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UNESCO, facing dire funding shortfall, puts out the begging bowl

A picture taken on October 31, 2011 shows UNESCO managing director Irina Bokova of Bulgaria (C) flanked by the Executive Board President Eleonora Valentinovna Mitrofanova (L) of Russia and the 36th Session President Katalina Bogyay of Hungary (R) ruling the vote for Palestinians to enter UNESCO as a full member at the headquarters of the organization in Paris.

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images/MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

UNESCO has launched an online begging bowl as it seeks to replace the $65-million it lost when member states opted to admit Palestine, triggering an automatic suspension of American payments that fund nearly a quarter of the UN agency.

"I want to protect our core activities," Irina Bokova, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in an interview. She said she hoped nations, individuals and foundations would pitch in to patch the shortfall.

Meanwhile, Ms. Bokova said UNESCO was slashing administration overhead, looking for waste and suspending some program activities.

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Mr. Bokova said she didn't want to "start mutual recrimination and accusations" over whether the countries that back Palestine's bid for UNESCO membership had fully considered the consequences.

The United States, which pays by far the lion's share of UNESCO's $643-million annual budget, stopped payment on the remaining $65-million of its $80-million dues following the admission of Palestine last month. The suspension was automatic – a 1990s law blacklists funding to any UN agency that admits Palestine.

UNESCO officials lament that many programs, like literacy classes for women in Afghanistan and freedom of media efforts in many countries are closely aligned with American policy objectives. Still, the 107 countries that backed Palestine's admission to UNESCO knew the result would be cutting the organization's budget by a quarter. Another 52 abstained.

Ms. Bokova hopes for $30-million in emergency donations but says she won't focus on any particular group of nations to pay for the shortfall. In fact, UNESCO has set up an online donations website – the 21st century version of the begging bowl – and individuals and NGOs are welcome to contribute.

Only 14 nations, including Canada, the United States and Israel, voted to keep Palestine out of UNESCO. Israel also stopped its payments. Canada did not.

For Palestinians seeking full nationhood and acceptance by the United Nations, the UNESCO vote was seen as only a first step.

"We have gotten a precedent that might open the road for us to join other (UN) agencies," said Ibrahim Khraishi, Palestinian ambassador to the UN.

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But the American legislation blocking funding to international agencies that admit Palestine as a full state applies across the board, and other nations – especially those on the receiving end of UN programs – will need to weigh the practical consequences of losing nearly a quarter of the funds in exchange for the symbolic value of seating Palestine as a member.

UNESCO warns it may close 20 of its 60 field offices. A U.S. State Department memo warns that programs backing democracy initiatives in Arab nations, literacy among Afghan police and Tsunami warnings systems could all be at risk.

Ms. Bokova says she hopes others will fill the funding gap. "These programs deserve the support of all member states," she said.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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