NN47, April 2012

UNESCO and the Results Agenda: What Time-Frames Apply?
Pages 48-50

Keywords: UNESCO; norm; value; legitimacy

Summary: In the push towards a results-based agenda, long-term goals risk being sidelined because the cost effectiveness of investment in them is difficult to assess. UNESCO’s assigned task is the promotion of values: living together and respect for human rights and dignity. The way in which UNESCO, or any institution, carries out its activities can and should be transparent and subject to scrutiny. However, whether or not UNESCO makes a successful contribution is dependent on long-term outcomes and factors beyond its control. The verdict, positive or negative, will emerge from ideological perceptions of legitimacy much more than from cost-benefit calculations.


UNESCO’s contribution to development of education is difficult to measure by classic indicators, because UNESCO’s role lies principally in the promotion of values and norms. Yet, UNESCO has initiated or joined all significant international efforts to adopt and monitor targets for improvement of education, most notably those relating to universal basic education. These two features represent a paradox as well as an illustration of the difficulty of measuring “Value for Money” of long-term goals. Successful outcomes in efforts to advance depend on a very large number of factors, very few of them controlled by UNESCO.

In a widely referred-to essay in 2010 Andrew Natsios, former Administrator of USAID, posited that “...those development programs that are the most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are the most transformational are the least measurable” (Natsios, 2010). He has more than a point; he has the point. All of development is about trying to balance necessary short-term accountability and indispensable long-term goals: sometimes these can complement each other, and much of the time they probably work in separate, even conflicting directions.

Every single statement about UNESCO’s aims, whether in its constitution or in documents interpreting it over the years, is about values: using education, science and culture to improve the human condition and therefore the state of the world. The Education for All initiative is a case in point: the aim was not merely to get all children into classrooms (or alternative situations), but to use universalization of education to enhance human potential. We can measure the means mobilized, but measuring the outcomes—and attributing agency—is practically impossible.

Assessment of results (and therefore the value of “investment”) and yardsticks used to indicate progress or success are frequently ideological, and are in any case largely focused on good practice (however that is defined) of donors or agencies (1). How and to what extent progress on the values promoted by UNESCO can be attributed to UNESCO and to international cooperation in general is based on conviction, anecdote, and to some extent a confusion between correlation and causality. We cannot call for tenders for advancing international understanding and then award a contractor on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis of the submission.

The only real leverage of a small institution like UNESCO (2) is its influence on norms and ideas, for which the essential ingredient is legitimacy. Life-long learning, universal education, the right to education, the status of teachers, the importance of education for citizenship in the broad sense, equal opportunity (gender and special needs for example), and tolerance of diversity are among the many values promoted by UNESCO. It has promoted these by developing standards supported by conventions and recommendations, by gathering information and fostering research, by building capacity through networks and training. Can a direct impact of UNESCO on positive change be identified and measured? Of course not.  Does the legitimacy of UNESCO depend on the collective ideology of its member countries? Of course. Is there an objective measure of its success or failure to advance towards the goals of its founders? This writer thinks the answer is no, but that is not an admission of failure. On the contrary. Should we gauge progress towards adoption of universal human rights values by measurable yardsticks? Can we? I don’t know, but I think the world would be a much poorer place if we decided that their quantification would determine their survival.

So, while quantifying is important, not everything can be weighed accurately when the time-frames are long and the objectives relate to intangible human attitudes and behaviours. Measurement of collaborative establishment of objectives, effective implementation and transparent processes can all help ensure that donors’ funds are not sidelined. That type of measurement is important. However, it cannot ensure results, which are dependent on a much larger constellation of circumstances and not dependent on a single agency or intervention. Does that mean that “further[ing] universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion” (UNESCO, 1945: article 1) is a waste of time? It’s in the eye of the beholder.


(1)     Easterly and Williamson say that “ ...studies … cannot demonstrate evidence that our measures of aid quality or aid practices are directly related to aid impact, since ... we have no measure of the latter” (Easterly and Williamson, 2011: 1932).

(2)     Its annual budget corresponds, for example, to one day’s cost of the US intervention in Afghanistan.


Easterly, W. and Williamson, C. (2011) Rhetoric Versus Reality: The Best and Worst of Aid Agency Practice. World Development (39)11: 1930-1949.



Natsios, A. (2010) The Clash of the Counter-Bureaucracy and Development. Center for Global Development: Washington, D.C.

UNESCO (1945) UNESCO Constitution. http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=15244&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html


Cite article as: Draxler, A., (2012) ‘UNESCO and the Results Agenda: What Time-Frames Apply?’, in NORRAG NEWS, Value for Money in International Education: A New World of Results, Impacts and Outcomes, No.47, April 2012, pp. 48-50, available: www.norrag.org