Nine candidates in the running for Director General of UNESCO: What is at stake?

We are in difficult times for multilateralism. The emergence of isolationist, unilateral and populist practices in different regions of the world reflect increasing doubts about multilateralism in responding to major global challenges. Against this background, international organizations are urged to preserve the values of international cooperation while delivering effectively, achieving results and being accountable to their membership in an open and transparent manner.

In the current context, the process to elect the Chief Executive Officer of any international organization should be more than an administrative exercise. It is indeed a political process, but it should also call for a deep reflection in member countries so as they are able to select the most appropriate and qualified candidate, a real leader who can steer change and deliver results.

The United Nations Organization for Education, Sciences and Culture (UNESCO) is currently going through this process, once the mandate of the Bulgarian Irina Bokova expires in 2017).

Why the election of the new UNESCO Director-General is so important and what is at stake? There are a number of reasons, some of they affecting beyond UNESCO itself:

  • In the current financial and credibility crisis, UNESCO requires a Director-General with the skills and capacity to build trust and consensus while making of it an efficient, effective and relevant Organization. The up-to-date deficit in the regular budget, mainly due to USA’s arrears since 2011, amounts to 754.3 million dollars. In other words, existing arrears are greater than the biennial Budget financed through assessed contributions (653 million dollars). The consequences of such deficit have been devastating for programme execution and for support to groups and regions most in need (SIDS, persons with disabilities, women, Africa).
  • Because politization has contaminated UNESCO’s mandate and generated mistrust among members, between membership and the Secretariat and thus, impeding the execution of the programme of work.
  • Because UNESCO is the intellectual arm of the UN system. A privileged space for reflection, and for generating innovative ideas to deal with existing global challenges. It’s value added rest on its basic principles since its creation: dialogue, cooperation, diversity and tolerance.
  • Because the Organization has the leading role for achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 4 on quality education, while it contributes to accomplish the other SDGs through its work in the areas of education, natural sciences, social sciences, culture and communication and information. UNESCO must become ‘fit for purpose’ and respond to the demands and principles of the 2030 Agenda.

According to the nomination process decided by the Executive Board, on April 26th and 27th, the members of the Board interviewed the nine candidates. Each of them presented their project and vision for UNESCO and answered to the questions of regional groups’ representatives and members of the Board.

Among the candidates, there are 6 man and 3 women. The average age of candidates is 58 years old, excluding those of Azerbaijan, Egypt and Guatemala who are 70 years old or even older. This can be relevant as far as it raises the question of how feasible it would be for these candidates to lead the Organization during 2 mandates, which has been the average of DG’s tenure throughout UNESCO’s history.

Concerning geographic origin, it is worth to stress that four candidates come from Arab countries. This is due to the unwritten rule that the next Director-General should come from an Arab country, in a spirit of solidarity and geographical rotation. So far, there have been 10 Directors-General, nationals (in chronological order) of the United Kingdom, Mexico, United States (2 times), Italy, France, Senegal, Spain, Japan and Bulgaria. In other words, there has never been a DG from the Arab region. This situation led to a “gentlemen agreement” within UNESCO’s community to favour an Arab candidate for leading the Organization in the following years.

Within this context, it is possible to explain the criticism emerged vis à vis the French candidature, which has been considered “as imposed by the Eliseo”, a last minute candidature and an open confrontation with the Arab countries.;

Even if gender, age and geographical origin are elements to bear in mind, they are not the most relevant. What the 58 Executive Board Member States really need to consider while casting their vote are the skills, experience (at UNESCO and the UN system) and above all, the negotiation and leadership capabilities of candidates.

By analysing the vision of each candidate and after listening the interviews hold during the Board session, I stress the elements and proposals that I consider the most significant to deal with UNESCO’s challenges:

Depoliticising the Organization.- All candidates called on the urgent need to find consensus among membership on political topics, while concentrating on the technical ones. Only Mrs El-Khoury Lacoueilhe presented a specific proposal to create an “early warning system” within the Secretariat that would allow, well in advance, to detect those red lights in Member States’ agenda and promptly act, consequently.

Financial crises.- Candidates’ proposals ranged from expanding the donor base (to include civil society, foundations, private sector and banks and international financial institutions) and in properly communicating the Organization’s work. Specifically, the candidate of Lebanon mentioned her intention to hire professionals in fund-raising and make an optimal use of crowd funding.

SDGs implementation.- All candidates concurred on the important role that UNESCO should have in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. However, no measures or concrete actions were signalled out on how to optimize this responsibility. Only the Lebanese candidate referred to specific changes in the management of Secretariat in order to encourage cross-sectoral approaches and to create partnerships with other institutions, in and out the UN system, in order to concentrate efforts to those areas in which UNESCO really has a comparative advantage.

Next October, Board members will cast their vote in order to present only one candidate for his/her appointment by the General Conference. Hopefully, this election will not only be a bureaucratic exercise of exchanges of support among countries, or of financial promises in exchange of votes, or just “another election” within the UN system. ‘Business as usual’ is no longer an alternative.

Let’s hope that this process becomes in an authentic thoughtful exercise that allows each country to make an informed decision and choose a real leader. A candidate that can genuinely conduct change at UNESCO. Our children and future generations will be the most grateful of such decision, because they are the ones who will benefit the most of a credible, transparent and strengthened UNESCO.

Who elects the Director-General?

According to UNESCO’s Constitution, the Executive Board nominates the Director-General, who is in turn appointed by the General Conference. The Director-General may be appointed by an initial mandate of four years with a possibility of a second term of another four years.

Who are the candidates?

The candidates, in the order of the date they presented their dossier are: Polad BÜLBÜLOGLU (Azerbaijan); Sanh Chau PHAM (Vietnam); Moushira KHATTAB (Egypt); Hamad bin Abdulaziz AL-KAWARI (Qatar); Qian Tang (China); Juan Alfonso FUENTES SORIA (Guatemala); Saleh AL-HASNAWI (Iraq); Vera EL-KHOURY LACOEUILHE (Lebanon) y Audrey AZOULAY (France).

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