Sustainable development through education

S. M. Rayhanul Islam | Thursday, 1 December 2016

Planet Earth is in dire straits. Natural resources have been overexploited. A significant loss of biodiversity is occurring, while a massive rise in carbon levels is leading to climate change and associated extreme weathers. The planet also faces desertification, drought and land degradation. Human living conditions have not fared much better. Even though the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined over the decades, inequalities between rich and poor continue to rise. A recently published Oxfam report shows that the world's richest 62 people possess as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. Too many people are trapped in poverty, and lack clean air and drinking water as well as adequate food and nutrition. Many families are forcibly displaced or on the run due to protracted conflict. Wide disparities persist in access to education of good quality. It is out of these concerns that the concept of sustainable development was born. Sustainable development is an organising principle for global development that supports the well-being of both people and the planet. Since its emergence, the concept and term have expanded to bridge gaps among environmental, economic and social concerns, attempting to integrate environmental protection and ecological integrity, economic viability, and social and human development.
At the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2015, member-states adopted a new global development agenda -Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At its heart are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG-4 on education - 'Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all'. The SDGs establish development priorities to 2030 and succeed the millennium development goals (MDGs) and the goals of Education for All (EFA) - the global movement to ensure quality basic education for all children, youth and adults - both of which expired in 2015.
The Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report -2016 provides an authoritative account of how education is the most vital input for every dimension of sustainable development. It establishes that education is at the heart of sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), yet it also makes clear that how far away we are from achieving the SDGs. Education gives us the key tools - economic, social, technological, even ethical - to take on the SDGs and to achieve them. Yet the report also emphasises the remarkable gaps between where the world stands today on education and where it has promised to arrive as of 2030. The GEM Report undertakes an important exercise to determine how many countries will reach the 2030 target on the current trajectory, or even on a path that matches the fastest improving country in the region.
This well-documented comprehensive GEM report is divided into two main parts (i.e. thematic part and monitoring part) containing 24 chapters. The thematic part discusses reciprocal ties between SDG-4 on education and the other 16 SDGs. It examines education-oriented evidence, practices and policies that demonstrate education's role in achieving the overall 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At the same time, it recognises that changing realities in other development sectors affect education systems and outcomes. The thematic part is made up of eight chapters. Six chapters investigate the fundamental pillars and essential concepts of sustainable development - Planet, Prosperity, People, Peace, Place and Partnerships. The final thematic chapter, Projections, discusses how expected increases in educational attainment by 2030 will affect key development targets by 2050. 
The chapter 'Planet' focuses on the roles education can play in transforming society to move towards environmental sustainability. It discusses evidence on how education can develop the knowledge, skills and solutions to help increase concern for the environment, build awareness of climate change and other climate risks, and change individual behaviour to become more environment-friendly. 'Prosperity' explores the roles of education in fostering environmentally sustainable and economically inclusive development. The chapter 'People' discusses inclusive social development as an aspiration to ensure that all women and men, girls and boys lead healthy, dignified and empowered lives. It also focuses on the transformative social development needed to change social structures, institutions and relationships. The chapter 'Peace' demonstrates the role of education in fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies. It argues that stable peace is more likely in societies with democratic and representative institutions and a well-functioning justice system. The chapter 'Place' highlights cities in discussing spatial dimensions of development, since urbanisation is a defining population trend. The chapter provides evidence that education can have positive effects, such as reducing crime, and be used in good urban planning, for example to encourage sustainable transport. The chapter 'Partnerships' describes how effective implementation of the SDGs requires integrated plans and actions. All government levels, sectors and types of national and international actors need to work together; they also require adequate financing and other enabling conditions (human capacity, effective institutions and political will) to meet the needs of the new agenda. The chapter 'Projections' presents model-based scenarios for education attainment and describes education's role in attaining development targets. It projects likely scenarios for the increase in educational attainment between 2015 and 2030. Given that quantitative analysis usually views education as having longer-term intergenerational effects, it then projects how educational attainment by 2030 will affect key measurable development targets - infant and child mortality, adult life expectancy, economic growth, poverty rates and disaster-related deaths - by 2050.
The monitoring part of the 2016 GEM Report presents the wide-ranging challenges and debates involving monitoring for the Education 2030 agenda and how countries and the international community can move forward. It is organised into 15 chapters, including the introduction and conclusion. The first 10 chapters look separately at each of the 7 education targets and 3 means of implementation. They identify the concepts that are explicitly or implicitly embedded in the target formulation. Each chapter discusses how the concepts are articulated within the proposed global and thematic indicators. They focus primarily on the extent to which the methodology of the indicators is established, and on identifying tools currently available to collect relevant data. The monitoring part of the GEM Report tries not to be prescriptive but rather to make a timely contribution to the debate on what should be monitored and how. The state of global education monitoring is in flux. Many initiatives are under way to respond to the challenges of the proposed indicator frameworks. Given the time lag for information becoming available, it is still too early to provide baseline data for 2015 - or indeed definitive data for the end of the EFA period.
Chapters 20 to 22 address cross-cutting issues. Chapter 20 discusses education finance, for which there is no dedicated SDG target, though the Education 2030 Framework for Action gives a clear set of recommendations. Using a framework provided by national education accounts, the chapter discusses prospects for better data on public spending, aid and household expenditure. Chapter 21 reflects on the fact that some proposed indicators are about neither inputs nor outcomes but instead relate to growing interest in the role of education systems. It provides an overview of available mechanisms and the scope for better coordination, especially at the regional level. Chapter 22 looks at all targets under other SDG goals, as well as the corresponding global indicators, to identify those where education is mentioned directly or indirectly. This comprehensive overview of the global education monitoring challenges offers insights, brings together disparate pieces of information and identifies stakeholders whose work needs recognition and coordination.
Chapter 23 draws attention to common themes and missing pieces in this discussion - and identifies building blocks and potential synergies for a more effective and efficient global education monitoring agenda over the next 15 years at the national, regional and international levels.
The concluding chapter of the GEM Report reflects on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a whole and the critical importance of follow-up and review processes. The 2030 Agenda sets out an ambitious collective vision for people and planet that requires political will, resources and collaboration. This very timely Global Education Monitoring Report will obviously serve as a bridge between global dialogue and national initiatives, contributing not only to one sector but to broader efforts to identify effective policies that can ensure equitable quality education, reduce poverty, improve health and create more inclusive, just and sustainable futures for all.
The writer is an independent researcher.
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