CMG Exclusive: Interview with Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay attends the 2018 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Awards ceremony in Paris, France, March 22, 2018. /CFP

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay attends the 2018 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Awards ceremony in Paris, France, March 22, 2018. /CFP

The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China's restoration of its seat in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). How does UNESCO view China's contribution to the organization? What achievements has China made in the process of poverty reduction? China Media Group spoke with Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO on Wednesday, to discuss China's achievements on issues such as shared future and the future of cooperation between the two sides.

CMG: The year 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China's restoration of its seat in UNESCO. How would you comment on China's contribution to UNESCO over the past 50 years?

Azoulay: In uncertain times, having partners like China is essential. The pandemic has put pressure on the multilateral system – yet the mandate of international organizations like UNESCO has never been more vital. China has actively contributed to our response to the crisis. For example, when we launched the Global Education Coalition, gathering 175 public and private partners from more than 100 countries, in order to ensure that learning continued despite school closures, China stepped up to the plate by offering its support. Several partners in China's private sector, such as Huawei, the Weidong Group, Lark and Phoenix TV, have also showed interest in supporting these efforts. This shows that China's commitment to UNESCO now spans both the public and private sectors, and its role at UNESCO is constantly expanding.

Beyond COVID-19, China is also particularly involved in the organization's work in Africa, which is one of UNESCO's Global Priorities. For example, African heritage has long been underrepresented on UNESCO's World Heritage lists, but China is supporting our initiatives to better safeguard this incredible cultural and natural wealth by supporting countries that intend to submit applications and building conservation and management capacities.

CMG: In December 2020, you attended the International Forum on Promoting Global Poverty Reduction and Building a Global Community of Shared Future. How do you think poverty reduction can be achieved? And what contribution can China make in the process?

Azoulay: Ending all forms of poverty by 2030 is the very first Sustainable Development Goal on the United Nations' Agenda for 2030. But even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the world was off track to meet this target. According to projections from the World Bank, six percent of the global population will still be living in extreme poverty by 2030. The pandemic could cause an extra 207 million people to join their ranks, bringing the total to over a billion people by 2030. Women are particularly at risk: the number of women in poverty could grow by 102 million due to the health crisis. This situation is likely to be further exacerbated by climate change, biodiversity loss, extreme weather events, water scarcity and the declining health of our oceans.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic could also be the exact wake-up call the world needs. We must learn from this experience, so that we can prevent such large-scale crises from happening again. One of the things the pandemic has taught us is that there are some things none of us can do without – things that are not only essential for human dignity, but that also drive development. When schools closed their doors, for example, we learnt the true value of education – in terms of learning, and in terms of health, nutrition and social wellbeing. We also saw how important it is for people to have access to reliable information, not only to navigate the crisis safely and effectively, but also to make informed decisions in all aspects of their lives.

Science is another of these global public goods. By investing more in science, we can better understand and rise to the challenges caused by climate change.

One way UNESCO is doing this is through the BIOPALT project in Lake Chad. This project focuses on restoring ecosystems by mitigating environmental degradation, while helping to reduce poverty in nearby communities. By employing women to harvest spirulina and acacia gum, UNESCO is supporting "green income", gender equality, and the sustainable management of natural resources.

Another way we are doing this is through policies to increase international collaboration. This will be one of the objectives of the upcoming COP 15 on Biodiversity to be held at Kunming, China, in October 2021. I believe that China can play an important role in designing and implementing projects in all of UNESCO's fields of competency.

CMG: China will announce in the coming months that it has lifted out of absolute poverty all of its rural residents. What do think China can share with other countries from its successful experiences?

Azoulay: UNESCO is both a laboratory of ideas and a leader in setting standards. We enable governments to engage in dialogue and share good practices with the goal of finding the most effective solutions. This is true regarding poverty reduction, where the challenge still remains to identify the most appropriate practices country by country, in agreement with national stakeholders.

I believe that China's focus on education is particularly interesting in this regard. Education underpins all the Sustainable Development Goals. Without education, we will not be able to eliminate poverty, end hunger, promote health and so on. Students are not only attending school to learn – they are also going to school to socialize, to receive nutrition and healthcare.. To make education accessible to all, China has lifted school fees, addressed regional disparities, and supported learning for girls and women. China's higher education system has also gone through transformation in the past decade making it accessible for over 20 million students, fostering international exchange and promoting innovation. By investing in education, China has made huge progress in terms of social and economic development, an experience that will certainly stimulate cooperation across the globe.

CMG: China and UNESCO have had smooth and well-developed cooperation in the field of education. Looking forward, how do you think the cooperation will continue to be furthered?

Azoulay: China has long been involved with UNESCO on education, especially in Africa. Since 2012, China has helped build the capacities of teachers through the project "Enhancing teacher education for bridging the quality gap in Africa". Thanks to this commitment, we are also taking steps to address national needs for teachers in higher education.

Girls' and women's education is another important focus of our work together. China's First Lady, Professor Peng Liyuan, is the UNESCO Special Envoy for the Promotion of Girls' and Women's Education – and in 2019, she visited Paris to meet with laureates of the UNESCO Prize for Girls' and Women's Education. We are very thankful for her personal commitment to this issue, which is key to the development of our societies.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education, leading to the closure of schools and educational institutions across the globe. For more than a year now, ensuring the continuity of learning has been a priority for governments, and China is playing an important role in finding appropriate solutions.

In addition to addressing the fallout of the pandemic, we must think about what the education of tomorrow will look like. This is what UNESCO is doing – for example, through our Futures of Education initiative. The International Commission on the Futures of Education, lead by the President of Ethiopia will publish a global report in November this year, re-imagining the role of education and learning in light of the tremendous challenges and opportunities our societies might face in the future. Part of this is about understanding the skills today's students might need tomorrow, which was the focus of the UNESCO International Forum on Artificial Intelligence and the Futures of Education, co-organized with China in December 2020. 

CMG: You are running for re-election for the post of UNESCO Director-General. What fields/issues do you think will be the focuses of UNESCO in the next four years if you get re-elected?

Azoulay: If the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted one thing, it is the crucial need for better cooperation in and between the fields covered by UNESCO's mandate – whether that means education, science, information or the importance of protecting and promoting culture.

The strategy that I have proposed for our Organization for the next years, after an inclusive and in-depth global conversation, revolves around four issues that are central to this mandate: education, people and the planet, knowledge and understanding of others, and ethical frameworks for technological revolutions, to ensure they serve the common good. And, running throughout these issues are two of our major priorities, Africa and Gender Equality.

The crisis has reminded us that an approach combining education, science, culture and communication is essential to understand how our world is changing, to address the legacy of the past, and also to respond to the questions of the future. UNESCO benefits of this unique position while working with voices from across the globe.

Our flagship project in Mosul is one example of our interdisciplinary approach at work. When Mosul was occupied in July 2014, violent extremists destroyed around 80 percent of its urban landscape. They also damaged the spirit of the city itself, attacking religious sites, closing libraries and bookstores, and shutting down schools. Our "Revive the Spirit of Mosul" initiative aims to rebuild heritage sites, and, in the process, foster local capacity-building, help repair the city's urban fabric, revive its cultural life and restore its cultural diversity. It also aims to support schools and education for all.

This initiative is a good example of what we can achieve when we work together.

(The story is reported by CMG's Paris correspondent Jiang Hua)

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