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[LONDON] The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) has threatened to pull out of the UN's principal science-supporting organisation, UNESCO, following the former's review of more than 40 global development agencies.

DFID rated UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) 'unsatisfactory' and placed it under 'special measures', meaning that it needs urgent improvements without which around £15 million (US$24 million) of funding — seven per cent of its regular budget — will be withdrawn in two years' time.

In the review, published last week (1 March), DFID said UNESCO should be more transparent; produce a more focused, evidence-based programme; and control its costs. DFID also called for management of the organisation to be based more on results.

UNESCO has until the next assessment, in autumn 2012, to improve.

The organisation was founded in 1945 by 37 countries seeking to establish the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind" following World War II. Since then, countries have both joined and left — including the UK, which was absent between 1987 and 1997.

As part of its mandate UNESCO says it promotes international cooperation in the natural, social and human sciences — in the interests of peace, human rights, and development — and its current strategy includes mobilising science knowledge and policy for sustainable development.

Responding to DFID's assessment, UNESCO said it was not an aid organisation and that the "negative impact of its rating will serve neither the interests of the British tax-payer nor of international development".

It also criticised the review methods used by DFID, saying they failed to assess its "real investment in favour of the poorest countries" and its "vital contribution to the defence of press freedom and freedom of information".

Although UNESCO said it was "hearing the wake-up call the review represents and will work intensely towards further improvements" it maintained that its track record "is significantly better than painted in the DFID review".

Lawrence Haddad, director of the UK's Institute of Development Studies, and an external reviewer of DFID's assessment, told SciDev.Net that "UNESCO is lucky to escape without a funding cut".

He said that its official response to the decision "ducked the issue of organisational strength".  

"UNESCO must be more strategic about its work in international development," Haddad said.

"There are lots of things they could be doing, and areas they should be leaders in — such as how mobile technology is affecting development and what role the media have in shaping development narratives, but also making sure science and technology work for poor people. Left to commercial interests, science and technology will follow the money and not necessarily benefit the poor."

"It is a big job to re-position them. It's about making choices … about what the centre of gravity is for UNESCO — is it the three billion people who live on under US$2 a day or the other four billion?"

John Daly, a former science official for US aid agency USAID, told SciDev.Net that UNESCO takes a long-term view on issues such as peace, science capacity and ensuring a free press.

These "might be more important than DFID seems to believe", he said, adding that "sustainable development requires building capacity and will take longer than DFID seems to realise.

"Of course the demands DFID makes on UNESCO — for results-based management of evidence-based programmes and transparency and efficiency — are as hard to object to as they are hard to define with any precision," he added.

Link to DFID's Multilateral Aid Review  [2.63MB]

Link to UNESCO's response  [52kB]