Comment: Can Unesco ever recover from Irina Bokova's disastrous rule?

Patrick Dawson: Unesco has been led to the brink of disrepair and disrepute.
Patrick Dawson: Unesco has been led to the brink of disrepair and disrepute

By Patrick Dawson

Unesco's departing director-general been left almost in tatters in the wake of Irina Bokova's disastrous term in office as director-general.

Bokova, the first ever female in the role, has unfortunately completely failed to rise to the hopes placed upon her. Instead, her term in office has been a woeful mix of amorality and amateurism, which has led the worthy organisation to the brink of disrepair and disrepute.

As the next Unesco presidential elections approach, the other candidates must be looking on with mixed emotions. Relief, surely, that the ineffectiveness and self-interest of Bokova can finally reach an end. Yet at the same time anxiety for the scale of the clean-up mission required to return order to the organisation, which has been shipwrecked and looted by the incumbent incompetence of the past four years.


It was in 2011 that Bokova's term became nightmarish, when she was faced with the US – shocked that Palestine had been granted full member status without undergoing peace talks with Israel – cancelling their funds to Unesco: a sum of $150 million, which would have made up 22% of the organisation's financial support.

Faced with her first challenge, the director-general revealed herself to be a liability to the institution with her erratic swings between panicked paralysis and wild, harebrained non-solutions. Taking the decision not to engage in negotiations with the Obama administration, she instead threw money she didn't have into attempting to win over US citizens with publicity trips to the states. She also set about creating a Washington office for Unesco, presumably in case for some reason the New York office already in place did not suffice.

In the face of the scathing reports from the Council of Auditors criticising her diplomatic and financial failures, Bokova finally woke up far too late to the need to act. Her panicky reaction was an unthinking mass lay-off, casting out hundreds of Unesco employees and plummeting her dwindling reputation among those beneath her. The actions taken not only left Unesco employees terrified for their jobs, but utterly failed to deal with the imminent, fundamental structural problems.

According to Unesco's website, the organisation's mission is "to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue". Yet under Bokava, Unesco has been fostering poverty in its own backyard, kicking out employees with what the Council of Auditors termed "vagueness" and "opacity" – not at all the transparency she had promised.

While Unesco jobs were being knocked off, the real problems were far from being addressed. Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation found that 87% of Unesco's $326 million budget last year was allocated for its own staff, travel, and operating costs. Due to catastrophic management and lavish business-class tickets, Unesco under Bokova has been squandering over $3 million every year merely on travel – notwithstanding the dubiousness of the director-general's travel plans.

Unesco, an institution established firmly upon ethical principles, should not have to fall apart. Its founding aims are just and Bokova's fiasco of a presidency must not be seen as a reflection of the organisation, whose targets deserve to be carried through by someone less marred by ineptitude. What is sure though is that a change in management is the only way the institution can possibly evade implosion and a descent into deeper decadence.

As the presidential hopefuls, such as ex-professor of political and social sciences and former missionary to China Joseph Maila, carry out their election campaigns, one has to wonder: how does a normal, sane candidate begin to make sense of the disarray left behind by Bokova?

After many years as a cultural attaché at the British Embassy in Kiev, Patrick Dawson has recently taken up a similar position in Budapest. His interests lie in Europe's ever-advancing geopolitical interrelations, the significance of wider powers and most notably the overlooked importance of Europe’s fringes.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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