• Nicole de Paula

Educating Citizens in the 21st Century: the Opportunity of the Sustainable Development Goals

Mainstreaming sustainability into education at all levels is our best bet against inequality and dangerous environment degradation.

In July 2018, New York has become the home of hundreds of development practitioners and enthusiast globalists, who are gathering at the United Nations to attend the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). Since 2016, this Forum meets annually for eight days to evaluate the progress of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals are the most relevant roadmap against poverty and inequality trying to ensure that no one will be “left behind.” For that, this universal plan recognizes the importance of a holistic approach towards development policies and places environmental resilience as a fundamental pillar of our own health and wellbeing.

To make the SDGs impactful, education for environmental literacy must be an utmost priority. Universities can be at the forefront of innovation and, together, collaborate to share expertise on the implementation of the SDGs. The 2018 HLPF conducted in-depth review of six SDGs: Goals 6 (clean water and sanitation), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), 12 (responsible consumption and production), 15 (life on land) and 17 (partnership for the Goals). These are vital areas for high educations institutions, as they require analytical knowledge and can provide guidance, as well as skills to advance learning.

Higher education institutions are where most future decision makers are. Educators have thus the mission to share best practices in making partnerships successful and tools that can accelerate SDGs implementation. On this occasion, a session at the UN headquarters convened leading educators to share their views during the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative Global Event on 11 July 2018.

Leaving no one behind requires

education for all

Practically speaking, how can we change our education programs for systems change? Many interesting points were raised and I will highlight three.

First, governments alone cannot undertake the herculean task to make the UN Sustainable Development Goals a reality. After an arduous diplomatic process concluded in 2015, the Agenda 2030 will only become a reality on the ground if the SDGs are known and internalized beyond the “New York bubble.” Local governments, academia, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and engaged citizens are all essential partners to implement the SDGs.

Second, the way we evaluate the success of our universities must incorporate sustainability. For example, business schools are usually evaluated by where its students will end up working. During the discussions, one Dean highlighted the challenges to demonstrate to students the benefits in engaging in social enterprises or non-profits instead of the most traditional financial jobs. On the other hand, these schools are also under pressure to maintain their global rank high and sustainability issues are usually not perceived as something of their “business.”

Third, higher education institutions are at the core of various solutions related to all SDGs. Through research, we can have the answers for so many of the challenges related to sanitation, poor infrastructure, unsustainable consumption, and overall inequality. But such solutions have greater chances to become real and scalable if interdisciplinary teams and interpersonal skills are valued.

The 2030 Agenda seeks a paradigm shift. It aims to transform societies and give dignity to all by enhancing social, political and environmental policies holistically. To do so, partnerships are key tools to ensure that such transformative agenda becomes a reality on the ground.

Sustainability literacy is imperative in the 21st Century.

There’s one challenge, however. In times of public messages that value nationalism and global disengagement, how can we send a strong signal that the SDGs require solid global cooperation? To illustrate this challenge, one panelist noted that, for the first time in history, American universities are attracting less international students.

To create long-term solutions, education is key. Universities, for example, can orchestrate communities of practices and accelerate capacity building to inform citizens and shape the decision makers of the future. Multifaceted engagement with different society groups is needed and higher education institutions should play a key role in sustainability and resilience building. However, a single degree no longer provides the answers for our current challenges.

Education must be delivered in a different way. Everyone wants to work for a purpose. Everyone can be part of the solution.


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