Interview with Irina Bokova, Director General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

29 July 2010 – Irina Bokova of Bulgaria was elected in October 2009 for a term of four years as head of UNESCO, whose headquarters is in Paris. Born in Sofia in 1952, she served as her country’s Secretary of State for European Integration and Foreign Minister in the mid-1990s. During her career, she has also been a Member of Parliament as well as an ambassador for Bulgaria.

UN News Centre: Nine months after your election to the leadership of UNESCO, how would you assess the early results?

Irina Bokova: These nine months have been particularly active. It has been a transition period in the course of which I have had to introduce certain objectives and certain new priorities, while pursuing the action that was already begun by UNESCO previously.

I'm swamped with work, but I'm more at ease and I know the place better. I have already travelled extensively and participated in numerous meetings and conferences. The latest was the annual session of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) held in July in If UNESCO did not exist today, this would be the time to create itNew York. The theme was “gender equality” and I tried to make a more specific contribution in the field of education of women and girls, particularly because gender equality is a priority for the UN and its agencies, starting with UNESCO, which can act through education.

UN News Centre: During your campaign to lead UNESCO, you strongly emphasized the need for reform. What have you done so far?

Irina Bokova: It’s on track. For example, I emphasized the role of women in the organization, and now women represent half of my team. This trend will continue in different departments and different levels of the organization.

UN News Centre: You particularly mentioned the need for "less bureaucracy" at UNESCO.

Irina Bokova: Yes, I wish UNESCO would take a better role and a better place in the UN system, within the competencies of the organization – education, science, culture, communication and information. It is at heart a very important turning point, with my new team, but also with the challenge of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be dealt with by 2015.

The problem is that UNESCO is a very bureaucratic structure, sometimes cumbersome in its operation. I hope it becomes more flexible, more dynamic, more coordinated, more focused also on certain priorities. We must reduce the administrative costs of operation and transfer a part of the financial resources into the programmes of action. I promised that I will, and I have started to implement a number of changes.

For example, the restructuring of the Secretariat, the affiliation of the division for gender equality which is currently in the Planning Department, both to make it more effective but also to send a strong message on the importance of this challenge and its urgency.

I will soon launch a more profound restructuring in the financial and budgetary services. I also hope that the communication system within UNESCO becomes more efficient and more focused on certain priorities.

And then we are also working a lot on our presence on the ground. In October I will present a report to Member States about the means to accelerate reforms to enhance our operations in the field and explore how we can best fit into the UN strategy called "One United Nations," which aims to better coordinate the actions of organizations, agencies, programs and other structures dependent on the UN.

UN News Centre: In comparison to other UN agencies that are highly visible because they intervene in crisis situations or emergencies in the media spotlight, UNESCO is more discreet and less known to the general public. Is there an image problem?

Irina Bokova: You raise a central question at this moment to UNESCO, one of visibility. We do many things, but it's true, it’s rather discreet, perhaps precisely because we are not involved in the emergency, but upstream to avoid crises and emergencies. The motto of the organization – “building peace in the minds of people” – involves work and actions that are less in the media spotlight but that leave a mark in the long term.

We produce magazines, reports, surveys, research on central issues related to our areas of expertise. For example, our annual reports on education around the world, on the social situation in a country or the global management of water. All this translates into action on the ground, but it's true that there is a lack of communication and visibility. I want to change that. I am very passionate about it. We must have better visibility.

UN News Centre: And it is through these internal reforms that you want to do that?

Irina Bokova: Yes, because they must also help to focus on visibility and communication about our actions. We have already started having meetings with TV networks for programmes in partnership with them. Cooperation agreements were already organized before my arrival with Brazil and Japan. I wish that this becomes the norm. I have already signed several agreements during a visit to the Republic of Korea. We are also already working with some major international channels, such as Al Jazeera. I think it is absolutely essential that we communicate more and I'll make sure that we move in this direction.

Irina Bokova visits the remains of Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince following the devastating earthquake.

UN News Centre: You're the first woman elected head of UNESCO. Does this make your task more complicated?

Irina Bokova: I am very proud to be the first woman elected to that position, especially as I think it was time that a woman occupied it. It is a strong signal from our organization: women must and will assume positions of importance in the international forums. After, of course, is a huge responsibility. I feel that the expectations aroused by my election are much more important because I am a woman. Sometimes I even say it's unfair because I think people are really waiting to catch me out, much more so than with a man.

UN News Centre: With this election and your position, do you also become a symbol?

Irina Bokova: I am still surprised because I've never seen or perceived myself as a symbol. But yes, I realize that, especially in my travels. In Asia, the Middle East and Africa in particular, I discovered the enthusiasm of the young students or the young women that I met. Many told me they were very inspired by my personality, my election as head of UNESCO, and they also aspired to achieve such responsibilities. If my election and my presence at the leadership of UNESCO gives hope and desire, I am very satisfied.

UN News Centre: In Bulgaria, your country, you also become an example?

Irina Bokova: I get lots of mail. Letters to congratulate me, asking me how I got here, or to propose I sponsor such-and-such an event, or at a community centre or school. Obviously it's a great honour because it's my homeland. But I also get mail from other countries of Eastern Europe, from women who tell me that I represent. It's very flattering, but it's also a heavy responsibility. I don’t want to disappoint them.

UN News Centre: With regard to UNESCO, what about the priorities of the organization in its areas of action?

Irina Bokova: The organization is tasked with contributing to building peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through action in education, science, culture, communication and information.

These actions focus on two overarching priorities set before my arrival: Africa and gender equality. They also include several key objectives: ensuring quality education for all and lifelong learning, mobilizing knowledge and political science at the service of sustainable development, coping with new social and ethical challenges, promoting diversity cultural, intercultural dialogue and a culture of peace, and building inclusive knowledge societies through information and communication.

UN News Centre: Specifically, how will these priorities and objectives be translated into actions?

Irina Bokova: UNESCO is primarily there to help governments formulate and implement relevant policies in the areas of education, science, culture and communication. We are also here to provide training for teachers or educators. For example, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we have a regional training centre for teachers and school masters. We also help to establish certain educational standards and some standards in the protection of tangible and intangible cultural heritage. We also work for the protection of biodiversity, for better water management, through various scientific programmes that we support. In the field of water management, we have 25 regional centres in the world. We also help governments predict and anticipate natural disasters, such as tsunamis, with our International Oceanographic Commission.

Our activities are varied and extensive. They have a tangible impact in people’s daily lives through our work with governments, NGOs [non-governmental organizations], universities and schools, with teachers and researchers. We also work with the intellectual community, the centres of promotion of cultures and heritages, with groups or associations of women, education and prevention against AIDS.

Many governments also urge us to make an assessment of their educational systems or policies regarding scientific research. They sometimes ask us for advice and expertise to introduce the teaching of science in the curriculum or university.

UN News Centre: You have talked about a “new humanism” to define what should be UNESCO in the 21st century. What did you mean?

Irina Bokova: It's a modest idea that I had. During the campaign for election to the Directorate General of UNESCO, I visited 47 countries, met hundreds of people with whom I exchanged a lot. I saw poverty, discrimination against women, the plight of children or adolescents. I asked how it was possible, given the progress of humanity, science, new technologies and communications opening up the world today, there is always this poverty. Why do we put more emphasis on the economy and profit, forgetting the human dimension?

I think the United Nations and its development agenda which they work on, and which UNESCO contributes to, is focused on the creation of a more inclusive society in which all humans have a chance to access knowledge. This is the idea of a new humanism, to integrate the development agenda. For example, 2010 is the year of biodiversity for the UN, with the idea that there is no life on Earth without biodiversity. Well, is it not the same thing with cultural diversity? Humans, can they live without cultural diversity? That's the new humanism.

Promoting gender equality and women's rights, for example, is one of the most humanistic priorities there can be for the 21st century. Or our attitude to climate change. It is also a humanist agenda that puts people at the heart of concerns.

UN News Centre: The “globalization” today refers to a global village where distances are being abolished, thanks to new technology and information flows. But it is also a phenomenon that can causes a decline in strong community identity. UNESCO aims to create links to bring people, cultures, civilizations. Is this still true today?

Irina Bokova: If UNESCO did not exist today, this would be the time to create it because our actions, our reason for being is to respond to the globalization that makes everyone the same. The planet today looks like a global village, but it does not mean the people and communities do not feel less isolated and threatened. UNESCO is trying to give them a kind of confidence, protecting cultures, the heritage and the languages, helping those who are behind in education, science and information so that there won’t be a two-speed globalization or so that globalization is not perceived as a dangerous threat but as a source of opportunity, progress and development.

For this reason, we encourage partnerships, alliances between peoples, States, organizations and civil society. This is important because this also causes a weakening of identities, which itself creates concern and therefore problems, tensions and even conflicts.

UN News Centre: In this globalization that tends to erase the differences, is it important that your organization defend minority cultures, for example?

Irina Bokova: We fight every day for it, especially when pressed on the defence of the material but also the immaterial ­– there is on one side, what is important for humanity, and on the other, what is for a community. Take the example of languages: we are the organization that best defends languages, that defends multilingualism. We published the Atlas of Languages to identify them and also how to find the most effective protection for them.

It is the same for cultures that are threatened with extinction. We regret and we deplore that this situation exists and we are fighting to prevent it. Cultural diversity should accompany globalization. It is our duty and our mission.

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