An Overview and History of UNESCO

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus in Giza, Egypt, are a UNESCO world heritage site.
Jan Cobb Photography Ltd/ Photographer's Choice/ Getty Images

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an agency within the United Nations that is responsible for promoting peace, social justice, human rights and international security through international cooperation on educational, science and cultural programs. It is based in Paris, France and has over 50 field offices located around the world.

Today, UNESCO has five major themes to its programs which include 1) education, 2) natural sciences, 3) social and human sciences, 4) culture, and 5) communication and information.

UNESCO is also actively working to achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals but it is focused on achieving the goals of significantly reducing extreme poverty in developing countries by 2015, developing a program for universal primary education in all countries by 2015, eliminating gender inequalities in primary and secondary education, promoting sustainable development and reducing the loss of environmental resources.

History of UNESCO

The development of UNESCO began in 1942, during World War II, when the governments of several European countries met in the United Kingdom for the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME). During that conference, leaders from the participating countries worked to develop ways to reconstruct education around the world once WWII was over. As a result, the proposal of CAME was established that focused on holding a future conference in London for the establishment of an education and cultural organization from November 1-16, 1945.

When that conference began in 1945 (shortly after the United Nations officially came into existence), there were 44 participating countries whose delegates decided to create an organization that would promote a culture of peace, establish an "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind," and prevent another world war.

When the conference ended on November 16, 1945, 37 of the participating countries founded UNESCO with the Constitution of UNESCO.

After ratification, the Constitution of UNESCO came into effect on November 4, 1946. The first official General Conference of UNESCO was then held in Paris from November 19-December 10, 1946 with representatives from 30 countries.

Since then, UNESCO has grown in significance across the globe and its number of participating member states has grown to 195 (there are 193 members of the United Nations but the Cook Islands and Palestine are also members of UNESCO).

UNESCO's Structure Today

UNESCO is currently divided into three different governing, policy-making and administrative branches. The first of these are the Governing Bodies that consist of the General Conference and Executive Board. The General Conference is the actual meeting of the Governing Bodies and is comprised of representatives from the different member states. The General Conference meets every two years to establish policies, set goals and outline the work of UNESCO. The Executive Board, which meets twice a year, is responsible for ensuring that decisions made by the General Conference are implemented.

The Director General is another branch of UNESCO and is the executive head of the organization. Since UNESCO's founding in 1946, there have been eight Director Generals. The first was the United Kingdom's Julian Huxley who served from 1946-1948. The current Director General is Koïchiro Matsuura from Japan. He has been serving since 1999. The final branch of UNESCO is the Secretariat.

It is composed of civil servants who are based in UNESCO's Paris headquarters and also in field offices around the world. The Secretariat is responsible implementing UNESCO's policies, maintaining outside relationships, and strengthening UNESCO's presence and actions worldwide.

Themes of UNESCO

Upon its founding, UNESCO's goal was to promote education, social justice and global peace and cooperation. To reach these goals, UNESCO has five distinct themes or fields of action. The first of these is education and it has set various priorities for education that include, basic education for all with an emphasis on literacy, HIV/AIDS prevention and teacher training in sub-Saharan Africa, promoting quality education worldwide, as well as secondary education, technological education and higher education.

Natural sciences and the management of Earth's resources is another UNESCO field of action.

It includes protecting water and water quality, the ocean, and promoting science and engineering technologies to achieve sustainable development in developed and developing countries, resource management and disaster preparedness.

Social and human sciences is another UNESCO theme and promotes basic human rights and focuses on global issues like fighting discrimination and racism.

Culture is another closely related UNESCO theme that promotes cultural acceptance but also the maintenance of cultural diversity, as well as the protection of cultural heritage.

Finally, communication and information is the last UNESCO theme. It includes the "free flow of ideas by word and image" to build a worldwide community of shared knowledge and empower people through access to information and knowledge about different subject areas.

In addition to the five themes, UNESCO also has special themes or fields of action that require a multidisciplinary approach as they do not fit into one distinct theme. Some of these fields include Climate Change, Gender Equality, Languages and Multilingualism and Education for Sustainable Development.

One of UNESCO's most famous special themes is its World Heritage Center which identifies cultural, natural and mixed sites to be protected all over the world in an effort to promote the maintenance of cultural, historic and/or natural heritage in those places for others to see. These include the Pyramids of Giza, Australia's Great Barrier Reef and Peru's Machu Picchu.

To learn more about UNESCO visit its official website at

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Briney, Amanda. "An Overview and History of UNESCO." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, Briney, Amanda. (2017, March 3). An Overview and History of UNESCO. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "An Overview and History of UNESCO." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 20, 2018).