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UNESCO Funny Business

Annals of a dishonest PR campaign.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By CLAUDIA ROSETT
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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

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