By Liz Métraux
Last year, my colleague Ryan Kehmna shared some of his favorite facts about the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). His list included the agency’s role in global education efforts during COVID-19, UNESCO’s curriculum on the Holocaust and antisemitism, and, of course, the beloved World Heritage Program. Today, as the U.S. makes the case for UNESCO reentry after a decade-long absence, we thought we’d add a few more mentions to the work of the world’s largest educational and cultural body.
Because if you think UNESCO is only about tourism, think again.
1. UNESCO’s cultural preservation goes well beyond what meets the eye.
While the agency is best known for safeguarding physical sites since 1972 (with its first designee of the coveted World Heritage status being the Galapagos Islands), their annals of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” are just as impressive. These gems include the most culturally significant creative and culinary treasures on the planet, like Thailand’s Khon Masked Dances, for example, as well as Tango in Argentina, the beloved baguette of France, kimchi in Korea, the practice of falconry across the Middle East, yoga, and so much more.
And that’s not all. UNESCO’s Memory of the World work protects documentary heritage, particularly in places around the globe affected by conflict and natural disasters. By preserving invaluable documents and ensuring universal access to those sources, they’re playing a huge role in keeping us connected to our past so we can shape a better, more informed future.
Did you know? Studies show that the overall economic impact of a UNESCO World Heritage designation is about $100 million, bringing in 1,000 jobs and $2 million in hotel tax revenue.
2. Journalists count on UNESCO to have their backs.
UNESCO’s Observatory of Killed Journalists monitors threats to journalists and media workers worldwide. The program provides current data on the killing of journalists, the judicial status of condemned cases, and keeps records on countries’ responses to UNESCO’s requests for information into the judicial status of ongoing and unresolved cases. These data are pooled every four years in UNESCO’s World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development Report, which analyzes overall attitudes towards media freedom, independence, and safety of the press.
3. UNESCO educates.
UNESCO runs a few different academies and training cohorts to educate youth and professionals on emergent issues of the day and historical challenges we continue to face – from the Holocaust to AI. These programs are a key source of learning in developing nations, helping to tackle illiteracy, rebuild educational infrastructure and libraries destroyed during wars and conflicts, and augment traditional modes of instruction with online programs.
By the way, this work doesn’t just focus on less developed nations. UNESCO’s leadership in education played an important role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their taskforce on COVID-19 response disseminated technical assistance and information on best practices to governments working to provide education to students that are out of school, as well as ways nations can safely keep schools open and how to identify students who have fallen behind academically or struggling psychosocially.
4. UNESCO is a global data hub.
The agency is a treasure trove of information. From the publications division that releases hundreds of manuscripts in 70 languages, to the UNESCO Courier, which has been a trailblazing news source for more than 75 years, UNESCO acts as a kind of central repository to track, monitor, and maintain open source material for thousands of issues around the globe.
Even more interesting, UNESCO’s most popular print in the 1950’s? A scientific pamphlet rebuffing racism.
Did you know? UNESCO houses the largest “artistic heritage” in the UN system, with 500 pieces of art that include pieces by Picasso and span 6,000 years.
5. UNESCO leads the UN’s earth sciences research.
In fact, UNESCO is the only global body with a mandate to lead intergovernmental research and capacity-building in earth sciences, with the International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme serving as the primary think tank (and “do tank”) of earth sciences research worldwide.
And let’s not forget the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, as well. Because even though you’re in the water doesn’t mean you’re not also on this shared planet.
6. UNESCO is at the helm of Artificial Intelligence research and regulation.
It’s hard to open up any news site these days and not find a leading article on AI. UNESCO’s groundbreaking work on AI started years ago and is reflected most notably in its 2021 “Recommendations on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” which is based on “the promotion and protection of human rights, human dignity, and environmental sustainability.” Roughly three dozen countries are already working on laws based on the document, and the organization is building out capacity to provide technical assistance for AI regulation to any country interested in this new frontier.
7. UNESCO coordinates the global Creative Cities Network.
In the push for urban development, people sometimes forget that it’s actual humans that make up the urban landscape. The UNESCO Creative Cities Network promotes cooperation among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable growth. To date, 300 cities worldwide are engaged in the project to make sure that we keep real people at the heart of our city planning.
8. UNESCO literally wrote the book on anti-racism.
Interest piqued? Check out this little-known story of how UNESCO helped to desegregate the American South.
Liz Métraux is the Director of Engagement for the Better World Campaign.