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The structure of UNESCO

19.02.2018 - Article
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UNESCO Symbol© Quelle: picture alliance / dpa, @ dpa



UNESCO has three governing bodies according to its Constitution: the General Conference, the Executive Board and the Secretariat, with the latter headed by the Director-General. These bodies ensure that UNESCO’s programme is implemented.


The UNESCO General Conference convenes once every two years in Paris, with the participation of delegations from all of the organization’s (currently 195) Member States. It is UNESCO’s highest decision-making body and has the key prerogative of exercising budgetary rights: those who wish to shape the substance of programmes need to provide resources for them in the budget process. The General Conference approves the budget for the next two-year period, or biennium. Every six years, it approves the organization’s medium-term strategy and programming framework, known as C/4. It also approves long-term strategic planning and elects new Executive Board members, with half of the members standing for election every two years.

All of the Permanent Delegations seek to draw as many allies as possible to their causes through effective preparation, competencies, coalition-building and consultations. This holds especially true when a country runs for election to the Executive Board or puts up a candidate for Director-General. The majority of this work takes place behind the scenes.

In accordance with specifications of the Constitution and the statutes, the General Conference appoints the Director-General. The Executive Board recommends one candidate to the General Conference, after having selected this person from among several candidates through a multi-day election process.

The Executive Board is primarily responsible for managing UNESCO between General Conference sessions. It generally meets twice a year for a period of approximately three weeks.

The first Executive Board meeting after the General Conference, however, is only one day long and is limited to constituting the newly elected Executive Board. Through permanent commissions and committees, the Executive Board ensures that the organization performs its functions in all areas of activity. 

All 58 Member States of the Executive Board are represented in the commissions. They discuss the items on the agenda and gather further information from representatives of the Secretariat as needed. Their aim is to reach consensus on recommendations, which they then forward to the Executive Board.

The Programme and External Relations Commission (PX) deals with programme planning issues such as the evaluation of UNESCO programmes and prizes.

The Financial and Administrative Commission (FA) discusses all of the agenda items that have financial and administrative implications. This commission receives technical advice from the Group of Experts on Financial and Administrative Matters (FX).

Only some of Executive Board’s Member States are represented in the committees, which address the following issues:

The Special Committee (SC) deals with UNESCO’s operations and structure, reviewing, for example, how Executive Board and General Conference sessions could be made more efficient.

In confidential sessions, the Committee on Recommendations and Conventions (CR) handles cases in which human rights violations have occurred in the area of education, science and culture.

The Committee on International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) examines opportunities for greater cooperation between UNESCO and NGOs.

The UNESCO Secretariat, which currently counts approximately 1,000 people at its headquarters in Paris, is the command centre for this UN agency’s daily operational activities. Its main task is to ensure that decisions are implemented, that requisite personnel are recruited, that the UNESCO headquarters are in working order, and that funding is spent as planned. Programme implementation takes place on the basis of medium-term strategic planning (known as C/4) and the biennial draft budget (known as C/5).

An advisor on international law checks to ensure that everything takes place legally in accordance with the provisions contained in the regulations and on the basis of the UNESCO Constitution. Continuous contact with Executive Board members, the General Conference and – throughout the year – the Permanent Delegations of the Member States at UNESCO in Paris provides the foundation for these operational activities.

In addition to its headquarters in France, the Secretariat has over 50 Field Offices and a diverse range of UNESCO institutes that help implement the policies and operational guidelines adopted by the Member States. The organization has a strong network of contacts and a wealth of interfaces with civil society through its range of UNESCO Associated Schools, Chairs, Partnerships and National Commissions for UNESCO.

UNESCO’s Director-General is French national Audrey Azoulay. She was elected by the 39th General Conference in Paris on 10 November 2017 and is UNESCO’s 11th Director-General.

Audrey Azoulay served as French Minister of Culture and Communication from February 2016 to May 2017. Prior to this, she was advisor to former French president Holland on cultural issues, including protecting endangered cultural heritage and promoting cultural diversity. From 2006 to 2014, she worked for the French national centre for cinematography (CNC), inter alia as deputy director-general. She also served as a legal expert on culture and communication at the European Commission and head of the office of public broadcasting in the French culture ministry. Azoulay is a graduate of France’s École National d’Administration, the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and the University of Lancaster (England).

Institutes and centres support research and development activities in a wide range of fields and are divided into two categories:

Category 1

Category 1 institutes and centres become fully-fledged components of the organization at the recommendation of the Executive Board and by decision of the General Conference. They bear UNESCO’s logo and are managed by UNESCO personnel. The personnel are in turn accountable to the Director-General and obliged to prepare and implement UNESCO’s programme as it stands in the medium-term strategy and in the programme and budget of the organization.

Category 2

Institutes and centres under the auspices of UNESCO, which are also known as Category 2 institutes and centres, are legally independent but coordinate their activities with UNESCO’s priorities. UNESCO supports the institutes with technical advice.

Institutes and centres in Germany


UNESCO has set up one institute in Germany, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in Hamburg, and one Category 1 Centre for Education (UNESCO-UNEVOC in Bonn).




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