The Magazine

UNESCO Funny Business

Annals of a dishonest PR campaign.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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Surely Comedy Central’s The Daily Show meant well when it sent comedian John Oliver all the way to Africa to file a report savaging the United States for defunding the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Describing UNESCO as “an organization that helps people in need all over the world,” Oliver lampooned U.S. policy: “We had absolutely no choice but to cut off funding for tsunami victims and starving, drought-ridden African children.”

Photos of John Oliver, Ali Bongo Ondimba

John Oliver, Ali Bongo Ondimba

DAVID SHANKBONE; NEWSCOM

Having learned that the little West African country of Gabon had pledged $2 million to help make up for the more than $78 million per year America has stopped paying, Oliver flew to Gabon to investigate. There, he staged a series of skits, snatching books from children and berating the presidential press secretary because “little countries like America” are “tired of being pushed around by international heavyweights like Gabon.”

“We gave from the heart,” said the presidential aide. “That,” said Oliver, “is why you can’t have books anymore.”

The Atlantic hailed the piece as a paragon of do-good satire, and indeed it is funny—if you know nothing about UNESCO, or Gabon. 

UNESCO lost U.S. financial support through its own actions. Last fall, when the Palestinian Authority made its unsuccessful bid for statehood at the U.N. Security Council, it also applied to the U.N.’s Paris-based cultural organization. Over U.S. objections, UNESCO’s member states voted 107 to 14, with 52 abstentions, to grant the PA full membership. This decision set in motion a U.S. law that forbids the government from funding any part of the U.N. that tries to confer statehood on the Palestinians before they honor their promises to negotiate peace with Israel. The Obama administration had no choice but to stop the funding, which represented 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget. 

UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, wants America’s money back. But rather than try to persuade UNESCO’s members to undo their admission of “Palestine,” Bokova has been pouring extravagant effort into persuading America to undo its law. Twice in the past six months, Bokova has traveled to the United States, most recently last month, with four UNESCO staffers in tow, for a 12-day road show with stops in Washington, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. 

Self-promotion seems to be the name of the game at UNESCO these days, and winning airtime on Comedy Central represents a major PR coup. And there are other initiatives underway as well.

To supplement at least a dozen employees already based in UNESCO’s liaison office at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York, Bokova has now created a Washington liaison. For this slot, she tapped George Papagiannis, a former communications director for Rep. Nancy Pelosi. He and Bokova have been spoon-feeding the media with talking points that depict UNESCO as the world’s prime guardian of such worthy causes as Holocaust education, tsunami-warning systems, and literacy programs. In UNESCO’s narrative, the U.S. legislation now inconveniencing UNESCO is “outdated.” 

In fact, what’s obsolete is the notion that American interests are well served by a wastrel, despot-friendly organization that, for instance, just reaffirmed its decision to seat Syria on its human rights committee. The 59-year-old Moscow-educated Bokova began her U.N. career as an attaché of the Bulgarian mission in New York during the Cold War. The U.S. government welcomed her election as director general in 2009 chiefly because the rival candidate was Egypt’s minister of culture Farouk Hosny, an anti-Semite who favored burning Israeli books. 

Far from helping the world’s neediest, UNESCO’s top priority is helping itself. The Heritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer calculates that 87 percent of UNESCO’s $326 million budget last year was allocated for its own staff, travel, and operating costs. More than half of UNESCO’s staffers are based in Paris, many pulling in tax-exempt six-figure salaries, with plush benefits and 30 days of vacation per year. UNESCO’s auditors reported that on travel costs alone, the organization was squandering more than $3 million annually via bad management and a taste for business-class airline tickets. A program of financial disclosure by senior UNESCO officials has been mysteriously delayed.

To its credit, UNESCO does have an Ethics Office, which in its 2009-2010 annual report bluntly noted “a failure by employees at all levels to take responsibility for their work.” That’s no surprise, given the findings in the same report that many of UNESCO’s employees don’t know what they are supposed to be doing. The Ethics Office further reported receiving “more and more complaints” about UNESCO employees “inappropriately using their diplomatic immunity” to show “non-respect of private legal and financial obligations.” In other words, they were abusing U.N. privileges to break local laws.

Then there’s the case of UNESCO’s model donor as featured on Comedy Central, poor little Gabon. The UNESCO official shown on camera touting Gabon’s largesse is Bokova’s new Washington flack, Papagiannis. Apparently he neglected to mention to Comedy Central’s intrepid reporter that little Gabon is the ninth-largest oil producer in Africa. Gabon’s 1.5 million citizens are poor not because the United States has been snatching their books or defunding UNESCO, but because Gabon has been plundered for more than 40 years by the family of President Ali Bongo Ondimba—the same fellow who showed his support for UNESCO after its Palestinian vote by pledging $2 million from Gabon. At that UNESCO gathering last fall, Bongo shared the Gabon model of development at a UNESCO Leaders’ Forum and won a four-year seat for his government on UNESCO’s 58-member executive board. 

A 2010 report from the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, “Keeping Foreign Corruption Out of the United States,” offers useful background on Gabon’s ruling dynasty. The report cites Freedom House’s accounts of torture in Gabonese jails, restrictions on free speech, and “decades of autocratic and corrupt rule.” Gabon’s current President Bongo is the son of Omar Bongo, who was president of Gabon for more than 40 years, until his death in 2009. Senator Carl Levin, presiding over the release of the Senate report, said that both Bongos were “notorious for accumulating massive wealth while in office in a country known for poverty.” One Gabonese civic group wrote UNESCO’s Bokova, asking her to refuse the $2 million pledge, because the pauperized people of Gabon need the money more.

UNESCO fields an office in Gabon, but however photogenic its capers on Comedy Central, UNESCO’s auditors have been unimpressed with its performance. Last December they reported that the Gabon office “manages a very low level of progreamme activities,” and that the controls over its $1.4 million annual budget are “weak.” The auditors suggested it would help to train the staff, keep an eye on the financial contracts, and prenumber the petty cash receipts.

Unfortunately, the Gabon account is characteristic of UNESCO mismanagement. But rather than get her house in order, Bokova sweeps the organization’s pathetic track record under the rug and warns what kind of programs and projects might suffer if the United States doesn’t start paying again.

One she’s particularly vocal about is the Holocaust education program, which she suggests might vanish without American money. In fact, the lone full-time staff member on this project is paid out of a donation from Israel, which also kicked in a large chunk of the $536,000 collected in recent years for projects related to this program. UNESCO’s annual contribution comes to a niggardly $215,000, which Bokova could scrape together simply by abandoning her plans for a Washington liaison. 

More to the point, it’s curious that Bokova should underscore the significance of this particular program. After all, UNESCO’s budget problems stem from its decision to seat the Palestinian Authority—whose Observer Mission logo features a map from which Israel has been erased. 

Comedy Central’s satirists missed the real story here—UNESCO itself.

Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, heads its Investigative Reporting Project, and blogs at PJMedia.com.

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