Diplomats and international officials are wringing their hands now that the United States has, as mandated by U.S. law, cut off funding to UNESCO because it admitted Palestine as a full member. On October 24, Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, published a letter in The Washington Post speaking about how the Washington’s actions would imperil UNESCO’s work:
UNESCO supports many causes in line with U.S. security interests. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are helping governments and communities prepare for life after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. We are bolstering the literacy of the Afghan National Police and are leading the country’s largest education program, reaching some 600,000 learners in 18 provinces. We work with the United States to advance democratic freedoms. Mandated to promote freedom of expression, UNESCO stands up for every journalist attacked or killed across the world. In Tunisia and Egypt, we are leading education reform and training journalists. We target the causes of violent extremism by training teachers in human rights and Holocaust remembrance.
Predictably, many on the Left are seizing upon UNESCO’s self-affirmation to suggest that the end does not justify the means, and that the U.S. government should not hold UNESCO accountable for its actions. The problem with these arguments is the woeful inefficiency of UN programs, regardless of their noble aims.
UN subsidiaries like UNESCO, UNICEF, and UNEP replicate what many smaller, leaner NGOs do, but the UN agencies have a much higher overhead. Anyone who has worked in the Third World will hear local governments complain about how UN agencies skew the local economy. When I first went to Iraq in 2000, local officials complained how the salary for a UN driver, for example, was up to 45 times that of a college professor. The result? Competent professionals left their jobs to become drivers. Many UN officials live high on the hog. Like USAID employees, UN officials rent the choicest mansions, driving up rents for locals. For a fraction of the price, smaller NGOs can often accomplish far more.
The UN is a noble institution and provides a valuable space where adversaries can talk. But the alphabet soup of UN spin-off agencies drains billions of dollars of funds which would be better spent elsewhere. Cutting funding to UNESCO is right and, at any rate, is U.S. law. It’s time to hold UNESCO accountable, instead of taking Bokova’s sob story at face value, for UNESCO is far less essential than she imagines it to be.