UNESCO and the Power of Ideas

Reflections on the 40th General Conference of Ministers of Education

Fernando M. Reimers

Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education

Harvard University

The United Nations Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) was founded to advance a powerful idea, the idea that education is a Universal Human Right. Expressed in article 26 of the Universal Declaration Adopted by world leaders, the notion of education as a universal human right, that must advance a world in which human rights are a reality for all transformed humanity. When the declaration was adopted, a time when the world population comprised 2.500 million people, less than half of all children had the opportunity to set foot in a school. Today, when the world population excees 7.700 million people, over nine in ten do. The idea that education was a universal human right lead to the invention of an institution, universal schooling, which provides today members of our species a shared experience in a setting invented to provide the next generation the opportunity to gain the skills to invent the future.

The idea of universal education was not self-executing, it led to the most significant quiet global revolution in human history as it inspired many people and organizations, governments and organizations in civil society, parents and teachers, political and civic leaders, to build the institutions that made universal education possible. In building such global institutional architecture, the idea planted also the seeds of its continuous reinvention. Continuous improvement of the institutions of universal education is possible because students, teachers, parents, and many others, have now the means to demand that schools do more to empower students in a world that is rapidly changing, not only to thrive as individuals, but to improve the world, to include the most marginalized, those who have left their countries of birth for fear of violence. It is a good thing that we should be critical of our schools, that we identify their limitations and look for ways to make them to live up to higher standards. But we should remember that such criticism is possible because we stand on the accomplishments of what a global movement achieved to build an institution to which most members of our species did not have access only seven decades ago.

There are many institutions and individuals who have partaken in this global movement to educate all children, which has been a veritable coming together of humanity for the future of humanity. Among them all, few organizations have done more to lead that movement than UNESCO. In its work in education alone, excluding what it does in science and culture, UNESCO steers the global education movement through a deft combination of education policy advocacy and support for the implementation of such policies that include policy dialogue and coordination among agencies, developing ideas, sharing good practices, developing standards, and building institutional capacity.

Since its founding, UNESCO has contributed numerous ideas that shaped the global education movement. The idea that the mission of the organization ought to be to advance fundamental education for all, an idea developed in the early years of the organization which resulted in the most dramatic expansion in access to primary education in the developing world between the 1950s and 1970s. Or the idea that education policy ought to focus on advancing educational opportunity and on the systematic dismantling of barriers to the education of disadvantaged groups, adopted in the early 1960s in the convention against discrimination in education when many early industrialized nations still had significant groups of their populations living under educational apartheid. Or the idea that science education in elementary and secondary schools was critical to preparing people for informed participation in a rapidly changing world, which led UNESCO to lead the cause of science education in the developing world in the 1960s. Or the ideas produced by the two Commissions on the Future of Education, reflected in the Faure and Delors reports, published in 1972 and in 1996, about the importance of educating for life, lifelong learning, and about the need of a humanistic and holistic view of education to prepare students for a fragile world which informed the direction of education reforms and initiatives in most of the world.

Today, UNESCO maintains a sharp focus on the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals, on advancing gender equality through education and on educational development in Africa. Over the last couple of years alone it has supported 39 countries as they aligned their education policies and sector plans with SDG 4, a set of ambitious education goals and targets; it has assisted 20 countries in developing inclusive and gender responsive literacy programs; aided 50 countries in revising their policies in technical and vocational education and ensuring inclusion of disadvantaged groups in TVET; it has worked in promoting quality assurance in higher education in 13 countries; collaborated with 56 countries in revising teacher policies and standards; UNESCO promotes gender equality in education, with specific programs in 35 countries and it works in emergency education in 19 countries.

More importantly, UNESCO is the main UN agency tasked with advancing the fourth of the Sustainable Development Goals, a compact for development adopted at the UN General Assembly just four years ago. The Education goal in that compact, SDG4, is an ambitious goal, reflecting the very inclusive and participatory process which led to the development of the SDG framework, it calls for attention to education at all points in the lifespan, and calls specifically for ensuring that the education that is offered is relevant to empower people to improve their own circumstances, and the world.

It is somewhat paradoxical that the world community would adopt such an ambitious set of development targets precisely at a time when the support for the institutions invented to sustain a global order that would advance development and peace is under attack. Some of the attacks are against the very idea of multilateralism and against the global institutions created to advance such global order. Other attacks are against the specifics of the architecture built at the end of world war II to create such order, or against the specific goals themselves.

These various criticisms complicate also the global education movement. They have diminished the financial, political and public support for the institutions created to advance it, and they lead others to argue in favor of more minimalist education goals and to look for different forms of leadership. The voices that argue that the breadth of targets articulated in the SDG4 should be replaced with the simpler goal of getting all children to learn to read are louder today, and there are new voices that question whether UNESCO is up to continue to lead the global education movement.

Based on its record and on its present work, it is evident that UNESCO is uniquely qualified to lead the global education movement. It has an unparalleled historical record in advancing ideas and supporting their implementation which have transformed the educational experience of more children on the planet, in more countries, for much longer periods, than any existing development agency. It has a mandate to achieve an education goal that is as ambitious as the universal right to education which gave rise to the global education movement. It would be unfortunate if we trumped the future of the world’s children and youth offering them the ability to read a short paragraph, essential as that skill is, instead of the empowering, humanistic, vision reflected in the targets of the fourth sustainable development goal, an education that actually prepares students to advance all the remaining sixteen sustainable development goals.

Achieving the SDG4 will indeed be very difficult, any goal worth achieving is, as it is difficult to advance human rights for all. But I hope UNESCO continues to lead the global education movement in the same manner it has led it in the past, building coallitions, bringing governments and organizations of civil society together to collaborate for purposes much bigger than themselves, patiently working through democratic and participatory processes that expand the range of voices and actors that can come together to collaborate in improving the world through education.

The same forces that today decry the imperfections of democracy, and the cosmopolitan values that inspire the idea that people are fundamentally equal everywhere and can rule their lives, today decry the messiness and imperfections of the institutions that were built after a dark period of violence and genocide to ensure global stability and peace. They propose that these institutions should be dismantled or maybe replaced by efficient command and control structures that can be more easily tamed to focus on a simpler set of education goals for the children of the poor, better yet if they serve the singular views and interests of the leaders of nations funding them. To those forces, UNESCO’s response bringing together governments, universities and organizations of civil society, to advance ambitious ideas about how to educate all for a peaceful and sustainable goal is the light that we need to continue to make progress, away from the darker periods of our history.


Expert in Global Education, researching and teaching how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in complex and fluid times.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Fernando M. Reimers

Expert in Global Education, researching and teaching how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in complex and fluid times.