge, there are new technologies, the process of education also changes. We have always said that the quality of education is the decisive factor for the success of every educational system, and this is now recognised by all. This is important, because in the current MDGs there is no such element; the quality of education is not even mentioned.
And thirdly, what we promote is the education for global citizenship. Because we consider that at present, the young people who leave school should not only be able to read, write and use a computer, but be good citizens.
And this applies to all, not only to the developing countries…
Indeed. We have in mind to prepare the citizens of tomorrow for environment protection, for responding to the challenge of climate change, for upholding human values and human rights, for tolerance, for cultural literacy. There is a huge value-related field linked to sustainable development, but also to the development of societies, to the future citizens of the globalised society. This is how I could describe our conceptual contribution in the field of education to this huge debate about the post-2015 MDGs.
Another subject where we are active and for which I have put strong emphasis is culture and development. It’s about culture not only for the elites, but as material and immaterial inheritance, as identity, as cultural diversity, as cultural industries, as cultural tourism. It’s about culture as a cement of societies, as an element of social justice in the multi-cultural societies. In this respect I think we have come a long way.
I am of the opinion that the future MDGs we should have cultural development not as necessarily as a goal, but that enablers, drivers should be put in place in order to achieve it. Because without cultural development no MDGs would be sustainable.
As other elements of the post-MDG debate, Unesco works in the field of access to water and water management, we are leaders in the initiative 2013 – International Year of Water Cooperation. Our palette is very broad, but our focus remains in areas where we lead: education, culture in the aspect of culture and development, followed by areas in which we offer our specific contribution.
When the news about your re-election broke, you said that you would dedicate the success to your country, Bulgaria. What does this mean to you?
This means a lot to me. When I first campaigned four years ago, I was probably the only candidate who invited 60 ambassadors [to Unesco] to visit my country. For me it was important to show them who I am, from where I come, what are my values, to show them Bulgaria with its long history and different periods of glory and national tragedies. And to show them a Bulgaria which has many faces, which is tolerant.
It is not by chance that I took them to Plovdiv, a city where the mosque is next to the Catholic church, which is next to the Orthodox church, which is next to the synagogue. My Muslim colleagues went to pray in the mosque and thanked me for this opportunity; the others visited the other temples. I wanted to show Bulgaria with its huge contribution to European culture, to world culture, I wanted to show them a modern Bulgaria which is integrating in a big community, probably the biggest democratic community. And I think this was very important on that moment.
In the meantime I received the support of several governments, of two presidents [of Bulgaria] and this showed that whenever Bulgarians gather around one cause, we can achieve a lot. This is why with enormous pleasure I dedicated this success to Bulgaria.