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Last modified: Thursday, June 7, 2012

CEEP report examines educational implications of U.S. decision to stop funding UNESCO

June 7, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Experts agree that UNESCO funding cuts are counter to U.S. interests, according to a new report from the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University. The report assesses the implications for education worldwide after the United States withheld funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in response to UNESCO granting member state status to Palestine.

Federal law prohibits the U.S. government from providing funds to any U.N. agency or affiliated organization that "accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states." The U.S. withheld an approximately $60 million contribution last fall, which accounts for about 22 percent of UNESCO's annual budget. The U.S. provides the most financial support, by far, of all the member nations.

UNESCO is arguably one of the leading agencies in education worldwide. Its goals in education are to be a clearinghouse and laboratory of ideas, standard-setter, collector of educational statistics, catalyst for change, and capacity-builder. Since the withdrawal of U.S. funding six months ago, the organization has undergone considerable changes, mostly in its abilities to support its critical programs around the world.

David Rutkowski

David Rutkowski

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The CEEP report, "UNESCO Without U.S. Funding? Implications for Education Worldwide," was written by Laura Engel, an assistant professor of international education and international affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and David Rutkowski, an assistant professor in educational policy at Indiana University.

The authors present the facts around the controversy and include the perspectives of four leaders in international education. All four contributors are greatly concerned by the U.S. funding cut, but they present widely different views on how this will affect UNESCO programs and operations around the world.

They also agree that cutting funds for the organization's educational programs is very likely counterproductive to U.S. interests in international development, health, education and economic growth. However, they have different perspectives about what concerns them most and what the U.S. should do next.

Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, describes how the education mission of the organization is being pursued through vital programs like Education for All and UNESCO's Literacy Initiative for Empowerment in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, and 35 countries with some of the world's lowest literacy rates. She highlights the organization's unique programs for education professionals and young people on anti-racism, tolerance and the promotion of a culture of human rights and mutual understanding.

UNESCO's education mission stretches from early childhood through adulthood, from technical and vocational education and training for youth to second-chance opportunities and professional development. "A 30 percent reduction in funding affects all these efforts," Bokova writes.

The cuts were a chance "for UNESCO to clean house, establish a sound and sustainable financial footing, reduce its administrative staff and revamp its education staff, and generally seize the initiative to become once again the premier global education agency," wrote Nicholas Burnett, managing director of Results for Development Institute and former UNESCO assistant director-general for education. But since the organization did not take advantage of this opportunity, he recommends the U.S. should re-engage with UNESCO but use the funding as a way to force desperately needed reorganization of UNESCO's operations and priorities.

Emily Vargas-Baron, director of The RISE Institute, reviews several key education programs that will likely be negatively affected by the lack of funds. Many of them are in critical, developing areas of interest to the United States and the European Union, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. She agrees the cut might create an opportunity for some inward reflection and improvements of the organization but says, "in the short run, several UNESCO initiatives that are of value to education programs in the U.S., support U.S. foreign policy activities, and collaborate with our agenda for international development and cooperation will be heavily impacted."

Steven Klees, professor of education policy at the University of Maryland, presents the view that cutting the strength of UNESCO's education programs only increases the influence of the World Bank in the field of international education. He points out that the World Bank already spends more than 16 times what UNESCO spends on education programs, and he doesn't believe it is in the best interests of the U.S. or others to tilt the balance even more in favor of the Bank.

"Global education policy should not be determined by a bank," he concludes.

Report co-authors Engel and Rutkowski wrote that the situation should spur more discussion.

"Dialogue is needed on UNESCO's mission," they write, "the extent to which it is able to carry out its mission, and the U.S. gains and losses from withdrawing its financial support from the organization."

They offer five points for U.S. policymakers to consider in their ongoing debate of this matter.

  • Move beyond the Palestine debate and focus on UNESCO's work in education.
  • Focus on learning about UNESCO's education work in strategic contexts of interest to the U.S..
  • Don't overlook UNESCO's role in global and cultural diplomacy.
  • Pay attention to UNESCO's budgetary and governance practices.
  • Consider the future of the Education for All mandate after 2015.

In February, officials from the White House said they were working with Congress on legislation that would provide authority to waive restrictions on paying the U.S.-assessed contribution to UNESCO.

The report's authors write that they "hope that the perspectives provided (in this brief) will inform both policymakers and the general public in creating informed decisions."

CEEP, one of the country's leading nonpartisan education policy and program evaluation centers, promotes and supports rigorous evaluation and research primarily, but not exclusively, for educational, human services and nonprofit organizations. Center projects address state, national and international education questions. CEEP is part of the IU School of Education.