Role of youth and adult learning and education for sustainable development

Thematic priorities to respond to multiple crises at local, regional and global levels in the context of a globalizing world marked by rapid changes in the economy, governance, labour market and climate; reflecting the need for a paradigm shift in setting an alternative agenda.

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Responding to the multiple crises experienced at local, regional and global levels requires timely and relevant adult learning and education for sustainable development programs. Currently, climate change education and disaster preparedness education are just two examples of programs that contribute to responding to this situation of crisis. The rapid spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa has reminded us that like disasters and climate change, diseases can easily cross borders and become global health problems that pose a threat to achieving the goals of sustainable development.

However, while the above-mentioned educational initiatives are vital (and often successful)  for addressing the crisis at hand, there can be a tendency for these programs to be too focused on education and learning ‘about’ the problem in order to solve it. As a result, these programs often miss out on the opportunities that a situation of crisis provides for education and learning ‘for’ sustainable development.

The 1987 publication of “Our Common Future” or the Bruntland Report enshrined the holistic vision of sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, in the language and discourse of the global development agenda.

As we approach the finalization of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, we continue to be challenged by the experience that translating this inter-related view of the social, economic and environmental dimensions in sustainable development is easier said than done. Tensions around the dominance of the economic over the environmental and social dimensions, the argument that culture must be a cross-cutting dimension, and the all-too-often silence in addressing the power and political dimensions, have made global agreements difficult to achieve at many levels.

In the realm of education and learning, these tensions continue to act as roadblocks to the achievement of an education and learning for shaping our common future. Disciplinary boundaries continue to dominate how we learn to understand and propose solutions to the current global problems. For example, environmental science and economic perspectives continue to dominate climate change education and the proposed mitigation and adaptation responses. Too often the social dimensions that contribute to greater vulnerability of those marginalized by poverty and the powerful interests are acknowledged but rarely addressed. States that have primarily contributed to the problem continue to avoid taking responsibility for appropriate action, despite an agreement around differentiated responsibilities.

Similarly, the dominance of formal education efforts at all levels, in attempting to respond to the learning needed for the issues we face, has often been at the expense of the significant contribution of informal and non-formal (including community, youth and adult education). The counter argument is that there aren’t enough resources to fund the goals of access to quality education for all children, youth and adults. Time and again, this argument has been proven to be untrue, as billions continue to be spent on defense and security. Education advocates cite that the $26 billion needed to achieve universal primary education is equivalent to the amount spent in current global military activities in one week.

The resource gap argument, based on the inability of the public purse to finance education, has led to the growing influence of private capital through what has been called innovative financing mechanisms like public-private partnerships. While there are opportunities for genuine innovative financing, such proposals within the current global imbalance of power, may lead to education privatization, which has resulted in two-tier education provision, quality for those who can afford it and low quality for the marginalized and vulnerable. This imbalance will continue to block us from truly achieving access to inclusive and quality education for all as a basic human right.

Climate change and disaster risk reduction education continues to dominate the education and learning agenda for sustainable development. Both are urgently needed. But at this stage, unfortunately, both have a tendency to be reactive educational responses often based on equally narrow attempts to address the environmental dimension without tackling the underlying development models that have significantly contributed to both problems.

It is these tensions between the ideally holistic sustainable development paradigm and the reality of the dominance of neoliberal power, and its influence our ability to re-think and re-structure our education systems to not just react, but to be responsive to our common future, that we need keep in mind as we review the global agreements and their future implications to local youth and adult education policy, practice and advocacy.

If we are to reflect on recent experiences, for example in the ongoing climate change negotiations, the dominant economic and political powers have continued to exert pressure to defend their own interests, couched as global agreements. Therefore, we need to appreciate these global agreements for what they are worth, aspirational goals that we all need to contextualize into local, national and at times regional realities.

Given that ICAE’s platform is the international level; we need to ensure that there is a separate and explicit education goal that embodies the principle of access to inclusive quality education as a basic right, within lifelong learning, for all is not negotiable. The task ahead is to ensure that these goals are translated into regional and local policies and actions, working collaboratively with regional and national civil society organizations and allied partners in government, intergovernmental agencies and the private sector. This will involve capacity-building of CSOs which will ensure that these goals are contextualized, implemented, monitored and achieved. At the same time, ICAE should enhance its own capacity to contribute to the global voice that draws from the rich experiences and the diverse contextual challenges of its membership.

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