UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), as a specialised agency of the United Nations, has the task of contributing to the preservation of peace and security by promoting international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) actively participates in various UNESCO bodies and programmes and is supported by the International Bureau.



Current developments

Currently, UNESCO offers the opportunity to coordinate initiatives to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the education and research sector and to exchange good examples. For example, UNESCO organised ad-hoc virtual education and research ministerial conferences, established a Global Education Coalition and adopted measures to preserve education continuity during the crisis.

Goals and activities

UNESCO is a forum for international cooperation and for the exchange of information, experience and ideas. Since 1945, it has been setting up best practice examples, advising governments through expert missions and ministerial conferences, and promoting the exchange of knowledge.

An important function of UNESCO is the elaboration of normative instruments at the intergovernmental level. It has adopted numerous international conventions, recommendations and declarations, the best known of which is the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage.


As a forum for global intellectual cooperation, UNESCO has the broadest programme spectrum of all UN specialised agencies. This includes the areas of education, science, culture as well as communication and information. The Federal Government cooperates with UNESCO in various fields and has also committed itself to supporting it in the Coalition Agreement. The BMBF is particularly active in the fields of education and science and promotes cooperation.


UNESCO makes an important contribution to improving education worldwide. In the context of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it has set itself the task of implementing SDG4 in particular. SDG 4 calls for ensuring quality, inclusive and equitable education for all people worldwide and throughout their lives. To achieve SDG 4, UNESCO Member States adopted the Global Education Agenda 2030 in 2015. UNESCO coordinates the implementation of this agenda within the UN framework. It also documents and evaluates implementation in the annual Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM-R) and in the Scoping Progress in Education (SCOPE) database.

Another initiative is the global UNESCO programme 'Education for Sustainable Development: Towards achieving the SDGs' (ESD for 2030). Under the leadership of the BMBF, the Federal Government has established a National Platform for the implementation of the World Programme of Action and a youth forum, called youpaN. The aim is to anchor the idea of sustainable development in all areas of the education system so that the guiding principle of ecologically, economically and socially sustainable development is taught and learned in kindergartens and schools as well as in universities, further education and cultural institutions or research institutes.

For UNESCO, quality of education is not only meeting certain performance standards, but also means that tolerance, solidarity and respect for human rights must be taught in schools. In the UNESCO project schools, 300 of them in Germany alone, the curriculum includes: 'Learning to live together in a pluralistic world in cultural diversity'. In the network of UNESCO chairs, more than 750 chairs and over 40 UNITWIN networks in over 116 countries are currently cooperating to anchor UNESCO's goals in education and science.


UNESCO provides a global forum where science and policy interact to formulate guidelines for sustainable development. UNESCO does not conduct research itself and is not a research funding agency. It supports its Member States in capacity building (training of personnel and equipping of institutions), it promotes international research cooperation, open data exchange and it defines global standards. In doing so, it is guided by the general objectives of the UNESCO Science Programme:

  • Promoting peace through scientific cooperation;
  • to help developing and newly industrialised countries build research infrastructures in order to participate in technical and economic progress;
  • develop scientific knowledge for concrete, locally adapted sustainable development goals, including through improved environmental management;
  • raise ethical questions about global change and new technologies.

Normative instruments are to be used to create uniform standards worldwide. For example, a convention on the recognition of higher education qualifications was adopted at the 2019 General Conference with the participation of the BMBF. The convention is intended to enable university graduates to have their academic achievements and degrees recognised worldwide and thus promote international mobility and cooperation. In addition, the Member States agreed on a UNESCO Recommendation on Open Educational Resources (OER). OERs are educational materials of any kind and in any medium that are under an open licence and thus allow free access as well as free use, editing and further dissemination with no or only minor restrictions. The authors themselves determine which rights of use they grant and which rights they reserve. The usefulness of OERs was demonstrated, for example, during temporary school closures in the Covid 19 pandemic.

In 2021, the UNESCO General Conference is planning a recommendation in the field of Open Science. To this end, the German Commission for UNESCO presented opportunities for scientific progress in a publication on Open Science ('Open Science – Perspektiven aus Deutschland auf die Erarbeitung der geplanten Empfehlung der UNESCO') and initiated a public discourse with the support of the BMBF. Furthermore, UNESCO is preparing a recommendation on ethical issues in artificial intelligence by 2021, for which public consultations were also held and experts were called upon to participate.

The science programme is supported by a large number of actors. In addition to the UNESCO Secretariat in Paris, which is primarily responsible, UNESCO regional and country offices (e.g. Regional Office for South-Eastern Europe in Venice) and UNESCO science institutes (e.g. IHE in Delft for training in water issues) are also involved.

A key instrument to achieve the goals of the UNESCO Science Programme are intergovernmental, long-term scientific programmes on specific research topics and in specific disciplines:

Four of these long-term programmes (IHP, MAB, IGCP and IOC) are supported in Germany by national committees.


Currently, 193 states are members of UNESCO. The Federal Republic of Germany joined UNESCO in July 1951.

world map with UNESCO member states

UNESCO members © DLR

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According to its constitution, UNESCO has three organs. The General Conference is the assembly of all Member States, which meets every two years. Each Member State has one vote in the General Conference. It is the supreme decision-making and supervisory body of UNESCO. The General Conference sets the objectives and general guidelines for UNESCO's work. It convenes conferences of States and adopts recommendations or conventions. The General Conference elects the members of the Executive Council and appoints the Director-General on his or her proposal.

The Executive Council consists of 58 member states and meets five times a biennium. It reviews UNESCO's work programme and makes recommendations to the General Conference.

The Secretariat implements the UNESCO programme operationally. In November 2017, Audrey Azoulay of France was elected Director-General to head the Secretariat. The Secretariat’s headquarter is in Paris and has more than 50 field offices worldwide.


UNESCO is mainly financed by the compulsory contributions of its Member States. UNESCO has 1.3 billion US dollars at its disposal for the years 2020 and 2021, of which 534 million US dollars are financed by member contributions. Germany is currently UNESCO's third largest contributor after Japan and China.

For the years 2020 and 2021, the German contribution amounts to approximately 18.3 million euros each. In addition, UNESCO receives extraordinary contributions, trust funds for specific projects and programmes, funds from other multilateral institutions as well as voluntary contributions from member states and donations. The UNESCO Transparency Portal provides data and graphs on the composition of the UNESCCO budget and expenditure.