Review of British Aid Spending Turns Spotlight on ‘Poor-Performing’ U.N. Agencies

By Patrick Goodenough | March 1, 2011 | 4:23 AM EST

Headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, France. (Photo: UNESCO, M'Hammed Belmenouar)

( – As Republican lawmakers seek ways to trim U.S. funding to the United Nations, a far-reaching review of British development aid spending due for release on Tuesday will make for interesting reading.

At least four U.N. agencies reportedly are in the firing line, and will either lose their funding or be put on notice to improve their performance immediately.

They are the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris; the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna; and the Nairobi-based agency U.N.-Habitat.

The Conservative-led coalition government that took office last year has pledged to ensure that taxpayers get the best value possible for one of the world’s biggest foreign aid budgets.

The report to be released on Tuesday followed a nine-month “multilateral aid review” carried out by the Department for International Development (DFID).

“Nearly half of the U.K.’s aid budget is currently spent through international bodies, like the U.N. and World Bank, and so it is right that we assess whether this is providing maximum value for money,” International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said when launching the initiative last June.

Ahead of the report’s release to parliament a DFID spokesman said Monday the “shake-up” would place greater focus on a smaller number of countries and cut funding to poor-performing international agencies.

“Poor-performing international development agencies, including U.N. and World Bank organizations, will be stripped of around 50 million pounds ($81.3 m) of funding after the review found they are not giving U.K. taxpayers best value for money,” DFID said.


“Other agencies will immediately be put on special measures – meaning the U.K. government will work with them to secure reforms improvements in performance.  DFID funding will be reviewed in two years’ time and funding may be ceased if improvements are not made.”

A checkered history

UNESCO, whose stated aim is to promote global understanding through culture, education and science, has been given notice to meet specific targets in the coming months to justify continued funding. The agency gets $19.5 million (12 million pounds) a year from Britain.

It gets significantly more from the United States.  In line with the assessed contribution formula, the U.S. funds 22 percent of the regular budget, plus close to $3.7 million dollars each year in extra-budgetary funds, according to the U.S. Mission to the UNESCO.

UNESCO’s approved regular budget for the two-year period 2010-2011 is $653 million.

The Obama administration requested $75.9 million for contributions to UNESCO in fiscal year 2009, $80.9 million in 2010 and $84.8 million in 2011.

UNESCO has had a rocky history with Western governments. The Reagan administration and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government both withdrew in the 1980s, accusing the agency of mismanagement and an anti-Western agenda.

Britain’s Labor government rejoined UNESCO in 1997 and the Bush administration followed suit, citing important reforms ushered in under the leadership of  Japanese diplomat Koichiro Matsuura, who had become director-general in 1999.

There have been some controversies since, some of them arising from authoritarian member states’ attempts to blunt the agency’s mandate to promote freedom of expression.

UNESCO’s executive board raised eyebrows in 2006 when it approved an Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)-introduced motion arising from the furor over the publication of cartoons satirizing Mohammed.

In 2008, UNESCO withdrew its patronage of an event called Online Free Expression Day, after a media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which organized the program, published material including its annual list of “Internet Enemies” – countries like China, Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia which it says are egregious violators of online freedom.

Reporters Without Borders accused UNESCO of caving in after coming under pressure from some of the governments on the list.

In 2009 the post of UNESCO director-general was up for grabs after Matsuura’s second term approached an end. OIC, Arab and African states put forward an Egyptian candidate who had made waves by threatening to burn any Israeli books found in an Egyptian library.

In a rare victory for Western democracies at the U.N., the Egyptian was narrowly defeated by a Bulgarian candidate, Irina Bokova.

Last year the U.S. successfully led efforts to obstruct a UNESCO decision taken back in 2008 to establish a life sciences award named for, and funded by, the autocratic leader of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang.

The U.S. also helped to block another unpopular decision – to allow Iran to host UNESCO’s annual World Philosophy Day event last November.

“To demonstrate the value of U.S. diplomatic engagement at UNESCO we must demonstrate effectiveness in managing difficult politics that threaten to derail the organization’s valuable mission,” U.S. permanent representative to UNESCO David Killion said in a speech in December.

Killion said victories like the director-general election and blocking of the Obiang prize and World Philosophy Day initiatives enable the U.S. to promote a positive agenda at UNESCO – “to advance key bipartisan foreign policy goals, such as enhancing the status of women, reaching out to youth at risk and promoting the U.S. commercial interest.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow