The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is reeling after the United States abruptly cut funding to the organization last year. The cuts came following a vote by UNESCO’s Member States to allow Palestine to join the organization as a full member. In response, the United States, which provides about 22 percent of the UNESCO budget, cancelled its allocation to the U.N. body.
The result of these cuts has been that the organization has been “crippled”, in the words of Director-General Irina Bokova. The U.S. assessment generally equals about $60 million, which is then allocated both to specific projects and general funding for the organization. As of March, the U.S. had withheld about $78 million, the total of its current dues and amounts previously owed. It’s also unlikely that the United States will pay its dues for 2012, normally handed over at the end of the year. The net outcome of the newly drawn pursestrings is a $150 million deficit in UNESCO’s budget across 2012 and 2013.
Ending UNESCO funding was not the decision of the Obama administration, but rather the implementation of a 1994 law that prohibits the United States from providing money to international organizations that accords Palestine the same rights as Member States. The administration has included funds for UNESCO in its Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Request [PDF] hoping Congress will amend the law and released a memo on the U.S. interests UNESCO membership bolsters:
UNESCO actively promotes democratic values around the world, reinforcing U.S. efforts, particularly in politically sensitive environments and conflict zones where it can be difficult for the U.S. to operate. UNESCO programs are serving to sustain the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring, promote peace and nation-building in south Sudan, support democratic reforms in Iraq and Afghanistan, and encourage Holocaust Education in the Middle East and Africa U.S. contributions to UNESCO leverage funding from other donors for programs that promote media freedom, democratic institution-building, peace and stability, and disaster response and prevention. UNESCO’s operating costs in the field, including its security costs, are much lower than those of U.S. contractors, particularly in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan and the Middle East.
It remains unlikely that Congress will move to alter or repeal the law in the near future.
While UNESCO has managed to raise around $89 million dollars towards its Emergency Fund, including large donations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, these were one-time contributions, and can’t fill the permanent budget hole the United States’ withdrawal has created. Moreover, some of the larger donations, such as $20 million from Norway, are specifically donated with projects in mind.
Among those projects directly funded by the U.S. that now are lacking financial support are UNESCO’s Education for Holocaust Remembrance program and a project which researches tsunamis. Also hampered by the cuts would be a program to increase literacy among the Afghan National Police.