UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization


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UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It is a part of the United Nations. Created in 1946, UNESCO originally rebuilt schools, libraries, and museums destroyed in Europe during World War II. Today, it sponsors international programs, conferences, and publications. The agency recognizes and awards global leaders in the fields of education and science. UNESCO also works to improve the educational, cultural, and economic development of the most impoverished regions of the world.

UNESCO organizes its 193 member countries into five regional groups: Africa; Arab states; Asia and the Pacific; Europe and North America; and Latin America. In each of these regions, the agency establishes programs and activities that are specific to the needs of their location.

UNESCO’s programs are divided into five major sectors: Education; Natural Sciences; Social and Human Sciences; Culture; and Communications and Information.


UNESCO’s Education Sector promotes education as a way of encouraging economic and social development around the world. The “Education for All” program is its largest program. It aims to expand early childhood care and education, provide free education for all children, increase adult literacy, and set global learning standards in reading and math.

The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) aims to ensure that girls and boys have an equal opportunity to succeed in school. In many parts of the world, girls are discouraged from completing their education. Economic development can be slow in these regions, because half the population (women) is unable to reach its potential. Making sure girls receive a fair education enriches not just girls, but the entire community.

UNGEI focuses on the educational obstacles and opportunities that girls face at home and in their communities. In Chad, for example, the initiative gears literacy programs toward girls who aren't attending school and adult women. In the most undeveloped parts of this African country, teaching girls and women to read is more important than focusing on girls who are already enrolled in school. Additionally, the initiative promotes girls’ education through radio, audio-visual, and theatrical programs written in French, Arabic, and other local languages.

EDUCAIDS, UNESCO’s HIV and AIDS education program, is another important component of the Education Sector. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). AIDS is a leading cause of death in the developing world. EDUCAIDS helps communities educate people about the causes of HIV and the dangers of AIDS. For instance, HIV can be transferred from a mother to her unborn child. However, pregnant women can take steps to reduce the infection rate from 25 percent to one percent. EDUCAIDS helps provide communities the ability to take these steps.

In Cambodia, EDUCAIDS has worked with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to implement Community Learning Centers that focus on HIV/ AIDS education. They have developed and produced materials—such as teachers’ manuals, textbooks, and charts—in Cambodia’s official language, Khmer.

Natural Sciences

UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Sector organizes international programs and research in science, engineering, and renewable energy. Its programs are designed to respond to the scientific aspects of international issues, such as climate change and poverty. The sector focuses on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), especially those on the African continent, and on natural disasters.

One of the sector’s main initiatives is the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (ICO). The ICO helps scientists from all over the world understand and manage ocean resources. Early in 2010, it held a series of workshops in the Republic of Benin on managing the impact of human activities and natural hazards on the coastal zones of Africa. These workshops focused on strengthening observation systems. Observation systems can measure human impact on coastal areas, including pollution and oil drilling. Observation systems can also document the impacts of climate change on Africa’s water resources, through tracking currents and weather patterns.

The Natural Sciences Sector also has a program that focuses on small island countries that are in the process of economic development. These countries are known as Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and include such nations as Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, and Grenada. The sector aims to strengthen each island’s unique economy, society, and culture while also unifying them into a collective identity. One program, Youth Visioning for Island Living, trains young people in skills that emphasize local and sustainable development. Topics have ranged from environmental planning in small villages of Madagascar to sustainable fish farming in Papua New Guinea.

Social and Human Sciences

The mission of UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector is to improve the social conditions of member countries. The sector does this by encouraging intellectual cooperation on the values of justice and freedom.

Through this sector, UNESCO supports human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The sector leads the fight against all forms of discrimination to guarantee human rights all over the world.

The European Coalition of Cities against Racism is one part of the sector. In 2009, representatives from more than 50 European cities met with human rights organizations to discuss how to better address racism and discrimination. Their discussions focused on improving employment and housing opportunities for discriminated groups, such as North African and Arab immigrants. It also encouraged these groups to increase their participation in the social and political life of their city.

UNESCO’s Social and Human Sciences Sector is also committed to eradicating, or ending, poverty. One of its current projects supports ecotourism in mountain areas in Central and South Asia. This region includes parts of India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Nepal, and Pakistan. The program trains local people in mountain guiding, hotel or restaurant management, and the production of high-quality craft items, such as rugs. The program encourages tourists to visit the area and invest in the local economy by taking tours, staying in local hotels, and buying local arts and crafts. Increased tourism could reduce poverty in the region.


UNESCO’s Culture Sector protects and manages world heritage in all its forms. UNESCO defines heritage in six categories: cultural and natural; tangible and intangible; and movable and immovable. Most heritage items fall into more than one category.

Cultural heritage is usually made up of pieces of art, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the “Mona Lisa,” which is displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Natural heritage is usually defined as a unique ecosystem, such as a coral reef. A piece of tangible heritage is something you can see and touch, such as ancient Egyptian manuscripts written on papyrus. Intangible heritage is something you can’t see or touch, such as language or regional music. Movable heritage includes artwork in museums that can travel. Immovable heritage includes entire buildings or geographic sites, such as Uluru, or Ayers Rock, in Australia.

The Culture Sector’s most important program is the World Heritage Site list. Created in 1972, the World Heritage list establishes places that would benefit from UN and government protection. The Galapagos Islands were one of the first World Heritage sites. Mount Wutai, a sacred Buddhist mountain in northern China, was recently added to the list.

In addition to physical places, the list includes cultural expressions, traditions, and languages—intangible heritage. The tango, a type of dance that originated in Uruguay and Argentina, was recently included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, for example.

Finally, the Culture Sector provides emergency assistance to damaged or threatened World Heritage sites. In 2010, for instance, UNESCO provided support to help restore a minaret—a tall tower from which Muslim prayers are called—that collapsed in the World Heritage city of Meknes, Morocco.

Some World Heritage sites have been damaged by human activity. Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the oldest national park in Africa. For years, the plants and animals of Virunga, including mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), were threatened by the civil war taking place in the country. The conflict ended in 2007, and Congolese communities are working with UNESCO’s culture sector to help restore the mountain forest ecosystem of Virunga National Park.

Communication and Information

UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector has two main objectives: promoting universal access to information and encouraging diverse expressions in the media.

The sector’s Initiative B@bel supports a number of projects aimed at increasing multilingual content on the internet. One of the initiative’s projects is a multilingual web browser. This web browser was originally designed to create and view web pages in the Burmese language, but is now available to software developers so they may write the program in their own language.

The Communication and Information Sector also helps improve the training of media professionals. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for instance, UNESCO allowed journalists to work from UNESCO offices. The journalists’ own offices had been destroyed by the quake. People could stay informed about the recovery effort in Haiti through newspapers, radio, and the internet. UNESCO now hopes to develop a more diverse media sector in Haiti, including community radio stations, multimedia centers, and a public broadcaster that can reach the whole country.

Special Themes

UNESCO supports a number of initiatives, known as special themes, which often combine the work of the five main sectors. Some of these themes are global climate change, gender equality, and post-conflict and post-disaster responses.

Post-conflict and post-disaster responses, for example, supports the reconstruction of areas damaged by conflict and natural disasters. This special theme may help rebuild schools and museums in Haiti after the earthquake, for example, combining the work of the Education and Culture sectors. The Natural Science Sector may contribute to this special theme by developing technology to help predict future earthquakes. The Social and Human Science Sector may remind relief agencies of the needs of the disabled. Information about survivors of the earthquake could be broadcast with the help of the Communications and Information Sector.

UNESCO is a huge organization. It commits itself to improving the lives of millions of people through the development of knowledge, the creation of local-global partnerships, and direct-action programs.

Fast Fact

Many celebrities support the work of UNESCO and bring attention to its programs through Goodwill Ambassadors, Honorary Ambassadors, and Ambassadors for Sport programs. Celebrity ambassadors may travel to regions in support of a UNESCO program focusing on education, gender equality, or human rights.

Some famous UNESCO ambassadors include:

  • Miguel Bosé (Panamanian musician)
  • Laura Bush (former American first lady and literacy advocate)
  • Pierre Cardin (French fashion designer)
  • Celine Dion (Canadian singer)
  • Roger Federer (Swiss tennis player)
  • Angelina Jolie (American actress)
  • Nelson Mandela (former South African president and human rights activist)
  • Pelé (Brazilian soccer player)
  • Michael Schumacher (German racing driver)

Fast Fact

Celebrating Biodiversity
UNESCO declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. It is sponsoring a number of events around the world to celebrate the variety of life on Earth. One can go to a "Biodiversity Fair" in the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., attend an environmental film festival in Costa Rica, or participate in the International Youth Conference on Biodiversity in Aichi, Japan. These events and many more hope to inspire people to take care of the variety of life around them.

Fast Fact

If UNESCO believes the government is not working to maintain a World Heritage Site, it can remove the site from the list. In 2007, for instance, oil was discovered beneath the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman. (An oryx is a type of antelope.) The Omani government reduced the area of the sanctuary by 90 percent in order to pursue oil drilling. The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary is no longer a World Heritage Site.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Hilary Hall
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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