From Rio to Johannesburg: Lessons learnt from a decade of commitment

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A report on the lessons learnt about the contribution of education to sustainable development over the decade between the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).
The report has been prepared by UNESCO in its role as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 and the International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Sustainability of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).

World Summit on Sustainable Development Johannesburg, 26 August – 4 September 2002

Education for Sustainability
From Rio to Johannesburg:

Lessons learnt from a decade of commitment

Education for Sustainability

From Rio to Johannesburg:
Lessons learnt from a decade of commitment

A report on the lessons learnt about the contribution of education to sustainable development over the past decade, since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the ‘Earth Summit’) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The report has been prepared by UNESCO in its role as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 and the International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Sustainability of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).

UNESCO, Paris, 2002

Most people in the world today have an immediate and intuitive sense of the urgent need to build a sustainable future. They may not be able to provide a precise definition of ‘sustainable development’ or ‘sustainability’ - indeed, even experts debate that issue - but they clearly sense the danger and the need for informed action.

They smell the problem in the air; they taste it in their water; they see it in more congested living spaces and blemished landscapes; they read about it in the newspapers and hear about it on radio and television.1
For thousands of years human societies have proved that living sustainably — as healthy and happy individuals, within caring and stable families and communities, and in harmony with the natural world — is possible. The long-term sustainability of indigenous economic and cultural systems is the result of indigenous systems of education which established a human and natural ecology totally at one with each other. The Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero in 1992 helped educators around the world realise that education must be reoriented to once again reflect such a vision of sustainability, one that links economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for Earth and its resources.
Almost universally value, indigenous peoples respect and love the land as a mother, treating it as sacred, believing that people, plants, animals, water, the land and the sky are all part of the same on-going cycles of life. These beliefs and the knowledge that flows from them has been passed down through the generations through a wide range of cultural practices, including direct instruction, stories, dances, ceremonies and art as well as networks of sacred places. All are part of indigenous approaches to education that link people to the land through culture — and through culture to the land. Unfortunately, indigenous knowledge and wisdom have been undermined by the experience of colonisation, industrialisation and globalisation. By and large, indigenous priorities and systems of education have been supplanted by the somewhat narrow view that the environment and culture are valuable only in so far as they are economically productive. The consequent disregard for the land and culture has meant that knowledge, values and skills for living sustainability have been underplayed in contemporary education.
Certainly, knowledge about the Earth, its plants and animals, the functioning of ecosystems and the ways people use resources, is taught in schools and colleges in science, geography and social studies. Nature documentaries are among the more popular programmes on television while visits to museums, science centres, environmental reserves and other sites of non-formal education are expanding.
However, there is a widespread problem with the way that the environment and sustainable development are presented in such formal and non-formal programmes. Few attempts are made to link the health of people to the health and sustainability of ecosystems; and students and community members are rarely asked to reflect upon the impacts of their activities and those of their families and wider society on the functioning of ecosystems. In formal education, studies of society, the economy and the environment are usually within separate disciplines with little regard for developing practical skills for practising sustainability. For this reason, Agenda 21 called for a reorientation of education.
Agenda 21 – A Manifesto for Education
Reorienting education towards sustainable development requires a new vision for education. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, on Education, Awareness and Training states:
36.3. Education, including formal education, public awareness and training should be recognized as a process by which human beings and societies can reach their fullest potential. Education is critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making. Both formal and non-formal education are indispensable to changing people's attitudes so that they have the capacity to assess and address their sustainable development concerns.
To achieve this vision, Chapter 36 called on governments, international agencies, businesses and civil society groups to:

  • ensure that basic education and functional literacy for all is achieved

  • make environmental and development education available to people of all ages

  • integrate environmental and development concepts, including those of population, into all educational programmes, with analyses of the causes of the major problems

  • involve schoolchildren in local and regional studies on environmental health, including safe drinking water, sanitation, food and the environmental and economic impacts of resource use.

Following the Earth Summit, the Commission on Sustainable Development appointed UNESCO to be its Task Manager for Chapter 36. UNESCO was to accelerate reforms of education and coordinate the activities of all stakeholders in education through a wide-ranging Work Programme. The seven objectives of the Work Programme were to:

  • clarify and communicate the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development

  • review national education policies and reorient formal educational systems

  • incorporate education into national strategic and action plans for sustainable development

  • educate to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns in all countries

  • promote investments in education

  • identify and share innovative practices

  • raise public awareness.

Several activities were listed for each objective and those who might be responsible for each, e.g. governments, relevant United Nations bodies and/or NGOs, nominated. UNESCO’s role has been to provide professional and technical support for governments of member states and to help disseminate the innovative policies, programmes and practices of education for sustainable development that were being developed by all stakeholders. UNESCO has had both internal and external roles to play in its responsibility as ‘task manager’.

The organization as a whole has been mobilized to address education from the perspective of sustainability and, with the endorsement of the UNESCO's General Conference, has aligned its work according to the priorities laid down in the CSD work programme. Indeed, along with poverty eradication and the promotion and fair use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), sustainable development is now seen a key theme across all UNESCO activities. UNESCO has also been a catalyst for clarifying key ideas, disseminating guiding principles, and sharing experiences across countries by convening international conferences and regional workshops, in developing demonstration projects and sample curriculum and training materials, and in creating an international network of schools2 committed to the principles of peace, human rights, equity and conservation.
UNESCO is also facilitating the international Education for All (EFA) programme that aims to develop and implement national education action plans, enable capacity development in early-childhood, primary and science education, and catalyse new approaches to family education as well as citizenship, peace, multicultural and environmental education. UNESCO has also developed partnerships with many UN agencies, including UNFPA, WHO and ILO to promote population education, WHO to develop new approaches to health education, FAO to advance education in rural areas and promote food security, WHO and UNAIDS to combat the pandemic, UNICEF, UNHCR and major NGOs to assist in the reconstruction of education in crisis and post-conflict situations, and many more.

The challenge of sustainable development is a difficult and complex one, requiring new partnerships — among governments, academic and scientific communities, teachers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local communities and the media. All are essential to the birth of a culture of sustainability. Within governments, for example, education for sustainability is of direct concern not only to ministries of education, but also to ministries of health, environment, natural resources, planning, agriculture, commerce and others. New policies, programmes, resources and activities can be reported from almost every country, a sure and encouraging sign that education is beginning to be seen as a significant aspect of national sustainable development policies.

The role and importance of major groups in implementing Chapter 36 have also increased significantly since Rio. The UNESCO NGO Liaison Committee, representing about 350 professional NGOs in the field of education, has set up a special commission to mobilize its members in support of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. So too have major regional and international associations of higher education, including the International Association of Universities, which have joined with UNESCO to form a Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership. The Education and Youth Caucuses of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) have sought to work with other CSD caucuses to build support for education for sustainable development. The contributions of all these major groups have done much to help clarify key lessons about the contribution of education to sustainable development over the decade since the Earth Summit.
UNESCO has prepared this report on these key lessons in its role as ‘task manager’ for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, the action plan agreed to by all governments at the Earth Summit, and the International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Sustainability of the intergovernmental Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD).
Key Lessons
An exhaustive coverage of all the educational initiatives that have blossomed in the decade since the Earth Summit is not possible in a report of this size. However, brief cases of innovative programmes and successful outcomes are included in the boxes throughout this report. These are used to illustrate the some of the key lessons that have been learnt about education for sustainable development over this decade. The key lessons explored in the following chapters are:

  • Education for sustainable development is an emerging but dynamic concept that encompasses a new vision of education that seeks to empower people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future

  • Basic education provides the foundation for all future education and is a contribution to sustainable development in its own right.
  • There is a need to refocus many existing education policies, programmes and practices so that they build the concepts, skills, motivation and commitment needed for sustainable development.

  • Education is the key to rural transformation and is essential to ensuring the economic, cultural and ecological vitality of rural areas and communities.

  • Lifelong learning, including adult and community education, appropriate technical and vocational education, higher education and teacher education are all vital ingredients of capacity building for a sustainable future.

A new vision of education
Education for sustainable development is an emerging but dynamic concept that encompasses a new vision of education that seeks to empower people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future.
Education will shape the world of tomorrow — it is the most effective means that society possesses for confronting the challenges of the future. Progress increasingly depends upon educated minds: upon research, invention, innovation and adaptation. Educated minds and instincts are needed not only in laboratories and research institutes, but also in every walk of life. While education is not the whole answer to every problem, in its broadest sense, education must be a vital part of all efforts to imagine and create new relations among people and to foster greater respect for the needs of the environment.3

Social Learning for Sustainable Development
This lesson has been identified from the work of UNESCO, other international agencies, governments, education systems and many other organizations and actors in seeking to clarify and communicate the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development, one of the key objectives in the CSD’s International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Sustainability.


Since 1992, an international consensus has emerged that achieving sustainable development is essentially a process of learning. At major UN conferences of the 1990s, including those on human rights in Vienna (1993), population and development in Cairo (1994), small island developing states in Barbados (1994), social development in Copenhagen (1995), women in Beijing (1995), food security in Rome (1996), and human settlements in Istanbul (1996), the critical role of education was stressed. Just as we learnt to live unsustainably, we now need to learn our way out — to learn how to live sustainably.

Sustainable development requires active and knowledgeable citizens and caring and informed decision makers capable of making the right choices about the complex and interrelated economic, social and environmental issues human society is facing. To achieve this requires the broader process of social change known as social learning, or what the OECD calls ‘enhancing societal capacity for the environment’. This involves not only specific education and training programmes but also the use of policy and legislation as opportunities for teaching and encouraging new forms of personal, community and corporate behaviour. Social learning also involves reflection – often stimulated by religious leaders and the media - on the appropriateness of the mental models and assumptions that have traditionally guided thinking and behaviour.
From such processes of social learning we have come to realise that sustainable development is a catalytic vision rather than a neatly defined, technical concept. Indeed, we have learnt that:

  • Sustainable development is perhaps more a moral precept than a scientific concept, linked as much with notions of peace, human rights and fairness as with theories of ecology or global warning.

  • While sustainable development involves the natural sciences, policy and economics, it is primarily a matter of culture: it is concerned with the values people cherish and with the ways in which we perceive our relationship with others and with the natural world.

  • Sustainable development requires us to acknowledge the interdependent relationship between people and the natural environment. This interdependence means that no single social, economic, political or environmental objective be pursued to the detriment of others. The environment cannot be protected in a way that leaves half of humanity in poverty. Likewise there can be no long-term development on a depleted planet.

These principles remind us that sustainable development is grounded in four interdependent systems:

  • Biophysical systems which provide the life support systems for all life, human and non-human;

  • Economic systems which provide a continuing means of livelihood (jobs and money) for people;

  • Social systems which provide ways for people to live together peacefully, equitably and with respect for human rights and dignity; and

  • Political systems through which power is exercised fairly and democratically to make decisions about the way social and economic systems use the biophysical environment.

This holistic view supports four inter-related principles for sustainable living:

  • Conservation to ensure that natural systems can continue to provide life support systems for all living things, including the resources that sustain the economic system.

  • Peace and Equity to encourage people to live cooperatively and in harmony with each other and have their basic needs satisfied in a fair and equitable way.

  • Appropriate Development to ensures that people can support themselves in a long-term way. Inappropriate development ignores the links between the economy and the other systems in the environment.

  • Democracy to ensure that people have a fair and equal say over how natural, social and economic systems should be managed.4

Linking social, economic, political and environmental concerns is a crucial aspect of sustainable development. Creating such links demands a deeper, more ambitious way of thinking about education, one that retains a commitment to critical analysis while fostering creativity and innovation. In short, it demands that education promotes a system of ethics and values that is sensitive to cultural identity, multicultural dialogue, democratic decision-making and the appropriate use and management of natural resources.

All countries have sought to respond to the challenge of social learning, within the limits of their resources. Increased scientific understanding of the scale, severity and interlocking nature of sustainable development issues over the last two decades has led to heightened levels of environmental and social reporting in the mass media, public awareness of issues, and public support for environmental campaigns. Governments and their citizens now expect that schools and other institutions of social learning will help prepare young people to respond positively to the opportunities offered by wide public understanding of, and support, for sustainable development.
The potential of education is enormous. Seen as social learning for sustainability, education can increase concern over unsustainable practices and increase our capacity to confront and master change. Education not only informs people, it can change them. As a means for personal enlightenment and for cultural renewal, education is not only central to sustainable development, it is humanity’s best hope and most effective means in the quest to achieve sustainable development.

Educating for a Sustainable Future: Clarifying the Concept
Education is the primary agent of transformation towards sustainable development, increasing people’s capacities to transform their visions for society into reality. Education not only provides scientific and technical skills, it also provides the motivation, justification, and social support for pursuing and applying them. For this reason, society must be deeply concerned that much of current education falls far short of what is required. Improving the quality and coverage of education and reorienting its goals to recognize the importance of sustainable development must be among society’s highest priorities.
Clarifying the concept of education for sustainable development was a major challenge for educators during the last decade. The broad scope of Chapter 36 generated extensive debate over such issues as: the meanings of sustainable development in educational settings, the appropriate balance of peace, human rights, citizenship, social equity, ecological and development themes in already over-crowded curricula, and ways of integrating the humanities, the social sciences and the arts into what had up-to-now been seen and practised as a branch of science education. Some argued that educating for sustainable development ran the risk of indoctrination while others wondered whether asking schools to take a lead in the transition to sustainable development was asking too much of teachers.
These debates were compounded by the desire of many, predominantly environmental, NGOs to contribute to educational planning without the requisite understanding of how education systems work, how educational change and innovation takes place, and of relevant curriculum development, professional development and pedagogical principles. Not realising that effective educational change takes time, others were critical of governments for not acting more quickly. The Commission on Sustainable Development assisted in overcoming the inertia of these debates by establishing priorities through a special Work Programme on education in 1996 and which was revised in 1998.
Consequently, many international, regional and national initiatives have contributed to an expanded and refined understanding of the meaning of education for sustainable development. For example, Education International, the major umbrella group of teachers’ unions and associations in the world, has issued a declaration and action plan to promote sustainable development through education.5 Similarly, statements and guidelines in support of reorienting education towards sustainable development have been issued by regional councils of Ministers of Education and/or Environment in the European Union, APEC, OAS, SADC, and the South Pacific. Many regional strategic or action plans have been developed. A common call in all of these is the need for an integrated approach through which all government ministries (eg education, health, environment, finance, agriculture, industry and consumer affairs, etc.) collaborate in developing a shared understanding of and commitment to policies, strategies and programmes of education for sustainable development.
International conservation organisations such as WWF and IUCN are also actively promoting the integration of education into sustainable development at local community, national and eco-regional scales. In addition, many individual governments have established committees, panels, advisory councils and curriculum development projects to discuss education for sustainable development, develop policy and appropriate support structures, programmes and resources, and fund local initiatives.
Indeed, the roots of education for sustainable development are firmly planted in the environmental education efforts of such groups. Along with global education, development education, peace education, citizenship education, human rights education, and multicultural and anti-racist education that have all been significant, environmental education has been particularly significant. In its brief thirty-year history, contemporary environmental education has steadily striven towards goals and outcomes similar and comparable to those inherent in the concept of sustainability.
In the early 1970s, the emerging environmental education movement was given a powerful boost by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, which recommended that environmental education be recognized and promoted in all countries. This recommendation led to the launching in 1975 by UNESCO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) of the International Environmental Education Programme (IEEP), which continued until 1995. The influence of the IEEP — and the national and international activities that it inspired — have been widely felt and is reflected in many of the educational innovations carried out in the last two decades. That work was inspired largely by the guiding principles of environmental education laid down by the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education held in Tbilisi in 1977. The vision and objectives in the Tbilisi Declaration integrated a broad spectrum of environmental, social, ethical, economic and cultural outcomes of education – all of which are central to education for sustainable development. Its basic principles were successfully translated into educational policies around the world and, with greater difficulty, into schoolroom practice in many countries.
A New Vision for Education
These many initiatives illustrate that the international community now strongly believes that we need to foster — through education — the values, behaviour and lifestyles required for a sustainable future. Education for sustainable development has come to be seen as a process of learning how to make decisions that consider the long‑term future of the economy, ecology and social well-being of all communities. Building the capacity for such futures-oriented thinking is a key task of education.
This represents a new vision of education, a vision that helps students better understand the world in which they live, addressing the complexity and interconnectedness of problems such as poverty, wasteful consumption, environmental degradation, urban decay, population growth, gender inequality, health, conflict and the violation of human rights that threaten our future. This vision of education emphasises a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to developing the knowledge and skills needed for a sustainable future as well as changes in values, behaviour, and lifestyles. This requires us to reorient education systems, policies and practices in order to empower everyone, young and old, to make decisions and act in culturally appropriate and locally relevant ways to redress the problems that threaten our common future. In this way, people of all ages can become empowered to develop and evaluate alternative visions of a sustainable future and to fulfil these visions through working creatively with others.
Seeking sustainable development through education requires educators to:

  • place an ethic for living sustainably, based upon principles of social justice, democracy, peace and ecological integrity, at the centre of society's concerns

  • encourage a meeting of disciplines, a linking of knowledge and of expertise, to create understandings that are more integrated and contextualized

  • encourage lifelong learning, starting at the beginning of life and grounded in life — one based on a passion for a radical transformation of the moral character of society

  • develop to the maximum the potential of all human beings throughout their lives so that they can achieve self-fulfilment and full self-expression with the collective achievement of a viable future

  • value aesthetics, the creative use of the imagination, an openness to risk and flexibility, and a willingness to explore new options

  • encourage new alliances between the State and civil society in promoting citizens' emancipation and the practice of democratic principles

  • mobilize society in a concerted effort so as to eliminate poverty and all forms of violence and injustice

  • encourage a commitment to the values for peace in such a way as to promote the creation of new lifestyles and living patterns

  • identify and pursue new human projects in the context of local sustainability within a planetary consciousness and a personal and communal awareness of global responsibility

  • create realistic hope in which the possibility of change and the real desire for change are accompanied by a concerted, active participation in change, at the appropriate time, in favour of a sustainable future for all.

These responsibilities emphasise the key role of educators as agents of change. There are over 60 million teachers in the world – and each one is a key agent for bringing about the changes in lifestyles and systems that we need. But, education is not confined to the classrooms of formal education. As an approach to social learning, education for sustainable development also encompasses the wide range of learning activities in basic and post-basic education, technical and vocational training and tertiary education, and both non-formal and informal learning by both young people and adults within their families and workplaces and in the wider community. This means that all of us have important roles to play as both ‘learners’ and ‘teachers’ in advancing sustainable development.

Key Lessons
Deciding how education should contribute to sustainable development is a major task. In coming to decisions about what approaches to education will be locally relevant and culturally appropriate, countries, educational institutions and their communities may take heed of the following key lessons learnt from discussion and debate about education and sustainable development over the past decade.

  • Education for sustainable development must explore the economic, political and social implications of sustainability by encouraging learners to reflect critically on their own areas of the world, to identify non-viable elements in their own lives and to explore the tensions among conflicting aims. Development strategies suited to the particular circumstances of various cultures in the pursuit of shared development goals will be crucial. Educational approaches must take into account the experiences of indigenous cultures and minorities, acknowledging and facilitating their original and important contributions to the process of sustainable development.

  • The movement towards sustainable development depends more on the development of our moral sensitivities than on the growth of our scientific understanding — important as that is. Education for sustainable development cannot be concerned only with disciplines that improve our understanding of nature, despite their undoubted value. Success in the struggle for sustainable development requires an approach to education that strengthens our engagement in support of other values – especially justice and fairness – and the awareness that we share a common destiny with others.

  • Ethical values are the principal factor in social cohesion and, at the same time, the most effective agent of change and transformation. Ultimately, sustainability will depend on changes in behaviour and lifestyles, changes which will need to be motivated by a shift in values and rooted in the cultural and moral precepts upon which behaviour is based. Without change of this kind, even the most enlightened legislation, the cleanest technology, the most sophisticated research will not succeed in steering society towards the long-term goal of sustainability.

  • Changes in lifestyle will need to be accompanied by the development of an ethical awareness, whereby the inhabitants of rich countries discover within their cultures the source of a new and active solidarity, which will make possible to eradicate the widespread poverty that now besets 80% of the world’s population as well as the environmental degradation and other problems linked to it.

  • Ethical values are shaped through education, in the broadest sense of the term. Education is also essential in enabling people to use their ethical values to make informed and ethical choices. Fundamental social changes, such as those required to move towards sustainability, come about either because people sense an ethical imperative to change or because leaders have the political will to lead in that direction and sense that the people will follow them.

  • The effectiveness of education for sustainable development must ultimately be measured by the degree to which it changes the attitudes and behaviours of people, both in their individual roles, including those of producers and consumers, and in carrying out their collective responsibilities and duties as citizens.

Basic education
Basic education provides the foundation for all future education and is a contribution to sustainable development in its own right.
If through education we can lift not just one child but 125 million children out of poverty and hopelessness, we will have achieved a momentous victory for the values … and the cause of our common humanity.6
This lesson has been identified from the work of UNESCO, governments, other international agencies, education systems and many other organizations and actors in seeking to relate education to national strategies and action plans for sustainable development, to review national education policies, and to promote investment in education, three of the key objectives in the CSD’s International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Sustainability.
Basic education provides the foundation for all future education and learning. Its goal, as concerns those in the pre-school and primary school-age population, whether enrolled in school or not, is to produce children who are happy with themselves and with others, who find learning exciting and develop inquiring minds, who begin to build up a storehouse of knowledge about the world and, more importantly, an approach to seeking knowledge that they can use and develop throughout their lives. Basic education is also integral to lifelong learning, especially in increasing the level adult literacy.
Basic education is aimed at all the essential goals of education: learning to know, to do, to be (ie., to assume one's duties and responsibilities) and to live together with others, as outlined in Education: the Treasure Within, the report of the Independent Commission on Education for the 21st Century Report published in 1996 by UNESCO. It is, thus, not only the foundation for lifelong learning, but also the foundation for sustainable development.
Access to basic education is a major requirement for poverty eradication. Indeed, poverty cannot be eradicated without education. However, 110 million 6–11 year olds still do not attend primary school. Millions more attend only briefly — often for a year or less — then leave without the most essential elements of a basic education or the skills to make their way in an increasingly complex and knowledge-based world. These will join the nearly 900 million adults, the majority of whom are women, who cannot read. Those denied an education suffer enormous social and economic disadvantage. They are amongst those with the poorest health, lowest housing standards, and poorest employment prospects in the world. In fact, they have less of nearly everything in life, except children. In Peru, for example, women with ten or more years of education bear an average of 2.5 children whereas women with no education have an average of 7.4 children. In other countries, the difference is less extreme, but still sizeable. Nearly everywhere, higher levels of education — especially for girls and women — reduces the average size of families while contributing to the health, well-being and education of children. However, this is not the only way education impacts upon sustainability. Education is essential for mobilizing minds and communities in the struggle for sustainable development.

Education for All (EFA)
The World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990) marked a new start in the global quest to universalize basic education and eradicate illiteracy. The Jomtien Conference also marked the beginning of a broader vision of basic education to include, as well as literacy and numeracy, the general knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that they require to survive, develop their capacities, live and work in dignity, improve the quality of their lives, make informed decisions and continue learning.


Educating Girls and Women7
Though everyone has an equal right to education, girls and women lag far behind boys and men, Two out of every three of the 110 million children in the world who do not attend school are girls – and there are 42 million fewer girls than boys in primary school. Even if girls start school, they are far less likely to complete their education. Girls who miss out on primary education grow up to become the women who make up two-thirds of the world’s 875 million illiterate adults.
Yet education is not only their fundamental right, but also an effective way of achieving higher economic growth as well as social well-being. Educated girls marry later, have fewer children, and feed and look after themselves and their families better. Their survival rate is higher, and their daughters are themselves more likely to go to school. Studies have shown that women with some education are more productive, for example in agriculture, than those with none.
The Dakar Framework for Action set the goals of eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, achieving gender equality in education by 2015, and ensuring that girls are not denied their right to education. To this end, the United Nations launched a thirteen-agency partner ship in 2001 called the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI) that also includes bilateral agencies, civil societies, NGOs, the private sector and governments. Working in over seventy countries, UNGEI already has notable successes. For example:

  • Egypt has made a commitment to close gender gaps in basic education, beginning with two pilot projects which include reaching out-of-school girls.

  • In Nepal, where the girls’ enrolment rate lags nearly 20 per cent behind that of boys, a new initiative is promoting girls’ education by focusing on community owned schools, capacity building for female teachers, health education reform and special activities for the daughters of bonded labourers.

  • Action to stem girls’ drop-out rates, promote life skills, address HIV/AIDS and increase vocational education for girls are features of a new programme for girls education in Malawi.

The Education for All (EFA) Year 2000 Assessment was the end-of-decade review of the objectives agreed in Jomtien. This was the most in-depth evaluation of basic education ever undertaken. National assessments, sample surveys, case studies, a series of fourteen thematic studies, and data on eighteen statistical indicators quantified progress in more than 180 countries.

The Assessment revealed that none of the EFA targets set at Jomtien were met in their entirety — most notably, the fundamental goal of achieving ‘universal access to, and completion of’ basic education by 2000’. However, many successes were noted:

  • The number of children enrolled in school rose from an estimated 599 million in 1990 to 681 million in 1998, nearly twice the average increase during the preceding decade. Eastern Asia and the Pacific, as well as Latin America and the Caribbean are now close to, and China and India have made substantial progress towards, achieving universal primary education. Developing countries as a whole have achieved a net-enrolment ratio in primary education in excess of 80 per cent.

  • The importance of early childhood education is now recognised, and the idea that education begins at birth has taken root in many societies. As a result, the number of children in pre-school education rose by 5 per cent in the past decade.

  • More people are now entering secondary education and the rate of completion for upper secondary education is rising steeply with each successive age group. Worldwide, secondary education enrolment has expanded ten-fold over the past fifty years, from 40 million in 1950 to more than 400 million today. Over the same period, tertiary education enrolments increased nearly fourteen fold from 6.5 million in 1950 to 88.2 million in 1997.

  • The number of literate adults grew significantly over the past decade, from an estimated 2.7 billion in 1990 to 3.3 billion in 1998. The overall global adult literacy rate now stands at 85 per cent for men, 74 per cent for women. More than 50% of the world's adult population has now attended primary school. However, an estimated 880 million adults cannot read or write, and in the least developed countries one out of every two individuals falls into this category. Two-thirds of illiterate adults are women — exactly the same proportion as ten years ago.

  • A few countries have made progress in reducing inequalities of educational opportunity as reflected by gender, disability, ethnicity, urban versus rural location and working children. Nevertheless, positive trends in primary education mask disparity of access both between and within many countries, and disparities in educational quality can remain even when access rates are high. People in poor, rural and remote communities, ethnic minorities and indigenous populations have shown little or no progress over the past decade. And the gender gap persists.

Despite the concerns noted, these improvements represent a substantial contribution to building capacity for sustainable development.

World Education Forum
In 2000, ten years after Jomtien, the World Education Forum (Dakar, Senegal) confirmed the World Declaration on Education for All, and agreed to six new goals in the Dakar Framework for Action

  • To expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children;

  • To ensure that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to and complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality;

  • To ensure that the learning needs of all young people are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes;

  • To achieve a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women as well as equitable access to basic and continuing education for adults;

  • To eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 and achieve gender equality by 2015 with a focus on ensuring full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality;

  • To improve all aspects of the quality of education and ensure excellence of all, so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

These goals make the links between basic education and sustainable development very clear. Indeed, the Dakar Framework for Action states, ‘Education is … the key to sustainable development and peace and stability with and among countries, and thus an indispensable means for effective participation in the societies and economies of the twenty-first century’.

UNESCO was nominated to orchestrate global efforts to achieve EFA by 2015, and is building partnerships with governments, civil society groups, regional organisations and international agencies (e.g. the World Bank, IMF, UNICEF). A key component of this is the International Decade For Literacy which strongly links education to the crucial task of poverty alleviation.
Key Lessons
The following principles learned from successful EFA activities over the past decade are being integrated into regional and national EFA action plans:

  • EFA goals are attainable provided that the problems of educational access are addressed first and adequately.

  • Redressing inequalities and disparities in access, quality and learning outcomes should be the cornerstone of national educational policy-making, planning and implementation

  • Increased attention should be given to curriculum planning and the provision of adequate and relevant learning materials for improved teaching and learning processes.

  • The content of education, as well as processes of teaching and learning, need to be more learner-centred and less controlled by syllabuses, textbooks and examination requirements. This makes the school curriculum relevant, and also helps students become self-motivators, self-learners and critical thinkers.

  • School effectiveness and learning outcomes can be improved through developing a culture of maintenance, discipline, stewardship, care and self-esteem, democratic management, school-community partnerships, and a commitment to responsibility, professionalism and excellence.

  • The home environment has a major impact on learning outcomes. Parental education and home learning support are vital to learners, providing health and nutrition, moral values and codes of conduct, positive attitudes to education, and support for the school’s requirements of learners.

  • Systematic and continuous assessment, monitoring and evaluation schemes are needed to understand the dynamics of educational change and to help stakeholders develop appropriate responses.8

Education in Emergency Situations

A special audience of basic education are the millions of young people and adults living in emergency and post-conflict situations where the education system has been destabilised, disorganised or destroyed due to human-made crises such as civil strife and war or natural disasters such as flood and drought.
The number of such people is not inconsiderable. At the end of 1999, the UNHCR recognised that there were over 15 million refugees in the world;9 other estimates placed the number of internally displaced persons at between 20 million and 50 million.10 These data mean that up to one per cent of the world’s population has been displaced by conflict or other disasters, have returned home under difficult circumstances, or are otherwise attempting to rebuild their lives and communities without access to services such as education. However, education is a vital way for students, their families and their communities to begin the trauma healing process, and to learn the skills and values needed for a more peaceful future and better governance at local and national levels. At its most basic level, this is education for sustainable development.
Key lessons for education in emergency situations have been identified by UNHCR and its partners in the Interagency Network Group for Education in Emergencies11, including:

  • A rapid response to educational reconstruction is vital.

  • A community-based approach, e.g. through the involvement of local groups in conducting needs and skills assessments, can ensure high levels of participation in education.

  • Existing capacity should be strengthened through providing resources and training for teacher, youth leaders and school management committees

  • Attention needs to be paid to the emotional and physical needs of learners as well as cognitive ones, particularly focusing on the needs of special groups, such as the physically maimed or abused, mentally traumatised, former child soldiers, etc.

  • Durable educational solutions are most often related to the curriculum and language of study in the country of origin, and should provide physical and social protection skills, sustain study skills, and develop survival and peace-building messages and skills.


Reorienting education

There is a need to reorient many existing education policies, programmes and practices so that they build the concepts, skills, motivation and commitment needed for sustainable development.


To be an effective change agent, the fundamental purposes of education have to change – as indicated by Agenda 21. … The current challenge is not so much to reorient education, but to collectively learn to change our perceptions about the purpose and role of education towards a systems based and sustainability oriented paradigm. Without [such] a change in values, technical measure to promote education for sustainable development will have little effect.12

This lesson has been identified from the work of UNESCO, other international agencies, governments, education systems and many other organizations and actors in seeking to clarify and communicate the concept and key messages of education for sustainable development, to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns and to identify and share innovative practices, three of the key objectives in the CSD’s International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Sustainability.
Ten years after Rio, there is substantial (but insufficient) progress towards the reorientation of educational systems in terms of how to prepare people for life: for job security; for the demands of a rapidly changing society; for technological changes that now directly or indirectly affect every part of life; and, ultimately, for the quest for happiness, well-being and quality of life.
Globalisation is proving to be a particular challenge to education. Its economic impacts have been uneven and its cultural impacts threaten local ways of viewing the world. However, globalisation has brought an awareness of the scale of the shared burdens we face and of ways of cooperating with others to address them. Within many countries, formal education systems that were no longer considered adequate to meet the needs of society and the workplace have been rethought. For the most part, however, the limited achievements serve only to show the new direction in which curriculum reform needs to move.
Nevertheless, core themes and key lessons for reorienting education policies, programme and practices towards sustainable development can be identified. These include: a balanced and holistic range of objectives, interdisciplinarity, student-centred learning, and an emphasis on futures education, citizenship education, education for a culture of peace, gender equality and respect for human rights, population education, health education, education for protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development, and education for sustainable consumption.
While education reproduces certain aspects of current society, it also prepares students to transform society for the future. Education must help students to determine what is best conserved in their cultural, economic and natural heritage. It must also nurture values and strategies for attaining sustainability locally, nationally and globally. This requires a curriculum that enhances life skills as a foundation for basic education, as set out in the Dakar Framework for Action, and that balances knowledge, values and skills objectives. A sample set of such objectives is provided in Box 2.

Sample Objectives for a Curriculum Reoriented to Sustainable Development13
Reorienting education for sustainable development encompasses a vision for society that is not only ecologically sustainable but also one which is socially, economically and politically sustainable as well. To achieve this vision, schools should plan learning experiences that enable students to achieve the following objectives:

The ability to engage in:

  • Critical and creative thinking

  • Oral, written and graphic communication

  • Collaboration and cooperation

  • Conflict management

  • Decision making, problem solving and planning

  • Using appropriate technology, media and ICTs

  • Civic participation and action

  • Evaluation and reflection

Attitudes and values

  • Respecting Earth and life in all its diversity;

  • Caring for the community of life – both human and non-human - with understanding, compassion and love;

  • Building democratic societies that are just, sustainable, participatory and peaceful; and

  • Securing Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.


An understanding of, and ability to apply the concepts of:

  • Sustainable development: A process by which the needs of present generations can be satisfied without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy their needs.

  • Interdependence: The relationships of mutual dependence between all elements and life forms, including humans, within natural systems.

  • Basic human needs: The needs and right of all people and societies for fair and equitable access to flows of energy and materials for survival and a satisfying quality of life within the limits of the Earth.

  • Human rights: The fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion, expression, peaceful assembly and association, which ensure access to democratic participation and meeting basic human needs.

  • Democracy: The right of all people to access channels for community decision making.

  • Local-global links: The recognition that the consumption of a product or service in one part of the world is dependent on flows of energy and materials in other parts of the world and that this creates potential opportunities and losses economically, socially and environmentally at all points in the local-global chain.

  • Biodiversity: The diverse and interdependent composition of life forms in an ecosystem that is necessary for sustaining flows of energy and materials indefinitely.

  • Interspecies equity: A consideration of the need for humans to treat creatures decently, and protect them from cruelty and avoidable suffering.

  • Ecological footprint: The area of land and water needed to support the total flow of energy and materials consumed by a community or population indefinitely.

  • Precautionary principle: The need to act judiciously and with an awareness of unintended consequences when we do not possess all the facts on a situation and/or when scientific advice on an issue is divided.

Reorienting education to sustainability requires us to work increasingly at the interface of disciplines in order to address the complex problems of today’s world. What people will need to know in five, ten, twenty or fifty years cannot be reliably predicted. It is predictable, however, that such developments will not fit neatly into the disciplinary boundaries that have been in place for more than a century. Hence, understanding and solving complex problems is likely to require intensified co-operation among scientific fields as well as between the pure and mathematical sciences and the social sciences, the arts and the humanities. Reorienting education to sustainable development will, in short, require important, even dramatic changes, in the way we think of knowledge.
Student-Centred Learning
Participation in the decisions that affect their lives is a key element in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Learning how to participate requires that children and young people have opportunities, within the safety of a learning environment, to practice decision-making. This may be done through curriculum and assessment policies that encourage the development of self-esteem and personal responsibility and of skills for learning how to learn, for critical thinking, and for active participation. Space needs to be left in the curriculum for students to plan their own learning goals and methods, as and when appropriate, and for self- and peer-assessment.
Resource-based teaching, enquiry and discovery learning, values clarification and analysis, problem-based learning, simulation games and role play, and learning through community problem solving are student-centred approaches to learning that need to be encouraged. Such approaches encourage authentic or ‘deep learning’ rather than the ‘shallow learning’ of rote recall and memorisation for examinations. Authentic learning relates to everyday issues and future concerns. It proceeds at the pace at which individuals learn well rather than by imposed schedules and standards. Authentic education engages the ‘whole person’ — body, mind and spirit — in the learning process and creates enthusiasm, insight and reflection as well as compassion, energy and a commitment to working individually and with others to build a sustainable future.14
Futures Education
If it is true that all education is for the future then the future needs to become a more explicit element in all levels of education. As education for sustainable development is education for a future that we cannot yet predict, it is important that education programmes seek to develop skills for understanding and anticipating change and for facing the future with courage and hope. This would involve coming to realise that the future is a human creation, made by our decisions, and that in a democratic society, people have the right, indeed an obligation, to contribute positively to a sustainable future. This would involve learning how to learn, how to analyse and solve complex problems, how to think creatively and critically about the future, how to anticipate and make our own histories. These contribute to the skill of foresight and are all aspects of a futures orientation in education.
Education for Gender Equality
Women have always been - and remain - the deciding influence on the quality of life and well-being of their families and communities. They are the primary care-givers and the managers of natural resources, including food, shelter and consumption of goods, in most cultures. In addition, women also have jobs and careers. However, the general failure to provide equal opportunities for women to pursue education and economic self-sufficiency has meant that a disproportionate number of women are poor and marginalised. These social barriers - exclusion, low status and poverty - are also barriers to a sustainable future.
These facts make the education of girls and women a priority for sustainable development. It also means that all people, male and female, need to learn about the issues of gender and sustainable development and to learn within environments that are sensitive to the learning needs and styles of both males and females. Curriculum materials aimed at promoting such understanding are being produced in most countries. Education systems and schools are also developing policies that promote gender equality within educational processes while teacher education programmes are drawing attention to the importance of including a gender perspective in all subject areas. UNESCO, national governments and many organizations are also seeking to advance the participation of girls in science, mathematics and information and communication technologies. These are important beginnings in the process of promoting gender equality in and through education.
Education for Citizenship and Democratic Societies
Informed and active citizenship is a primary objective of educating fro a sustainable future. Around the world, efforts are being made to integrate citizenship objectives into the formal curriculum. This has involved the promotion of content themes as well as teaching, learning and assessment processes that emphasize values, ethical motivation and the ability to work with others to help build a sustainable future. The global spread of democracy has expanded electoral enfranchisement and meant that adult education for citizenship is also expanding
A key aspect of citizenship education within the context of sustainable development is international understanding. This helps bring an understanding of the links between local and global issues. It also means that young people can be given opportunities to examine their own cultural values and beliefs, to appreciate the similarities between peoples everywhere, to understand the global contexts of their lives, and to develop skills that will enable them to combat prejudice and discrimination. In these ways, students can use their knowledge, skills and commitments to plan an active role in the global community.15
Education for a Culture of Peace and Respect for Human Rights
A key pillar of education is learning how to live together in peace and harmony. This involves, firstly, strengthening one’s own identify, self-worth and self-confidence and, then, learning to appreciate the cultures of others, to respect others as individuals and groups, and to apply the same ethical principles to decisions about other people that one would apply within one’s own culture. These are key learnings for life in the 21st Century.
Yet, schools are sometimes affected by deep-seated national stereotypes of others, overly nationalistic sentiments and views of history, and contemporary ethnic, religious and political tensions. Schools can even pass on partisan views inadvertently, for example through insensitively written or out-dated textbooks. The UNESCO Associated Schools Project (ASP-NET) has been instrumental in developing strategies and resources for promoting human rights and peace in the curriculum. As shown in Box 3, schools can also be used as channels or building peace at the societal level.
Health Education
A child's ability to attain her or his full potential is directly related to the synergistic effect of good health, good nutrition and appropriate education. Good health and good education are not only ends in themselves, but also means which provide individuals with the chance to lead productive and satisfying lives. School health is an investment in a country's future and in the capacity of its people to thrive economically and as a society. Thus, good health and nutrition are both essential inputs and important outcomes of basic education. Children must be healthy and well-nourished in order to fully participate in education and gain its maximum benefits. Early childhood care programmes and primary schools that improve children's health and nutrition can enhance the learning and educational outcomes of school children, especially girls, and thus for the next generation of children as well. In addition, a healthy, safe and secure school environment can help protect children from health hazards, abuse and exclusion.


Combating Discrimination in Chile —

An interview with Chilean Education Minister, Mariana Aylwin16
Q. What are the special problems facing Chile’s education system?
A. The country is in the throws of ‘massification’ (general expansion) of education. Also, our education system continues to put content before the job of instilling social and emotional values. The relationship between teachers and pupils is still based on hierarchy, which leaves little room for pupil participation and initiative. Chilean society is also strongly biased against some sectors of the population and there is violence in our schools.
Q. Can schools help people live peacefully together?
A. Chilean educational reform has set this and citizenship as broad and fundamental goals in all aspects of school life. We want to include non-violent conflict resolution in our on-the-job training for teachers. Pilot projects are already under way in several parts of the country. We also have a programme where schools open their doors to pupils and parents on Saturdays and Sundays. As schools get more involved with the local community, they become cultural, sporting and social meeting places.
Q. Schools themselves may take part in discrimination instead of fighting it. How can this be avoided?
A. In Chile, we have a system of assessing teachers which takes into account their degree of tolerance, compassion and respect for diversity, and their efforts to combat discrimination. School textbooks have been very carefully written to avoid sexist or discriminatory content.
Improving the health and learning of school children through school-based health and nutrition programmes is not a new concept. Many countries have school health programmes, and many agencies have decades of experience. These common experiences suggest an opportunity for concerted action by a partnership of agencies to broaden the scope of school health programmes and make them more effective. Thus, WHO, UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank have developed a core group of cost effective strategies for making schools healthy for children and so contribute to the development of child-friendly schools. These agencies have launched a new approach to health education called FRESH (Focusing Resources on Effective School Health). The FRESH framework is a starting point for developing an effective school health component in broader efforts to achieve more child-friendly schools. The FRESH framework involves four components:

  • Health-related school policies, including skills-based health education and the provision of some health services, can help promote the overall health, hygiene and nutrition of children.

  • Provision of safe water and sanitation can ensure that all schools have access to clean water and sanitation. By providing these facilities, schools can reinforce the health and hygiene messages, and act as an example to both students and the wider community.

  • Skills-based health education focuses upon the development of knowledge, attitudes, values, and life skills needed to make and act on the most appropriate and positive health-related decisions

  • School-based health and sanitation services can deliver vital health and nutritional services if they are simple, safe and familiar, and address problems that are prevalent and recognised as important within the community.17

A healthy population and safe environments are important pre-conditions for a sustainable future. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, the education of many children and young people around the world is compromised by conditions and behaviours that undermine their physical and emotional well-being. Hunger, malnutrition, malaria, polio and intestinal infections, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and injury, unplanned pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections are some of the health problems faced. As a result, schools must be not only centres for academic learning, but also supportive venues for the provision of essential health education and services.

HIV/AIDS is a major concern for teachers and education systems. The impacts on people’s lives — and on the opportunities for economic activities — mean that the epidemic is a major threat to plans for a sustainable future. The experience of UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO and others indicate several key lessons for effective school-based preventive education programmes, including:

  • HIV-related issues need to be integrated into broader education about reproductive health, life skills, substance use, and other health issues.

  • Prevention and health programmes should not only teach young people the biomedical aspects of reproductive health but they should also learn how to cope with the complex demands of relationships.

  • Programmes that adopt a life skills approach are most successful; these help young people take greater control of their lives by making healthy life choices, gaining greater resistance to negative pressures, and minimising harmful behaviours.

  • Prevention and health programmes should begin at the earliest possible age and certainly before sexual activity.

  • Prevention and health programmes should extend to the whole educational setting, including the school system, students, teachers and other school personnel, parents, and the community around the school.

UNESCO is currently investigating how education systems need to adapt to the new contexts that are resulting from the pandemic as a way of illustrating that the quality of education that students receive is vital to their personal and social futures.

Population Education
Education plays a vital role in the quest to ensure that the basic needs and well-being of all the world’s people are met. This is also the ultimate goal of population policies. Sustainable development, above all else, requires new ways of thinking and acting. Within this context, the relationship between education and population needs to be seen in the broader context of the struggle to overcome poverty, promote justice and equity and ensure respect of the environment and for the right of future generations to live healthy and fulfilling lives.
Population education is aimed at enabling learners to better understand the nature, causes and effects of population dynamics and the manner in which they affect — and, in turn, are affected by — the actions of individuals, families, communities and nations. Properly conducted, population education is liberating and empowering, not indoctrination or propaganda. It does not seek to impose particular attitudes or behaviours upon learners, but rather to enable them to make informed decisions that serve their own best interest.
The key lessons learnt about population education over the last decade include:

  • Education can be consciously used to achieve population and health objectives. Increasing general levels of education is, over time, a highly effective means of dealing with population issues. Specific programmes, however, are needed to focus on urgent problems, such as HIV/AIDS, or vulnerable groups, such as poor women in developing countries.

  • Population education must deal with values and views. Clarifying and classifying these is especially important in the emotionally charged issues of sex and reproduction confronted by young adults, particularly young women. The goal is to teach people to think and reason for themselves, to develop self-respect as well as respect for others, to think ahead and plan their future, and to carefully consider the implications as well as the consequences of their behaviour on themselves and others.

  • A considerable number of population education programmes have been addressed specifically to girls and young women. They also, where necessary, provide referrals to health services. Many studies show that girls and women suffer from lower self-esteem and expectations than do boys or men in similar situations. Population education programmes, when well conceived and executed, can become lead a school’s response to these problems.

  • It is now recognised that women cannot adequately protect their sexual and reproductive health in the context of power imbalances with their male partners. Thus, many population initiatives are also beginning to provide boys with caring, informed, and responsible images of what it means to be 'male'. This has given rise to a range of programmes to collect information on and support the preparation of boys for effective fatherhood, responsible masculinity, more equal participation in decision-making about contraception and fertility, and fuller participation in caring for children.

  • Probably no single factor is as important to the success of population education as the training and motivation of teachers. Teacher training colleges are a strategic entry point for introducing needed population education information and, more importantly, for providing training in the communication skills, attitudes, and approaches that a subject dealing with intimate behaviours requires.

  • The prevailing attitudes and practices within schools are also important in either strengthening or undermining the messages of population education. Discussion of gender equality, for example, is pointless where the school itself limits the opportunities available to girls to participate equally in all fields of study and activities.

In summary, successful population education programmes share a number of common characteristics. They appear to be well adapted to their socio-economic conditions and institutional structures; they provide coherent, easy to understand and convincing messages; they make use of well-trained teachers; and they enjoy the unequivocal support of the education system and its leaders.

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