UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is a part of the United Nations. Created in 1946, UNESCO originally rebuilt schools, libraries, and museums destroyed in Europe during World War II. Today, it sponsors international programs, conferences, and publications. The agency recognizes and awards global leaders in the fields of education and science. UNESCO also works to improve the educational, cultural, and economic development of the most impoverished regions of the world.
UNESCO organizes its 193 member countries into five regional groups: Africa; Arab states; Asia and the Pacific; Europe and North America; and Latin America. In each of these regions, the agency establishes programs and activities that are specific to the needs of their location.
UNESCO’s programs are divided into five major sectors: Education; Natural Sciences; Social and Human Sciences; Culture; and Communications and Information.
UNESCO’s Education Sector promotes education as a way of encouraging economic and social development around the world. The “Education for All” program is its largest program. It aims to expand early childhood care and education, provide free education for all children, increase adult literacy, and set global learning standards in reading and math.
The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) aims to ensure that girls and boys have an equal opportunity to succeed in school. In many parts of the world, girls are discouraged from completing their education. Economic development can be slow in these regions, because half of the population (women) is unable to reach its potential. Making sure girls receive a fair education enriches not just girls, but the entire community.
UNGEI focuses on the educational obstacles and opportunities that girls face at home and in their communities. In Chad, for example, the initiative gears literacy programs toward out-of-school girls and adult women. In the most undeveloped parts of this African country, teaching girls and women to read is more important than focusing on girls who are already enrolled in school. Additionally, the initiative promotes girls’ education through radio, audio-visual, and theatrical programs written in French, Arabic, and other local languages.
EDUCAIDS, UNESCO’s HIV and AIDS education program, is another important component of the Education Sector. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). AIDS is a leading cause of death in the developing world. EDUCAIDS helps communities educate people about the causes of HIV and the dangers of AIDS. For instance, HIV can be transferred from a mother to her unborn child. However, pregnant women can take steps to reduce the infection rate from 25 percent to one percent. EDUCAIDS helps provide communities the ability to take these steps.
In Cambodia, EDUCAIDS has worked with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to implement Community Learning Centers that focus on HIV/AIDS education. They have developed and produced materials—such as teachers’ manuals, textbooks, and charts—in Cambodia’s official language, Khmer.
UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Sector organizes international programs and research in science, engineering, and renewable energy. Its programs are designed to respond to the scientific aspects of international issues, such as climate change and poverty. The sector focuses on underdeveloped countries, especially those on the African continent, and on natural disasters.
One of the sector’s main initiatives is the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (ICO). The ICO helps scientists from all over the world understand and manage ocean resources. Early in 2010, it held a series of workshops in the Republic of Benin on managing the impact of human activities and natural hazards on the coastal zones of Africa. These workshops focused on strengthening observation systems. Observation systems can measure human impact on coastal areas, including pollution and oil drilling. Observation systems can also document the impacts of climate change on Africa’s water resources, through tracking currents and weather patterns.
The Natural Sciences Sector also has a program that focuses on small island countries that are in the process of economic development. These countries are known as Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and include such nations as Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and Grenada. The sector aims to strengthen each island’s unique economy, society, and culture while also unifying them into a collective identity. One program, Youth Visioning for Island Living, trains young people in skills that emphasize local and sustainable development. Topics have ranged from environmental planning in small villages of Madagascar to sustainable fish farming in Papua New Guinea.
Social and Human Sciences
The mission of UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector is to improve the social conditions of member countries. The sector does this by encouraging intellectual cooperation on the values of justice and freedom.
Through this sector, UNESCO supports human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The sector leads the fight against all forms of discrimination to guarantee human rights all over the world.
The European Coalition of Cities against Racism is one part of the sector. In 2009, representatives from more than 50 European cities met with human rights organizations to discuss how to better address racism and discrimination. Their discussions focused on improving employment and housing opportunities for discriminated groups, such as North African and Arab immigrants. It also encouraged these groups to increase their participation in the social and political life of their city.
UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector is also committed to eradicating, or ending, poverty. One of its current projects supports ecotourism in mountain areas in Central and South Asia. This region includes parts of India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nepal, and Pakistan. The program trains local people in mountain guiding, hotel or restaurant management, and the production of high-quality craft items, such as rugs. The program encourages tourists to visit the area and invest in the local economy by taking tours, staying in local hotels, and buying local arts and crafts. Increased tourism could reduce poverty in the region.
UNESCO’s Culture Sector protects and manages world heritage in all its forms. UNESCO defines heritage in six categories: cultural and natural; tangible and intangible; and movable and immovable. Most heritage items fall into more than one category.
Cultural heritage is usually made up of pieces of art, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the “Mona Lisa,” which is displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Natural heritage is usually defined as a unique ecosystem, such as a coral reef. A piece of tangible heritage is something you can see and touch, such as ancient Egyptian manuscripts written on papyrus. Intangible heritage is something you can’t see or touch, such as language or regional music. Movable heritage includes artwork in museums that can travel. Immovable heritage includes entire buildings or geographic sites, such as Ayers Rock in Australia.
The Culture Sector’s most important program is the World Heritage Site list. Created in 1972, the World Heritage list establishes places that would benefit from UN and government protection. The Galapagos Islands were one of the first World Heritage sites. Mount Wutai, a sacred Buddhist mountain in northern China, was recently added to the list.
In addition to physical places, the list includes cultural expressions, traditions, and languages—intangible heritage. The tango, a type of dance that originated in Uruguay and Argentina, was recently included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, for example.
Finally, the Culture Sector provides emergency assistance to damaged or threatened World Heritage sites. In 2010, for instance, UNESCO provided support to help restore a minaret—a tall tower from which Muslim prayers are called—that collapsed in the World Heritage city of Meknes, Morocco.
Some World Heritage sites have been damaged by human activity. Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the oldest national park in Africa. For years, the plants and animals of Virunga, including mountain gorillas, were threatened by the civil war taking place in the country. The conflict ended in 2007, and Congolese communities are working with UNESCO’s culture sector to help restore the mountain forest ecosystem of Virunga National Park.
Communication and Information
UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector has two main objectives: promoting universal access to information and encouraging diverse expressions in the media.
The sector’s Initiative B@bel supports a number of projects aimed at increasing multilingual content on the Internet. One of the initiative’s projects is a multilingual web browser. This web browser was originally designed to create and view web pages in the Burmese language, but is now available to software developers so they may write the program in their own language.
The Communication and Information Sector also helps improve the training of media professionals. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for instance, UNESCO allowed journalists to work from UNESCO offices. The journalists’ own offices had been destroyed by the quake. People could stay informed about the recovery effort in Haiti through newspapers, radio, and the Internet. UNESCO now hopes to develop a more diverse media sector in Haiti, including community radio stations, multimedia centers, and a public broadcaster that can reach the whole country.
UNESCO supports a number of initiatives, known as special themes, which often combine the work of the five main sectors. Some of these themes are global climate change, gender equality, and post-conflict and post-disaster responses.
Post-conflict and post-disaster responses, for example, supports the reconstruction of areas damaged by conflict and natural disasters. This special theme may help rebuild schools and museums in Haiti after the earthquake, for example, combining the work of the Education and Culture sectors. The Natural Science Sector may contribute to this special theme by developing technology to help predict future earthquakes. The Social and Human Science Sector may remind relief agencies of the needs of the disabled. Information about survivors of the earthquake could be broadcast with the help of the Communications and Information Sector.
UNESCO is a huge organization. It commits itself to improving the lives of millions of people through the development of knowledge, the creation of local-global partnerships, and direct-action programs.
UNESCO declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. It is sponsoring a number of events around the world to celebrate the variety of life on Earth. One can go to a "Biodiversity Fair" in Washington, D.C., attend an environmental film festival in Costa Rica, and participate in the International Youth Conference on Biodiversity in Aichi, Japan. These events and many more hope to inspire people to take care of the variety of life around them.
If UNESCO believes the government is not working to maintain a World Heritage Site, it can remove the site from the list. In 2007, for instance, oil was discovered beneath the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman. (An oryx is a type of antelope.) The Omani government reduced the area of the sanctuary by 90 percent in order to pursue oil drilling. The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary is no longer a World Heritage Site.
Many celebrities support the work of UNESCO and bring attention to its programs through Goodwill Ambassador, Honorary Ambassador, and Ambassador for Sport programs. Celebrity ambassadors may travel to regions in support of a UNESCO program focusing on education, gender equality, or human rights.
Some famous UNESCO ambassadors include:
- Miguel Bose (Panamanian musician)
- Laura Bush (former American first lady and literacy advocate)
- Pierre Cardin (French fashion designer)
- Celine Dion (Canadian singer)
- Roger Federer (Swiss tennis player)
- Angelina Jolie (American actress)
- Nelson Mandela (former South African president and human rights activist)
- Pele (Brazilian soccer player)
- Michael Schumacher (German racing driver)
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry access Noun
ability to use.
(acquired immune deficiency syndrome) disease that debilitates the immune system, making the victim vulnerable to infections.
person who represents a place, organization, or idea.
language that is most common in north Africa and the Middle East.
help or aid.
having to do with sound (audio) and sight (visual).
Ayers Rock Noun
(143 feet/348 meters) large red rock formation in central Australia.
to be helpful or useful.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
Encyclopedic Entry: biodiversity broadcast Verb
to transmit signals, especially for radio or television media.
person or organization who participates in television or radio communication.
person who follows the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha).
large settlement with a high population density.
civil war Noun
conflict between groups in the same country or nation.
climate change Noun
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: climate change collective Adjective
combined or unified.
a disagreement or fight, usually over ideas or procedures.
one of the seven main land masses on Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: continent cooperation Noun
the act of working together.
coral reef Noun
rocky ocean features made up of millions of coral skeletons.
artwork usually made by a person not formally trained as an artist.
learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods.
steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.
Encyclopedic Entry: current damage Noun
harm that reduces usefulness or value.
growth, or changing from one condition to another.
Encyclopedic Entry: development dignity Noun
self-respect or self-esteem.
direct-action program Noun
project that takes action for a specific purpose.
person who has a physical condition that limits one or more major life activities.
to disapprove or encourage someone not to do something.
treatment based on a group to which a person belongs, not the person himself.
varied or having many different types.
to keep track of.
having to do with money.
system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem ecotourism Noun
act and industry of traveling for pleasure with concern for minimal environmental impact.
sudden, unplanned event that requires immediate action.
to stress or place importance on.
job or work.
to inspire or support a person or idea.
the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.
to enter or participate.
to destroy or remove.
to form or officially organize.
to grow or get larger.
fish farming Noun
art and science of raising and harvesting fish and other seafood, such as shrimp or crabs.
physical, cultural, and social aspects of sexual identity.
system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.
to promise or confirm.
cultural or family background.
(human immunodeficiency virus) virus that is a cause of AIDS (anti-immune deficiency syndrome).
human rights Noun
basic freedoms belonging to every individual, including the rights to social and political expression, spirituality, and opportunity.
how a person defines themselves, or how others define them.
person who moves to a new country or region.
meaning or effect.
to add or become larger.
contamination or invasion by harmful organisms, such as a virus.
first step or move in a plan.
Initiative B@bel Noun
United Nations organization that supports linguistic and cultural diversity on the Internet.
unable to be touched or easily described.
having to do with knowledge, or a knowledgeable person.
Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (ICO) Noun
United Nations organization that helps scientists understand and manage ocean resources.
having to do with more than one country.
vast, worldwide system of linked computers and computer networks.
to contribute time or money.
body of land surrounded by water.
Encyclopedic Entry: island journalist Noun
person who reports and distributes news.
Latin America Noun
South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico.
Leonardo da Vinci Noun
(1452-1519) Italian artist, engineer, and scientist.
ability to read and write.
local-global partnership Noun
agreement or cooperation between a local group and an international organization.
Louvre Museum Noun
large art museum in Paris, France.
to control or organize a situation or activity.
means of mass communication, such as television or the Internet. Singular: medium.
tower used to call Muslim worshippers to prayer.
Mona Lisa Noun
(1503) oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.
mountain gorilla Noun
mammal (primate) native to Africa.
involving more than one language.
involving more than one method of communication, such as sound and images.
having to do with Islam, the religion based on the words and philosophy of the prophet Mohammed.
national park Noun
geographic area protected by the national government of a country.
natural disaster Noun
an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.
natural hazard Noun
event in the physical environment that is destructive to human activity.
observation system Noun
method of tracking or monitoring specific activities in a region.
something that slows or stops progress.
fossil fuel formed from the remains of marine plants and animals. Also known as petroleum or crude oil.
oil drilling Noun
process of digging below the surface of the Earth for oil.
to begin or start.
antelope native to Africa.
aquatic plant native to the Mediterranean Sea.
taking part in an activity.
introduction of harmful materials into the environment.
Encyclopedic Entry: pollution poverty Noun
status of having very little money or material goods.
communication with a spiritual deity.
to know the outcome of a situation in advance.
to encourage or help.
to take action to prevent injury or attack.
available to an entire community, not limited to paying members.
communication that is shared with the public, usually in print or electronic format.
governmental or social systems based on the belief that one race or ethnic group is superior to others.
new or happening lately.
to build again or re-create from an original plan.
restoration or return to a defined state of being.
to lower or lessen.
renewable energy Noun
energy obtained from sources that are virtually inexhaustible and replenish naturally over small time scales relative to the human life span.
available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.
knowledge focused on facts based on observation, identification, description, investigation, and explanation.
having to do with a community or other group of organized people.
large community, linked through similarities or relationships.
electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.
to support and finance.
sustainable development Noun
human construction, growth, and consumption that can be maintained with minimal damage to the natural environment.
style of dance that originated in Latin America.
person or object accused of something.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
to scare or be a source of danger.
person who travels for pleasure.
beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.
to pass or switch from one to another.
underdeveloped country Noun
country that has fallen behind on goals of industrialization, infrastructure, and income.
the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
Encyclopedic Entry: UNESCO unify Verb
to become a single unit.
one of a kind.
United Nations Noun
international organization that works for peace, security and cooperation.
used or understood everywhere.
weather pattern Noun
repeating or predictable changes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as winds, precipitation, and temperatures.
web browser Noun
software tool for finding information on the Internet.
World Heritage Site Noun
location recognized by the United Nations as important to the cultural or natural heritage of humanity.
World War II Noun
(1939-1945) armed conflict between the Allies (represented by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) and the Axis (represented by Germany, Italy, and Japan.)