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Home > Why education and public awareness are indispensable - Updated: 04-09-2002 6:22 pm
Address by Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General for UNESCO, at the Opening Session of the UNESCO and South African Ministry of Education Parallel Event "Educating for a Sustainable Future: Action, Commitment and Partnerships", Johannesburg, 2 Sept. 2002  

DG-openingsession-ED.jpg Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

An exciting international consensus has emerged since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro: the international community now believes, very strongly, that education is central to achieving sustainable development.

Achieving sustainable development is a process of learning. Just as past centuries of socialization taught us to live unsustainably - and thus created the social and environmental problems we are seeking to address at this World Summit - we now need to learn our way out, namely, to learn how to live sustainably.

Sustainable development requires committed, active and knowledgeable citizens. It also requires caring and informed decision-makers who will make the right choices about the complex, interrelated issues facing human societies.

It is in this perspective that I hereby pay tribute to Minister Asmal for his initiative in proposing this parallel event and to the Government of South Africa for co-organizing it with UNESCO. In addition, I would like to applaud the many Heads of State and Heads of Government whose presence here testifies to the commitment, at the highest political level, to sustainable development and education’s role within it. Yours remarks will carry great weight in our debates and will serve as the starting point for our discussions. I would also like to thank the representatives of other UN agencies for coming here today as well as the many civil society organizations who are key partners in efforts to promote education for sustainable development. In this regard, I would like to express my appreciation to the NGO-UNESCO Liaison Committee for its cooperation in the organizing of this symposium.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To achieve all our goals will require the broader process of social change known as social learning. 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 our thinking and behaviour.

From such processes of social learning, over the decade since the Rio Earth Summit, we have learned four key lessons about sustainable development.

First, we know that sustainable development is a catalytic vision for social change rather than a neatly defined, technical concept.

Second, we know that sustainable development is a moral precept as well as a scientific concept. It is linked as much with notions of peace, human rights and fairness as it is with theories of ecology or global warming.

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

Finally, we have learnt that sustainable development requires us to acknowledge the interdependent relationship between human needs and the natural environment, which means that no single development or environmental objective should be pursued to the detriment of others. Thus, the environment cannot be protected in ways that leave half of humanity in poverty. Similarly, there can be no long-term development on a depleted planet. The eradication of poverty and its attendant tragedies, and finding ways of leaving Planet Earth in a sustainable condition for our children and grand-children, are the key goals of this Summit.

Linking social, economic and environmental concerns in this way is the central tenet of sustainable development. Creating such links demands a deeper, more ambitious way of thinking about education than perhaps we are used to. It requires all those involved in education - teachers, teacher educators, curriculum developers, education policy-makers and authors of educational materials - to promote 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.

Governments recognized the critical importance of education for promoting sustainable development a decade ago at the Rio Earth Summit and in Agenda 21, the action plan agreed to by all governments at the Earth Summit. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, on Education, Awareness and Training, states that: “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.”

Following the Rio Earth Summit, UNESCO was designated as its Task Manager for Chapter 36. Since Rio, it has been the role of UNESCO to mobilise the various actors concerned with implementing Chapter 36, and to facilitate new initiatives and partnerships primarily through a wide-ranging Work Programme approved by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

Educating for a sustainable future is a formidable challenge. How can we better understand the complexity of the world around us? How are the problems of our world interconnected, and what does that imply for their solution? What kind of world do we want for the future, within the limits of our Earth’s life support systems? How can we reconcile the requirements of economy, society, and the environment?

Such questions, of course, are not new and, in its capacity as the specialized agency for education within the United Nations system, UNESCO has addressed them over a period of many years. However, as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, UNESCO has been grappling with these questions with renewed vigour.

The new vision of education for a sustainable future places education at the heart of the quest to solve the problems threatening our future. Education - in all its forms and at all levels - is not only an end in itself but is also one of the most powerful instruments we have for bringing about the changes required to achieve sustainable development.

In this new vision of education, it is the role of educators to help learners better understand the world in which they live and to help them know how to address the complex, interconnected problems that threaten our common future. This vision of education emphasizes a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to developing the knowledge and skills needed for a sustainable future, as well as the necessary changes in values, behaviour, and lifestyles. This vision requires us to reorient education systems, policies and practices in order to empower everyone - women and men, young and old - to make decisions and act in ways that are culturally appropriate and locally relevant in order to redress the problems threatening our common future.

In fulfilling its role as Task Manager for Chapter 36 of Agenda 21, UNESCO has been a catalyst for clarifying the key ideas and guiding principles associated with this new vision of education. We have facilitated the sharing of innovation between countries by convening international conferences and regional workshops, by developing demonstration projects and sample curriculum and training materials, and by utilizing our Associated Schools Network to promote the principles of peace, human rights, equity and conservation.

UNESCO is also the coordinator and catalyst of the international drive for Education for All (EFA). The Framework for Action agreed at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in April 2000 states that education is “the key to sustainable development and peace and stability within and among countries”. The EFA agenda has many dimensions, including the preparation of national education plans linked to development strategies and anti-poverty programmes, capacity-building in the areas of early childhood, primary and science education, and enhancing all aspects of the quality of basic education.

UNESCO has also developed partnerships with many UN agencies, as the following examples illustrate: with UNFPA, WHO, UNEP and ILO to promote population education; with WHO to develop new approaches to health education; with FAO to advance education in rural areas and to promote food security; with WHO and UNAIDS to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic; and with UNEP for the creation of an international communication and information platform on sustainable consumption for youth.

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.

The role and importance of major civil society groups have also increased significantly since Rio. The NGO-UNESCO Liaison Committee, representing about 350 professional NGOs notably in the field of education, set up a special commission to mobilize its members in support of the World Summit here in Johannesburg.

The major regional and international associations of higher education, including the International Association of Universities, have joined with UNESCO to form a Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership. Several UNESCO Chairs have been established around the globe to devote themselves to issues of sustainable development within the UNITWIN-UNESCO Chairs Programme.

I am happy to report that we will be consolidating the fruits of many of these initiatives through new partnerships which will be launched at this Symposium.

With the Government of South Africa, we will be launching the South African version of Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future, UNESCO’s new multimedia teacher education programme. This version, which has attracted interest from other countries in the region, is the first of many adaptations and translations of this innovative programme. With Education International, tomorrow we will launch a ‘Dissemination and Training Toolbox’ that will rapidly expand the adoption of the programme by members of the world’s teachers unions.

Tomorrow we will also be launching three partnerships to promote education for a sustainable future. These are a partnership with FAO to advance education for rural transformation and food security; a partnership with J Walter Thomson Worldwide and the Government of Canada to utilize the skills and resources of the advertising industry to take the messages of sustainable development to the people of the world; and the Global Higher Education for Sustainability Partnership with the International Association of Universities, the European University Association (formerly Copernicus CRE) and University Leaders for a Sustainable Future.

These are exciting new developments which, in their different ways, converge around the same essential message: education and public awareness are indispensable for a sustainable future. I can assure you that UNESCO will continue to do all it can to promote this vital agenda.

Thank you.


Date 01-09-2002 10:00 pm
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