Q & A with Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO and SPP/CISSM alum

February 11, 2016

On February 11, 2016, the director genereal of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, visited the School of Public Policy, where she studied as a fellow in 1989. In addition to giving a talk about her current work and engaging the school community in a wide-ranging discussion, she also answered a series of questions posed by CISSM.


How has your work at UNESCO affected the way you see public policy-making?

UNESCO’s role is to strengthen the capacities of people and governments in designing their own policies and programs. It is not about delivering aid or development programs from outside—it is about helping people to be empowered and to define their own solutions, especially in education, the sciences and culture, and freedom of expression. These are all linked with identity, the way we see the world, and our capacities to invent, to develop, and to grow. This is what policy making is at its core: creating an enabling environment for people to develop.

No single country has all the answers to these complex issues. This is why I believe UNESCO, as a universal platform of Member States, matters so much. It is a place to share good practices and work together.

UNESCO has a unique capacity to define and set international standards and to guide policies at the global level—for instance in the field of culture, with 6 conventions to protect cultural heritage and cultural diversity in all its forms. This is how governments can be held accountable and can benchmark their own efforts.
This is also what enables UNESCO to set goals and targets for international development—for instance, the recently adopted Sustainable Development goal on quality education and lifelong learning for all. All this has deeply influenced the way I see policy making as a basic driver of development for a country, but also as a concrete accelerator for peace and dialogue.

What part of your SPP education and work at CISSM has been most valuable to you professionally?

I spent eight wonderful months at the School of Public Policy, meeting with extraordinary people, professors, and students, many of whom have since become close friends. That experience was incredibly valuable to me personally and professionally. I was at the school in 1989, a defining moment in the history of the world, in the history of Europe and my country. That is something I will never forget.

What international policy challenge are you paying the most attention to at present? Why?

The situation in the Middle East and in Africa with the rise of violent extremism poses immense challenges in terms of policy-making. These challenges call for new approaches in terms of prevention and the fight against radicalization, through quality education, early warning mechanisms of social violence and marginalization, intercultural dialogue, mutual understanding to foster a sense of global citizenship and tolerance.

All societies are concerned and need to rethink their own policies to strengthen a sense of belonging and citizenship. We also need to better link traditional security issues with new policy areas, such as the protection of heritage and information sharing. The propaganda of hatred is part of a new information war being fought, with the media and the internet being used as weapons in the hands of extremists. We need to respond in this fight, showing symbols of unity and peace and sharing content about the dialogue of culture—all to equip young people with the tools they need to respond to violent extremism.

From UNESCO's point of view, what is required to achieve peace among peoples and nations?

UNESCO is fundamentally about human dignity. When human dignity is respected and protected, peace has a chance. Giving our children real opportunities to access quality education and to know and to respect their own histories, as well as those of others, is a foundation of lasting peace and sustainable development.