How Education Fits into the Discussions of the UN High-Level Panel: Puzzle Piece Monrovia

This week the United Nations secretary-general’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda met in Monrovia, Liberia for their second in-person meeting to reflect on what the Millennium Developments Goals achieved, where they fell short, and what a post-2015 framework that will eradicate global poverty and respond to the global challenges of the 21st century should look like. This panel of 24 eminent people of diverse backgrounds from across the globe, chaired by three global leaders—President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia—had identified three overarching themes with which to grapple: social equity, environmental sustainability and economic transformation.

The High-Level Panel is just one of the pieces in the multi-layered puzzle that is the post-2015 process. In addition to the recommendations the High-Level Panel will make to the U.N. General Assembly in their report this coming September, consultations are currently taking place to engage a broader range of stakeholders in the process. U.N. agencies are convening 11 thematic e-discussions through the end of February, including one on education. These online consultations allow all interested parties—civil society, donors, private sector, youth, academia and others—to voice their opinions on what the next development agenda should look like in light of each thematic area. Simultaneously, national consultations will take place in over 50 countries to not only further foster an inclusive, multi-stakeholder process, but to also shape a post-2015 development agenda informed by national and local priorities. The outcomes of both the thematic e-discussions and the country consultations will be incorporated into the final report that the High-Level Panel will deliver to the U.N. General Assembly in September.

An intergovernmental Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals was launched earlier this month and will hold its first meeting in February. While there are thirty official members of the Open Working Group, many of those are shared by two to three different countries. These countries are tasked with designing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as agreed at the Rio +20 conference—though the question of the role of the SDGs in the post-2015 framework is an open one that both the Open Working Group and High-Level Panel will be discussing. To add to the layers of this puzzle, a Sustainable Development Solutions Network, launched under the auspices of the U.N. secretary-general last September, will provide technical support to the High-level Panel. It will also convene global expert Thematic Groups on key sustainable development challenges, including one on early childhood development, education and transition to work that will identify common solutions and highlight best practices.

The agenda for the High-Level Panel’s meeting this week was focused on the topics of sustained prosperity and sustainable development, which are critical in order to eradicate poverty. While education was not explicitly on the agenda, it is a national building block for sustained prosperity and sustainable development and must be included in the discussions around achieving post-2015 development challenges.

Every child must have the opportunity to develop the competencies and skills they need to become active and engaged citizens, to secure a job, to contribute to economic growth and job creation, and to build shared prosperity in their nations. The collective success and well-being of all learners will only boost national economic prosperity. Indeed, of the factors that lead to economic prosperity, one of the most essential is education. First and foremost, economic development and poverty reduction depend upon an educated and skilled workforce. An estimated 75 million youth are unemployed worldwide and underemployment rates are twice that number. Recent research by McKinsey & Co. found that 57 percent of employers surveyed felt that there are not enough qualified entry-level candidates. Investments in human capital to reduce unemployment rates and address the skills mismatch are crucial steps achieving economic prosperity—and quality education is what will get us there.

Equitable social development is also dependent on education to empower learners and to maximize their capacities, resources and opportunities to fully participate in society. Education is essential to environmental protection through teaching and learning environmental stewardship, a topic both the High-Level Panel and Open Working Group will be discussing. Environmental instability and climate change has the potential to be a game-changer in countries’ ability to drive economic growth over the next decades. Harrowing statistics suggest that the rate of natural disasters is expected to increase by 320 percent in the next 20 years, on top of the doubling in numbers over the last two decades. Environmental and climate change education promotes new attitudes and skills for environmental protection and diversity and also helps people change consumption and production patterns. In addition, access to quality, relevant education that empowers all—including the marginalized—to utilize environmental resources sustainably is essential to equitable social development and a necessary foundation for sustainable development.

The Communiqué from the High-Level Panel meeting in Monrovia highlights the fact that achieving structural transformations through a global development agenda will involve sustainable growth with equity, creation of wealth through sustainable and transparent management of natural resources, and partnerships. In particular, the Communiqué recognizes the “indispensability” of opportunity for all, including “ensuring universal learning.”

Achieving quality education for all remains a pivotal goal for global development. While there has been considerable progress in increasing primary school enrollment around the world over the last decade—due in large part to the Education for All and Millennium Development Goals on educational access and equality—children too often leave primary and even secondary school without acquiring the basic knowledge, skills and competencies needed to grow into healthy adults and lead safe, productive and sustainable lives. In short, there is a global learning crisis underfoot, which affects out-of-school children and youth with limited learning opportunities and also those in school but not learning the skills needed for their future. Marginalized groups, like girls from poor, rural households and children and youth living in conflict-affected areas, are particularly missing out. The failure to improve the quality of education will hinder whatever the overarching goals of the post-2015 development agenda are.

This week’s meeting in Monrovia is the midway point of the consultative process. As the High-Level Panel prepares for its next meeting, in Bali from March 25-27, we urge members to remember the critical role that quality education plays in economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. And as the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals begins its work this month, we will work to ensure that learning for all is viewed not only as a development challenge in itself, but also as a linchpin to achieving all other development goals.