Who is Audrey Azoulay? New Director-General of UNESCO

Audrey Azoulay is the incoming Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – succeeding Irina Bokova, who’s held the top job since 2009. Azoulay was one of nine candidates who put themselves forward; in October 2017 she narrowly edged out Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in the fifth and final round of voting by a vote of 30 to 28. Today, her nomination was confirmed, making her officially the new DG of UNESCO.  

Despite recent and notable withdrawals from UNESCO by the United States and Israel, it remains very influential in the global education landscape as it continues to pursue its stated aim of building peace and prosperity through its five major programmes of: education, natural sciences, social/human sciences, culture and communication/information. It is also the global body behind recognisable annual initiatives International Literacy Day (8 September) and World Teachers Day (5 October) amongst others.

Azoulay has stated that she will make education her priority, which is welcome news against the backdrop of a global “learning crisis.” Azoulay made clear that the ‘organization must step up its action in a more targeted manner in areas requiring specific assistance for structuring basic education’. There are currently 263 million children out-of-school globally, and a further 617 million children and adolescents worldwide who don’t achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics (in-school but not learning). Her recognition that ‘it has been proven that raising the education level of girls is one of the most effective drivers of social progress and economic development,’ is encouraging news for those working in the sector who have been driving this agenda forward.

Part of UNESCO’s role is to “provide global and regional leadership in education, strengthen education systems worldwide and respond to contemporary global challenges through education.” It is also leading efforts to achieve the Global Education 2030 Agenda through Sustainable Development Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.”

Furthermore, in her Ambition for UNESCO Azoulay writes about the “opportunities provided by digital” saying that ‘promoting education should involve taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by the digital revolution.’ She singled out Africa as the most important place to realise the promise of education.

She joins UNESCO at a time when its future and its funding are uncertain. Speaking to news-agency Reuters following her nomination, Azoulay said: “In this time of crisis we need more than ever to support, strengthen and reform UNESCO and not leave it.” Azoulay told reporters she would “modernise the organisation.” Before adding, “the first thing I will do is to restore its credibility, restore the faith of its members and its efficiency so it can act.” On the back of her candidacy pitch, we can only hope that education will be at the core of this endeavour.

A relative unknown, Azoulay has now been thrust onto the world stage. Here are 10 things you need to know:

  1. She is UNESCO’s 11th Director and will serve a four-year term, starting now.
  2. Azoulay was born in Paris on 4 August 1972 to Moroccan parents. They divide their time between Rabat and Paris.
  3. She speaks Spanish, English and French fluently.
  4. Her UNESCO campaign was not expected to be successful by anyone, even the French diplomats who had launched it. Their goal was for second place, having entered the race very late.
  5. As French Culture Minister, she was responsible for presenting Draft Resolution 2347 to the UN Security Council, for the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones, which was adopted unanimously.
  6. As the French Minister of Culture, she was responsible for a dramatic increase in her department’s budget- to €2.9 billion ($3.4 billion) – the largest amount of government money devoted to the arts in French History.
  7. She was part of the team responsible for the roll-out of Digital TV in France.
  8. She has two master’s degrees – one in Management Sciences from Paris-Dauphine University (France) and one in Business Administration from Lancaster University (UK).
  9. Her first career was in banking but didn’t last long and she later reportedly said she had “hated” it.
  10. Before becoming Culture Minister, Azoulay’s public profile was so low she didn’t even have a twitter account. You can now follow her here.

A longer biography can be found on Azoulay’s candidacy page for the UNESCO DG role here, her “Vision for UNESCO” can be read here and her CV can be found here.

Bridge welcomes the appointment of a Director-General at UNESCO so focused on the twin opportunities of digital and education that can combine for mutual benefit; a focus on the potential of digital technology to increase access to quality affordable education in Africa and around the world.

Read more about Bridge’s work here.