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You will be dearly missed Khun Etienne! Interview with our Deputy-Director

UNESCO Bangkok’s Deputy-Director, Mr Etienne Clément, will move to Samoa to head UNESCO’s Office in Apia from 3 December 2013. We asked Etienne to reflect on his years in the Bangkok Office on both a professional and personal level as well as speak about his vision in the Pacific.




Would you please share some of the highlights of your career in Bangkok: i.e. projects that have touched you personally or successful initiatives where you saw UNESCO’s real impact in the field?

As I was mainly in charge of the cluster countries I would first mention our actions in Myanmar. When I first arrived, there was only one project, but today we have about 20. We are making an impact in the field of education, particularly with teachers, and also in the field of culture through cultural heritage and urban heritage initiatives in Bagan and Yangon. For freedom of press, UNESCO has had a tremendously positive influence in this country in transition. Myanmar has surpassed all our expectations in projects that I have been involved in.

I was also happy to contribute to education and to culture in Lao PDR. We are supporting artists and creative people in their professional development and I believe this programme will further expand in the next few years.

In Thailand, I would say the Mae Hong Son project. I’ve been there twice and experienced ‘One UN’ in action in the field. Together with other UN agencies, we worked with the local authorities in a series of areas touching development. For example, agriculture was FAO’s component, reproductive health was taken care of by UNFPA, and UNESCO was in charge of education and cultural tourism. We multiplied our efforts by working closely with our UN colleagues.

The emergence of Thailand in the regional scene is something that I have been very impressed to witness. In four years, I have seen Thailand position itself as a regional player, supporting education at the national level and also providing assistance to other countries in the sub-region. I am quite sure that this will go on.

Last not but least, I would like to mention our yearly participation in the football match with colleagues from the Office of The Non-Formal and Informal Education (ONIE). Beyond the fact that we won twice, the annual event was a celebration of education, with thousands of people from all over the country supporting the cause. I participated in the game twice (when UNESCO won). This year I did not participate and UNESCO did not win. I wonder if there is a link between the two facts (laughs).

You were the Head of UNESCO’s Phnom Penh Office between 1998 and 2005. How has the role UNESCO plays in Southeast Asia changed over the past 15 years?

There are more and more middle income countries in this sub-region. Thailand and Vietnam are no longer recipient countries but they are now working with us to address some of the development issues not only domestically but also in other neighboring countries. Member states like Lao PDR, Cambodia and Myanmar are on their way to becoming middle income countries. Every time I travel to Myanmar I am so impressed by the speed of this country engaging in its transition. UNESCO’s presence in Myanmar also grew together with the country: we used to have no presence but today we have 15 staff working in Yangon. Cambodia is investing in developing its private sector. Phnom Penh also has a growing middle-income population that is the driving force of the country. The question for us is to see our relevance in this rapidly growing part of the world.

You’ve dedicated many years to UNESCO’s efforts to protecting cultural property and have authored several books about cultural heritage. In your new role, how will you promote and raise awareness around the preservation of cultural heritage in the Pacific Islands?  

My area of specialization was the (Cultural) Conventions. I will definitely do a lot in trying to have more countries in the Pacific join these Conventions: World Heritage, Illicit traffic, Underwater in particular but also Cultural Diversity and eventually the 1954 Convention on Armed Conflict. I will work closely with the Culture team in Apia to support the cluster countries to have more sites inscribed on the World Heritage List. Given that the ocean is very important in the Pacific, I would particularly like to promote Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention. But beyond the ratification of the Conventions, I would like to empower these countries to implement the Conventions. I would like to see Pacific Member States fully integrating cultural heritage as well as culture tourism and cultural diversity in development policies.

“We have been among the best in being innovative and I am very proud of this office. We have to continue.”

I believe that in UN agencies, we have to go beyond implementing programmes or promoting conventions. We also have to be at the forefront of developing new initiatives; testing, piloting and opening new areas. Having been 29 years in the Organization, I’ve seen great ideas that were misunderstood or not widely accepted at a certain stage. For example, people discussed the protection of underwater heritage in the 80s with certain skepticism. No one really believed that there would one day be a convention. It seemed like a Jules Verne dream for many people. Now it is a reality: there is a convention and a programme behind it. In another 29 years, cultural diversity could be the core of any form of development. I’ve seen projects on infrastructure or environmental preservation failing simply because the cultural diversity dimension had been ignored or underestimated. I believe it is a crucial element to integrate in UNESCO’s projects and I would like to work in this line when I am in the Pacific.

What are the things you know you will miss about Bangkok on a personal level?

I will miss Thai food, obviously. But more importantly, I will miss the friendship of Thai people and non-Thai people whom I worked and socialized with. Everyone has told me that I will find equally friendly people in the Pacific, so I am looking forward to that, but they will naturally be different, so I will miss my colleagues and friends in Bangkok.

Do you have any personal messages to Bangkok staff and colleagues in the Cluster Office?

I would like to ask a favor to my colleagues in Bangkok: As the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, please think about the Pacific more than before. It’s very challenging and expensive to work with the Pacific. But I am sure that if we put the expertise in Bangkok and in the Pacific together, we can further reinforce the last part of the Office’s name. I hope to contribute to the reinforcing of the ties between Bangkok and the Pacific. With good personal relations, we can do more. I also hope to see more Bangkok colleagues in the Pacific and more Pacific colleagues in Bangkok in spite of the distance and costs of tickets.

The second thing I would like to say is, again, be creative; always be curious about new areas in education. Bangkok has always been successful in this way. We have promoted ICT in education, mother language education, creative economy, which no one spoke about some years ago for various reasons. Bangkok also took on board issues like homophobic bullying at schools or rights to access information about reproductive health, sometimes with internal or external resistance. We have to do that again and again. That also means, at a certain stage, dropping projects that have been going on for 15, 20 years – projects that are going well but that others, people we have empowered like NGOs and individuals, can do. We should not be afraid to say, “This project is going well and we have given what we could give. Let’s have others take it over now. Let’s look for more innovative  projects and search for funding.” Otherwise, the office will become business as usual. We have to be careful not to fall into that trap. Always find new ways, including in management and technology. We have been among the best in being innovative and I am very proud of this office. We have to continue.

Last but not least,I would like to thank all the colleagues in Bangkok and in the Cluster countries: the Director, the Director’s team, all the staff whether they work on programme or for administration, and especially those who take care of us every day: security, maintenance, gardeners, technical support staff … all of them. I will miss them all.


Deputy Director of UNESCO Bangkok since 2009, Mr. Clément, a former law lecturer, joined UNESCO in 1984 in the Dakar Office, Senegal as an Associate Expert. He then worked to develop international standards on the protection of cultural heritage in the Culture Sector at Headquarters in Paris. In 1998, Mr. Clément was appointed Head of the UNESCO Office in Phnom Penh and Representative to Cambodia. From 2005 to 2009, he was the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Field Coordination at Paris Headquarters.

From 3 December 2013, Mr. Clément will head the UNESCO Office in Apia, Cluster Office to Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Tokelau (Associate Member).


23 October 2013