Post-2015 Focus on Sustainable Development: How Education and Learning Can Play a Role

While the theme of the third meeting of the High-Level Panel on Post-2015 in Bali was on global partnerships, the meeting’s communiqué set up the handover from the high-level panel to the intergovernmental Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (OWG). The communiqué calls for “a single and coherent post-2015 development agenda that integrates economic growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability”, and with good reason since the two development frameworks for post-2015—poverty alleviation and sustainable development—are not separate. Rather, they are interlinked challenges that need to inform each other and ultimately must be addressed together in one framework.

Moreover, the role of education and equitable learning in achieving sustainable development needs to figure prominently in these discussions. Sustainable development cannot be attained without education that provides learners with 21st century skills that equip them for healthy, safe, and productive lives, while also safeguarding the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

During the first three OWG meetings in March and April, participants shared their initial views on the relationship between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the key lessons from the MDGs. While it is still unclear how the OWG process relates to the post-MDG process, Co-Chair Macharia Kamau, the permanent representative of Kenya, did in fact say that the two processes are linked. According to Kamau, “The MDGs are the point of departure, while the SDGs are the destination.” It is critical that OWG members connect these two processes together, not only to avoid fragmentation of efforts at national and global levels, but also because long-term sustained poverty eradication is only possible in the context of sustainable development. As such, Paula Caballero, advisor to Colombian foreign affairs minister, told the OWG that the new agenda must reflect the deep inter-linkages between issues like education and productive lives, and have measureable targets that allow for differentiation between national contexts. This statement is significant as it mirrors discussions that are currently going on within the global education community. These discussions and ideas will also likely continue in the June OWG meeting on employment and decent work for all, social protection, youth and education.

Learning for Sustainable Development

UNESCO and UNICEF have an opportunity to make clear the linkages between education, poverty reduction and sustainable development since they are UN agencies responsible for providing an issues brief on education to the OWG. Education will also be discussed at the June meeting and at upcoming OWG sessions on sustainable and inclusive economic growth (November 25-27), sustainable consumption and production, climate change, disaster risk reduction, conflict peace and security (January 6-10, 2014), and promoting equality, including social equality and women’s empowerment (February 3-7, 2014).

In fact, education can assist in the process of shifting the global demand away from resource- and energy-intensive commodities and toward greener products and technologies, sustainable lifestyles and less pollution. Restructuring toward a green economy will require transferable skills, ones that are not necessary linked to specific occupations. Thinking critically, solving problems, collaborating and managing risks and uncertainty are core competencies that are critical for employment in a green economy and living together peacefully in a sustainable society. Moreover, since the effects of climate change are already being felt, the education sector can also play a critical role in teaching relevant skills for successful climate change adaptation and mitigation. Teaching and learning these 21st century skills should integrate environmental education, climate change and scientific literacy, disaster risk reduction and preparedness, and education for sustainable lifestyles and consumption.

In tandem with efforts to build 21st century skills, including skills related to sustainable development, the education community is working to develop measures that benchmark and motivate student learning. While currently there is no one global measure for 21st century skills, the Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF) is working to fill this gap by making recommendations for metrics around an adaptable, flexible skill set, such as collaborative problem solving, environmental awareness and social responsibility.

In addition to the discussions within the OWG, there is a current opportunity to input into the draft report of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network: An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development. This draft report puts forward 10 proposals for future Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is on education. The document will feed into the UN Secretary General’s report on the SDGs later this year. The draft is open for comments and consultation until May 22.