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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

Luisa Blanchfield
Specialist in International Relations

Marjorie Ann Browne
Specialist in International Relations

Recent international events have renewed congressional interest in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO is a specialized agency of the U.N. system that promotes collaboration among its member countries in the fields of education, natural sciences, social and human sciences, culture, and communications and information. With an annual budget of approximately $326 million, it supports more than 2,000 staff members working at its headquarters in Paris and 65 field offices and institutes worldwide. UNESCO activities are funded through a combination of assessed contributions by member states to its regular budget, and voluntary contributions by member states and organizations. 

U.S. Policy 

The United States is a member of UNESCO and generally supports the organization’s objectives. Over the years, however, some U.S. policymakers—particularly Members of Congress—have expressed strong concern with UNESCO’s politicization and, as some have alleged, lack of budget discipline and anti-democratic leanings. These concerns led to the United States’ decision to withdraw from the UNESCO between 1984 and 2003. Since the United States rejoined the organization, Members of Congress have demonstrated support for UNESCO—appropriating between $73 million and $84 million in assessed contributions per fiscal year, or about 22% of UNESCO’s annual regular budget. At the same time, Members have maintained an ongoing interest in ensuring UNESCO runs as efficiently and effectively as possible, and that its policies and programs are in line with U.S. priorities. 

Palestinian Membership and U.S. Financial Withholding 

Since late 2011, UNESCO has received significant U.S. and international attention resulting from member states’ decision to admit “Palestine” (the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO) as a member. The Obama Administration and many Members of Congress vehemently opposed this action, maintaining that Palestinian statehood can only be realized through direct negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians rather than through membership in U.N. entities.

The United States withheld approximately $80 million in FY2012 funding to UNESCO as required by two laws enacted in the 1990s that prohibit funding to U.N. entities that admit the PLO as a member (P.L. 101-246), and grant full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood (P.L. 103-236). Despite these funding restrictions, the Obama Administration has stated that it does not intend to withdraw the United States from UNESCO. 


Since UNESCO’s establishment, member states have sought to improve the organization’s effectiveness through reform. Many observers, including the United States, agree that UNESCO has successfully implemented various reforms, particularly during the time between the United States’ decision to withdraw from the organization in 1984 and its return in 2003. At the same time, many experts argue that the organization needs additional reform. Weaknesses in UNESCO’s organizational structure and culture, they contend, hinder its ability to fulfill its mission.

Date of Report: March 18, 2013
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R42999
Price: $29.95

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