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In the garden tucked into one curve of Unesco’s Y-shaped headquarters on Paris’s Place de Fontenoy there’s a sculpture by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan. A tall, plain concrete slab is inscribed in 10 languages with the preamble to the organisation’s constitution: “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

The constitution was ratified on 16 November 1945, part of the desperate, idealistic efforts to forge a nobler world order amid the physical and moral ruin of the Second World War. Nearly 70 years later, membership of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has swelled from 20 initial signatories to 195. Its mission to promote universal progress, co-operation and enlightenment remains, as any survey of the news will confirm, a work in progress.

Unesco has been led for the past five years by Irina Bokova, 62, a former foreign minister of Bulgaria, now just over a year into her second term as director-general. Her office occupies a top-floor corner of the most enviable wing of the organisation’s HQ – the one offering views across the École Militaire to the Eiffel Tower. The corridors you walk to reach it are lined with selections from Unesco’s fabulous art collection, from Piet Mondrian to an array of Francisco Goya sketches.

It might be easy, on first impression, to mistake Unesco for an over-indulged bureaucracy (such things have been known to flourish beneath the UN flag). However, Bokova emphasises that her time in the top job has been dominated by a need to do to Unesco’s projects what some Unesco projects do for buildings, forests and oceans: protect and preserve them.

At the 2011 annual general conference, Unesco voted to admit Palestine as a full member. This triggered a clause in US law that prohibits American funding of any UN body extending Palestine this sort of recognition (Israel also withdrew its funding). The US used to contribute some €190m annually – 22 per cent of Unesco’s budget.

“It has made a huge difference because it was unexpected, it was abrupt, I would even say brutal,” says Bokova. “It crippled the organisation to the extent that it will be extremely hard to continue, with equal vigour and enthusiasm, to keep up our leadership in areas like culture, heritage, conflict, education, literacy. Maintaining all these important parts of the soft power of our organisation on a long-term basis will be extremely difficult. It will put this organisation in huge danger. I’m very worried about the future.”

As Bokova notes, it’s not like demand for Unesco’s services is dwindling. Perhaps its best-known programme, the World Heritage list, has been lent cruel focus by the fact that in many current conflicts, cultural heritage is not collateral damage but a target. When Islamist rebels seized control of a swathe of Mali in 2012, they deliberately damaged or destroyed buildings and items of purely cultural importance.

“Take Mali,” says Bokova. “What we did was not only crying out – I don’t know how many declarations we published denouncing this destruction. We also worked with the international community and the Security Council. We went with François Hollande to Bamako and Timbuktu. And now we are rebuilding the mausoleums.”

This may not be the last UN office Bokova inhabits: Bulgaria has nominated her to succeed Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary-general in 2016. It’s certainly difficult to imagine a more rugged apprenticeship than her present position in creating harmony from an impossible clamour of competing political interests (“That’s our day-to-day business,” she says, smiling). But what has she learnt about Unesco from being in charge of it?

“I was surprised to discover we’re not the bureaucratic monster that some people say. There are so many good people, so many good things Unesco is doing, and people don’t know about it. So from the first moment [I took office] I realised that making the organisation more visible was critical. Not just because we want to show off what Unesco is doing: it’s critical because there is a certain message in what Unesco is doing.”

To spend a couple of days strolling the corridors of the Unesco building, dropping in to different offices, is to spend a couple of days being genially enthused about that message by an urbane, multinational staff. Not all of whom, it must be conceded, are UN careerists. South African Guy Berger, 58, director of the Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, learnt his field the hard way, spending two and half years in prison in South Africa in the early 1980s as an anti-apartheid activist. “We keep alive standards and ideals,” he says, “and try to remind governments that those standards and ideals exist.”

“There is a UN culture, a UN attitude to life,” says Eric Falt, assistant director-general for external relations and public information. “I’m French and I like being back here but I’ve lived abroad for 25 years and still feel the need to be around people from different backgrounds.” Falt, 52, works from an office decorated with relics from UN postings in Haiti, Cambodia, Iraq, Kenya and Pakistan, among others. Asked how Unesco differs from other UN agencies, he laughs and proffers a business card that folds out into a list of just some of the organisation’s multifaceted activities: educating 61 million out-of-school children, tracking 2,500 endangered languages, monitoring World Heritage properties in 157 countries, and so forth. “It’s the breadth of our mandate,” Falt says. “It contains lots of things people don’t associate us with. Wire services always refer to us as a cultural organisation, which is fine. But in a lot of countries we’re much more tied to education, especially in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.”

One of Unesco’s more ambitious educational projects is its History of Humanity, a seven-volume attempt to assemble mankind’s collective memory. It was completed in 2009 after decades of work involving hundreds of scholars but there still seems to be indecision about exactly what to do with it. “It’s not sufficiently used,” admits Ali Moussa Iye, 57, chief of Unesco’s History and Memory for Dialogue Section, from Djibouti via Ethiopia. “It’s not even sufficiently known. We haven’t been good at publicising it. The budget cuts especially have meant that sometimes we don’t have the means or energy to tell people. And it’s only available online because doing it properly would cost too much.”

But is it even possible – or worthwhile – to write history that everybody has to agree on and that therefore must upset nobody? “Each member state wants us to write things differently,” he says. “That’s why we had the content defined by scientific committees that we established. In the volume covering the 20th century there’s a chapter on Palestine – and there were problems, of course. But to have a good neighbourhood, common narratives are important.” Unesco has found it easier, however, to persuade a critical mass of us that collective heritage exists in the physical world. Its World Heritage list now stands at 1,007 properties: recent additions include the Erbil Citadel in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Van Nellefabriek industrial complex in the Netherlands and the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

“The power of the list lies in the way that countries perceive it,” says Kishore Rao, 61, the Indian conservation expert who serves as director of the World Heritage Centre. “It puts in place a system of international co-operation to recognise the common heritage of humankind, protected for future generations. Obviously there’s prestige attached to that and economic factors: tourism and the ability to leverage financial assistance.” The list, he acknowledges, can be a mixed blessing. Being included often draws more tourists, which means that the site can require yet further protection. It can also attract less benign attention. “Sometimes people target cultural heritage,” Rao says, nodding. “The Bamiyan Buddhas [in Afghanistan] are the classic example – the Taliban destroyed them despite all the diplomacy. When we inscribed Timbuktu [on the World Heritage in Danger list] in 2012, there was, as a result, destruction of the mausoleums.”

Like everything else Unesco attempts, managing the World Heritage list necessitates a politician’s guile with almost none of a politician’s direct power. Australia has recently been aghast at suggestions that the Great Barrier Reef could be added to the list of endangered sites. In London, campaigners were dismayed by Unesco’s decision not to list the Palace of Westminster – it had been hoped that this might ward off property developers seeking to obscure it with skyscrapers.

“It’s not the politics that prevail,” says Rao. “It’s how best we can work with local authorities to ensure the site is protected. So we focus on the technical aspects rather than the politics.” This century, Unesco has extended the principle of the World Heritage list. The first Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was issued in 2009 and now runs to hundreds of examples of niche activity – some listed to be celebrated (Costa Rican ox-herding; Iranian carpet-weaving); some to be protected (Mongolian folk-dancing; the Ugandan gourd trumpet); and some, the suspicion lurks, as the result of an obtuse practical joke (Luxembourg’s hopping procession in the city of Echternach).

Parisian born-and-bred Cécile Duvelle, 56, chief of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Section, acknowledges that some entries may appear risibly obscure but argues that this is exactly why the list is valuable. “You can see it changing lives and perspectives,” she says. “People who considered themselves lost and not in the loop of modernity suddenly become drivers of the process. They’ve often been told for centuries to abandon their practices. Now we’re saying: not all of them.”

Unesco’s headquarters are an irresistible metaphor for the organisation it houses. It radiates the hopeful modernism of the 1950s (though the city in which it sits was spared the worst of the Second World War, the building is unmistakably post-war in appearance). It was constructed with great internationalist intentions involving architects from three countries; the 2,000-odd people who work for Unesco, here and abroad, between them carry 169 different passports.

Today, however, it’s a little run down around the edges: the concrete crumbling, the upholstery fraying. If it’s hard to imagine the world being improved by Unesco trimming its sails, the organisation is at least doing this with what appears characteristic optimism.

“We’ve been forced to think more creatively,” says Qian Tang, 63, assistant director-general for education. “Unesco is becoming less conservative about accepting private sector money. Procter & Gamble gave us a $1m for girls’ education in Africa, Samsung a $1m [grant] for sustainable development education in Vietnam, and we were able to do good work. It’s quite challenging, though. We’re not very rich but our members make big demands, thinking Unesco can help them.”







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