INTERVIEW: UNESCO is aware of Egypt's regional weight, pivotal role, says Nuria Sanz

Mohamed El- Kazaz, Thursday 23 Mar 2023

Director of UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science in the Arab States Nuria Sanz spoke to Ahram Online on a variety of topics including partnerships with Egypt, education, illiteracy, culture, and safeguarding Egypt's outstanding Coptic heritage.

Nuria Sanz
Director of UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science in the Arab States Nuria Sanz. (Photo: Mohamed Mostafa)


Sanz assumed her post as director of UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science in the Arab States, Cluster Office for Egypt and Sudan, and as UNESCO representative in Egypt on 20 October 2022.

She had previously served as head and representative of the UNESCO Office in Mexico since November 2013.

Sanz has a PhD in history and archaeology from Universidad Complutense de Madrid and La Sapienza in Rome.

She has worked for over 20 years in international organisations, such as the European Commission, the Council of Europe, and UNESCO. A large focus of her work has been on the protection of cultural and natural heritage.

From 2002 to 2013, she was chief of the Latin American and Caribbean Unit of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris, France.

For nine years, Sanz coordinated the largest World Heritage nomination project in the history of the 1972 World Heritage Convention: the Qhhapaq Ñan Andean Road System.

Ahram Online: What are the forms of cooperation between UNESCO and Egypt?

Nuria Sanz: I would like to begin by mentioning that there is a deep sense of responsibility in our programmes and activities implemented here in Egypt, as we are well aware of Egypt's weight in the region and its pivotal role as one of the founding members of UNESCO.

Our partnership with the government of Egypt was cemented as early as the launch of the international campaign to save the monuments of Nubia in the 1960s, one of the most complex and successful projects of UNESCO in the 20th century.

We have gratefully diversified and strengthened our partnership with the government of Egypt. We are working together to support our commitment to education, natural science, social and human sciences, culture, communication, and information in North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa.

Our Cairo Office – which was established in 1947 – is currently a Regional Office for Science. In terms of natural or social sciences, we are continuously working to develop a strong synergy between Arab member states, namely in open sciences and water management. We also provide support to the Khartoum Office in all sectors as a cluster office for Egypt and Sudan. As we are in the epicentre of one of the most outstanding civilisations in the world, our interventions here ensure that we support the needs of the people of Egypt in all areas of UNESCO's diverse commitment.

AO: Are there education partnerships between UNESCO and Egyptian government?

NS: We have a strategic partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Education in the technical implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4-Quality Education, particularly in terms of benchmarking, monitoring, and reporting on the progress of its implementation. In addition, we recently succeeded in developing a national statement of commitment to transform education as an aftermath of the Transforming Education Summit in 2022. Furthermore, we are collaborating closely with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders, including the private sector, to enhance the quality of education in [Technical and Vocational Education and Training] TVET by organising youth competitions and advocating for the digital transformation of skills development.

We are equally excited to launch the Community Learning Centres initiative in partnership with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, embarking on a long-term project that targets 52 districts that are a part of the presidential initiative of Decent Life (Hayah Karima).

The objective of Community Learning Centres is to encourage local communities and municipal authorities to provide lifelong learning opportunities that meet the needs and specific context of the community. It is an innovative approach outside the formal education system that effectively addresses low literacy rates and expands access to education and development activities.

AO: What about cooperation in the field of culture?

NS: UNESCO has been commonly associated in Egypt with its progress in the field of culture. Egypt has played a crucial role in preserving and conserving World Heritage sites since the Nubian Campaign is considered the basement of multilateral action and the origin of the World Heritage Convention.

For example, we have implemented several activities at Abu Mena Heritage Site, Abu Simbel to Philae, Memphis and its Necropolis, Luxor-New Gourna and close collaboration with the National Museum for Egyptian Civilisation and the Nubian Museum, among other sites recognised by UNESCO conventions.

Regarding cultural diversity, we had a prosperous partnership with six governorates to establish an inventory of more than 200 cultural practices.

However, we acknowledge that much is still to be done in documenting and archiving Egypt's plethora of intangible cultural heritage.

We are moving forward with enhancing management plans for the World Heritage Sites and museums in Egypt. Our most recent accomplishment was the implementation of the Museum of Islamic Art Project as our office in collaboration with the Directorate of Museums, and with the support of the government of Italy, supporting the preservation of the invaluable Islamic artefacts, developing community outreach workshops, developing VR/AR products and database, and upgrading the facilities of the museum.

I am also exploring the expansion our activities to safeguarding Egypt's outstanding Coptic heritage. For example, we are currently setting up the basis for the methodology to intervene in archaeological monasteries in Egypt.

However, our mandate is not only limited to the preservation of cultural heritage, but we also has an extremely vital obligation to protect and conserve natural heritage sites. For example, in Egypt, we have one UNESCO natural world heritage site, Wadi El-Hitan (The Valley of Whales), a remarkable global site that gives us valuable insights into evolution. Our mandate also includes addressing biodiversity and geodiversity conservation in the context of UNESCO flagship programmes of The Man and Biosphere and UNESCO Global Geoparks in the Arab region. For instance, we organised just some weeks ago a regional meeting to foster leadership in geological heritage conservation in the Arab region with interlinkages to the preservation of biodiversity.  

We also have one of the vital paramount sectors in the region; I consider it a pedigree of the UNESCO Cairo Office, which is hydrology and water management. Unfortunately, as the region faces imminent water scarcity challenges, we want to ensure that we are working tirelessly with all regional partners to address it. We have been active with the Ministry of Water and Irrigation on several initiatives, most notably supporting the ministry to partake in the UN-Water Summit on Groundwater organised last December. In addition, we are contributing to support the League of Arab States and Egypt in preparing for the most prominent UN Water Summit in New York in March 2023.

AO: What are the impacts of COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war on education?

NS: During World War II, the United Kingdom's minister of education called for a Conference of Allied Ministers in London in the summer of 1942 to find a mechanism to build perpetual peace. Conference members shared the view that education, culture, and science could play a role in preventing an outbreak of another global conflict. This conference later laid the foundation for the establishment of UNESCO a few months after World War II had ended, with the preamble of the constitution stating, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed."

As a result, UNESCO has been highly dynamic in its post-conflict and crisis response. We had several interventions in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq, and Kosovo, and all these projects had a multi-sectoral approach to achieving peace. One project I am sure you might have heard about is UNESCO's project Revive the Spirit of Mosul, as we are working to reconstruct the old city which has been left in ruins due to the occupation of the Islamic State.

Our projects are not only exclusive to the integration of peace and education, but also related to creating a pluralistic sense of history.

The repercussions of COVID-19, and consequently the war, have led to unfortunate suffering in many areas, which vigorously tests the resilient capacity of many people in Africa to have a minimum assurance of food security and meeting their basic needs.

UNESCO is working closely with the government of Egypt to develop teaching-learning technologies and virtual platforms to overcome the adverse effects of the pandemic at schools.  

AO: In recent years, there have been many national education projects at all levels. How do you view these projects, and how can the difficulties they face be overcome?

NS: The Ministry of Education in Egypt has always played a crucial role in the UNESCO International arena. Therefore, I would like to express my admiration for the recent work completed by H E Dr Reda Hegazy, particularly in developing new methodologies and comprehensive assessments in Egypt.

I think H E Dr Reda addressed several priority areas of the country. I will briefly outline them: ensuring access to high-quality education for all; foundational learning for all; digital transformation of education; developing a high-quality education and training system for teachers; and developing a more robust early childhood education.

This national commitment is truly the DNA of our action in Egypt, and as I stated earlier, we are currently working on translating this statement into actions.

Accordingly, I would like to underline two key issues that we would like to prioritise in Egypt in the upcoming period; the first is addressing illiteracy in Egypt.

While we acknowledge the incredible progress in reducing the number in the last few decades, the Adult Education Authority in 2022 estimated that the illiteracy rate (for people aged 15 and above) is 24.8 percent. Unfortunately, there is also a disparity in terms of gender and demography, as a higher number of the illiterate population are women living in rural areas.

The second issue is bridging the gap between education and employment. Egypt is a youthful population, with an estimated 60 percent being youth. However, the number of available job opportunities in the market is increasingly becoming an issue, with [the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics] CAPMAS in 2022 revealing that 61.3 percent of youth in the age group (15-29) are currently seeking employment.

In order to address these issues, I have previously mentioned our initiative of establishing Community Learning Centres and our work in TVET. Community Learning Centres will support us in facilitating access to women in rural areas, and we foresee that we could establish up to 50 centres by 2024. Our first Community Learning Centre will launch in the governorate of Aswan, the jewel of Upper Egypt, in the coming weeks.

I consider TVET as a niche area as one of UNESCO's activities in Egypt that has been lightly touched on. TVET has the potential to bring people out of poverty and enhance social mobility within society.

We have discussed with the Ministry of Education that we need to prioritise the destigmatisation of TVET to develop a strong partnership with the private sector to meet the needs of the job market vis-à-vis ensuring a better career for TVET graduates. Last year, we were incredibly proud of the outcome of the World Skills Competition in Egypt and the positive interaction of society with the competition and TVET.

For us, to witness the joy of the winners and to see their photos published in national newspapers is undoubtedly an accomplishment in changing the mindset.

Another critical issue we are addressing with the Ministry of Education is transforming learning and teaching digital skills. With the support of the private sector, in this case, Huawei, we are working to enhance teachers' digital skills and support them in using and adapting open educational resources. In addition, we are committed to establishing a National Distance Learning Centre for Teachers; I see this as a highly ambitious project that will enhance the continuous professional development of nearly one million teachers, principals and supervisors across Egypt. The expected launch of this project is foreseen in October 2023.

AO: The culture of dialogue and tolerance remains one of the most important priorities of UNESCO, so how can we promote and consolidate that culture?

NS: The uniqueness of UNESCO is its multi-sectoral approach to addressing global challenges, which allows us to foster a culture of dialogue and tolerance. For example, our organisation has developed special courses for children in oral/written expression in tolerance, courses to counter hate speech, gender bias, misinformation and disinformation for media professionals and policymakers.

We successfully organised a global conference in Paris, Internet for Trust, a few days ago. Through this initiative, we aim to organise a series of consultations to develop guidelines to ensure a more transparent internet with users having a safer and more critical interaction with online content.

We have a longstanding experience in media and information literacy, as we empower communities to use critical and digital tools to address the root causes of hate speech. We have developed MOOCs and guidelines, such as Countering Online Hate Speech, for everyone to access online on UNESCODOC.

In the wake of COVID-19 and the worsening of misinformation and disinformation in the Arab region, we promptly responded by organising a series of online training workshops in 2020 in collaboration with the American University in Cairo, the World Health Organisation and United Nations Information Centre. As a result, we developed the capacity of journalists and media students in the Arab region to respond to the latest challenges. Over 1,000 media students, journalists, and professors of mass communication attended those sessions, in which we covered a range of issues, including hate speech, xenophobia, and racism online.

Again, I briefly mentioned the collaboration with the Coalition of Arab iCties, and here we worked to develop UNESCO Cairo's Toolkit for Urban Inclusion in Arab Cities.

The toolkit was launched in 2020, and it provides influential policymakers in the region with practical tools and advice to build inclusive and sustainable cities.

Building on our work with the coalition, and in response to the alarming increased rate of xenophobia and hate globally during COVID-19, we organised an online training workshop, Youth Against Stigma. As an outcome of the project, we worked on developing a comprehensive, advanced module for adolescents and youth from different Arab countries to shed light on the social discrimination and stigma in the region.

Lastly, I solemnly believe in museums' important role in promoting intercultural dialogue through exhibitions, outreach activities, and educational programmes, let alone the conservation of artefacts from different cultures. Therefore, in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and its Museum Sector, we are currently strengthening the capacities to develop long-term comprehensive management plans for the Nubia Museum, NMEC, and the Museum of Islamic Arts, among others, etc.

AO: This environmental and biological diversity is not a climate issue but a right to life. However, it is exposed to various risks and threats. How does UNESCO plan to face this imminent danger? 

NS: I am proud to state that UNESCO is the only agency with a multi-sectoral approach to preserving diversity, as we work on biological diversity, linguistic diversity, genetic diversity and geological diversity.

UNESCO has a substantial position regarding the COP27 Loss and Damage Fund. We could consider starting to support members to direct resources to the preservation and conservation of natural heritage sites, wetlands, biosphere reserves, and coral reefs as they are truly valuable as carbon sinks, and now we can measure the benefits as well as the losses in all the areas protected by UNESCO Conventions.

The Arab region preserves the most genuine knowledge on how to live in dry lands. Since the world is moving towards desertification, UNESCO is engaged in preserving the knowledge of people living in some of the planet's most dramatic and dry geographies. Moreover, we are working to maintain its transmission to increase our readiness and preparedness to adapt to such drastic changes worldwide.

We also worked, as early as 2020, on developing a regional report on knowledge for youth-led climate action in the Arab region, as we genuinely aim to empower youth generations to advocate for climate policies.

We are celebrating two UN days of cultural diversity and biodiversity on 21 and 22 May, and we would like to focus our attention on the Delta.

Our initiative will focus on Wetlands in Drylands: we will inform on our campaign on the social perception of wetlands, and to celebrate these important days in the United Nations calendar year, we will organise a multidisciplinary senior discussion on how natural and cultural diversities play together and reinforce resilience in some of the most privileged areas as the Nile Delta over millennia.


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