Introduction to UNESCO


UNESCO works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. It is through this dialogue that the world can achieve global visions of sustainable development encompassing observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty, all of which are at the heart of UNESCO’S mission and activities.

The broad goals and concrete objectives of the international community – as set out in the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – underpin all UNESCO’s strategies and activities. Thus UNESCO’s unique competencies in education, the sciences, culture and communication and information contribute towards the realization of those goals.

UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information. The Organization focuses, in particular, on two global priorities:

• Africa
• Gender equality
And on a number of overarching objectives:
• Attaining quality education for all and lifelong learning
• Mobilizing science knowledge and policy for sustainable development
• Addressing emerging social and ethical challenges
• Fostering cultural diversity, intercultural dialogue and a culture of peace
• Building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication

The Organization’s history

As early as 1942, in wartime, the governments of the European countries, which were confronting Nazi Germany and its allies, met in the United Kingdom for the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME). The Second World War was far from over, yet those countries were looking for ways and means to reconstruct their systems of education once peace was restored. Very quickly, the project gained momentum and soon took on a universal note. New governments, including that of the United States, decided to join in.



Upon the proposal of CAME, a United Nations Conference for the establishment of an educational and cultural organization (ECO/CONF) was convened in London from 1 to 16 November 1945. Scarcely had the war ended when the conference opened. It gathered together the representatives of forty-four countries who decided to create an organization that would embody a genuine culture of peace. In their eyes, the new organization must establish the “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind” and, in so doing, prevent the outbreak of another world war.

At the end of the conference, thirty-seven countries founded the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The Constitution of UNESCO, signed on 16 November 1945, came into force on 4 November 1946 after ratification by twenty countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States. The first session of theGeneral Conference of UNESCO was held in Paris from 19 November to 10 December 1946 with the participation of representatives from 30 governments entitled to vote.

The political divisions of the Second World War marked the composition of the founding Member States of UNESCO. It was not until 1951 that Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany became Members, and Spain was accepted in 1953. Other major historical factors, such as the Cold War, the decolonization process and the dissolution of the USSR, also left their trace on UNESCO. The USSR joined UNESCO in 1954 and was replaced by the Russian Federation in 1992 alongside 12 former Soviet republics. Nineteen African states became Members in the 1960s.

As a consequence of its entry into the United Nations, the People’s Republic of China has been the only legitimate representative of China at UNESCO since 1971. The German Democratic Republic was a Member from 1972 to 1990, when it joined the Federal Republic of Germany.

Some countries withdrew from the Organization for political reasons at various points in time, but they have today all rejoined UNESCO. South Africa was absent from 1957 to 1994, the United States of America between 1985 to 2003, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1986 to 1997 and Singapore from 1986 to 2007.

Origins of UNESCO

The main predecessors of UNESCO were:
• The International Committee of Intellectual Co-operation (CICI), Geneva 1922-1946, and its executing agency, the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation (IICI), Paris, 1925-1946;
• The International Bureau of Education (IBE), Geneva, 1925-1968; since 1969 IBE has been part of the UNESCO Secretariat under its own statutes.

UNESCO’s governing bodies

The General Conference

The General Conference consists of the representatives of the States Members of the Organization. It meets every two years, and is attended by Member States and Associate Members, together with observers for non-Member States, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Each country has one vote, irrespective of its size or the extent of its contribution to the budget.

The General Conference determines the policies and the main lines of work of the Organization. Its duty is to set the programs and the budget of UNESCO. It also elects the Members of the Executive Board and appoints, every four years, the Director-General. The working languages of the General Conference are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

The Executive Boards

The Executive Board, in a sense, assures the overall management of UNESCO. It prepares the work of the General Conference and sees that its decisions are properly carried out. The functions and responsibilities of the Executive Board are derived primarily from the Constitution and from rules or directives laid down by the General Conference.

Every two years the General Conference assigns specific tasks to the Board. Other functions stem from agreements concluded between UNESCO and the United Nations, the specialized agencies and other intergovernmental organizations.

Its fifty-eight members are elected by the General Conference. The choice of these representatives is largely a matter of the diversity of the cultures and their geographical origin. Skilful negotiations may be needed before a balance is reached among the different regions of the world in a way that will reflect the universality of the Organization. The Executive Board meets twice a year.

Member States

With the entry of the Faroe Islands to UNESCO as an Associate Member in October 2009, the Organization has now193 Member States and 7 Associate Members.

The Sector for External Relations and Public Information (ERI) and the Africa Department (AFR) ensure liaison with Member States. While AFR covers the Member States from the Africa region, ERI is responsible for relations with the Member States from the four other regions and with Associate Members.

Relations with Member States are also ensured by the Directors and Heads of the UNESCO Regional, Cluster and National Offices.

Most Member States have established Permanent Delegations to UNESCO which, headed by Ambassadors, undertake liaison between the Organization and their governments.

All Member States have established a National Commission for UNESCO. The UNESCO National Commissions are national cooperating bodies set up by the Member States for the purpose of associating their governmental and non-governmental bodies with the work of the Organization.

Member States and Associate Members designate one or several Ministries responsible for relations with UNESCO and/or Ministries in UNESCO’s fields of competence.

UNESCO emphasizes its efforts to involve nationally (Parliamentarians) and locally elected representatives (Cities and Local Authorities) in its action.

The executive branch of the Organization

The Secretariat consists of the Director-General and the Staff appointed by him or her. As of mid-2009, the Secretariat employed around 2,000 civil servants from some 170 countries. The staff is divided into Professional and General Service categories. More than 700 staff members work in UNESCO’s 65 field offices around the world.

Structure of the UNESCO Secretariat

Director-General
• Office of the Director-General (ODG)

Programme Sectors:
• Education (ED)
• Natural Sciences (SC)
• Social and Human Sciences (SHS)
• Culture (CLT)
• Communication and Information (CI)

Support Sectors:
• External Relations and Public Information (ERI)
• Administration (ADM)

Central Services:
• Secretariat of the Governing Bodies (GBS)
• Office of International Standards and Legal Affairs (LA)

• Internal Oversight Service (IOS)

• Ethics Office (ETH)
• Bureau of Strategic Planning (BSP)
• Bureau of Financial Management (BFM)
• Bureau of Human Resources Management (HRM)
• Bureau of Field Coordination (BFC)
• Africa Department (AFR)
• Secretariat of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize (CRP)