Building peace in the minds of men and women

Wide Angle

Sahle-Work Zewde: “We must collectively commit to changing course”


President Sahle-Work Zewde and Filsan Abdulahi, then Minister of Women, Children and Youth, visiting a coding and robotics training programme for orphaned children in Addis Ababa, 2018.

In the context of today's environmental, social, and technological challenges, it is imperative that schools evolve – by creating inclusive educational ecosystems, and adopting participatory approaches that strengthen living together.

An interview with Sahle-Work Zewde
President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Chair of the International Commission on the Futures of Education.

The International Commission on the Futures of Education aims to rethink education in an increasingly complex, uncertain, and unequal world. What, according to you, are the values and principles that should underpin the education of tomorrow?

The challenges the world faces now – as well as those we see on the horizon – are ones that we need to face collectively. Increasing inequality, climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, overuse of the earth’s resources, social fragmentation, the risk that technology will divide us further – all of these require international co-operation and global solidarity on a scale that we have not yet seen. 

Education needs to develop the capabilities of people across the world to engage in dialogue and act together. To be empowered to take collective action, individuals need to learn empathy. Education has the potential to expose everyone everywhere to knowledge, opportunities, and people that they would not otherwise encounter. A strong commitment to human rights, gender equality, and to repairing past injustices, will help us create inclusive educational ecosystems that support people in all areas of their lives. 

Education needs to develop capabilities to engage in dialogue and act together

Above all, thinking about the future of education means taking action today. The survival of humanity and the living planet is at risk. Collectively we must commit to changing course, so that the well-being of future generations is not compromised, and so that we live with each other and with the natural world in justice and peace.

Today, 258 million children around the world are still out of school. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all by 2030, seems out of reach. How can we rethink education in this context?

This is a critical moment to rethink education because we are at a time of transition. Our relationship with the planet and with technology is changing in profound ways, and this, in turn, is changing our relationships with each other. Also, the pandemic and its many disruptions have forced us to reconsider long-held assumptions and traditional ways of doing things. This has opened windows to new possibilities and highlighted our global interconnectedness. Our education systems need to better emphasize these interlinkages and show them as a source of strength. 

Given our current context of transition, we have decided to take a long view of education. Our work looks to 2050 and beyond, and this distant time horizon has helped us see education anew and propose innovative avenues for learning.

First, it is important to acknowledge that there is much that we know how to do well in education. We know the tremendous importance of equal educational opportunities for girls and women, which is a gap that is closing. We know how to design schools that include those who are most marginalized – and that work needs to continue. 

However, we also know that there are persistent problems – some of which have their roots  in the way that education has been organized over the last century. For a long time, the dominant global models presented education as a period of preparation. We now know that education is intertwined with our lives across our lifetimes, that there needs to be quality early childhood education as well as strengthened formal, non-formal, and informal adult education and learning opportunities. 

Schools will remain central; they need to be safeguarded and transformed. Their curricula need to be reworked, so that we learn more about our interdependencies, and learn better ways of living with our world. We need to think about the skills we require in the digital worlds of today and tomorrow. Teachers need to make increasing use of participatory and collaborative approaches through problem- and project-based learning. The truth of the matter is that we cannot keep delivering the education we tried to deliver in the past for a vastly different twenty-first century.  

The Commission’s new report, Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education, was supported by an extensive global process of public and expert consultation. Why was it important to engage with such a wide range of diverse stakeholders?

Education is one of most transformative experiences that human beings can share together. When laying out the work of the Commission, it was obvious to all of us that we can only build education as a global common good with collective knowledge and experiences from around the globe. This is why we asked people of all ages from over 120 countries to tell us about their hopes and fears for the future – and to think about ways that education could help us all to best shape the futures of humanity and the planet. 

Through artworks, surveys, webinars, and focus group discussions, over a million people from all regions of the world shared their ideas. The Commission was truly inspired, and we attempted to take in as many of these ideas as possible. And one of the key messages that we heard was that as much as education is essential for individuals to live dignified and meaningful lives, it is also crucial for shaping our shared futures. So, thinking about education as a form of shared well-being that is chosen and achieved together became one of the key ideas of the Commission.  And now, it is only through the work of those million individuals – and millions more – that the ideas of the report will be further debated, contextualized, and implemented.

Education as a form of shared well-being that is chosen and achieved together became one of the key ideas of the Commission

The pandemic has shown the startling digital divides among countries in distance learning. Eighty-two per cent of learners in sub-Saharan Africa lack internet access. What were the other main concerns raised by African countries during this global discussion?

When we look to 2050 and beyond, the African continent will have an increasing percentage of the world’s population, especially its youth. We also know that there is still much to do to remedy existing power asymmetries and unjust legacies of the past, some of which continue today. The unacceptably low share of learners on the continent who have access to the internet and computers is evidence of continued inequality. 

Africa, like other areas of the Global South, has contributed the least to the climate crisis, but it risks bearing the greatest burden. Across the process of preparing this report, the Commission repeatedly heard the message that truly appreciating our interdependencies means overcoming the dependencies that have been imposed in the world. Global solidarity and an appreciation of our common humanity must mean rejecting and correcting the levels of inequality that have emerged within, and especially across, nations. 

The report strongly supports the aspiration of social and human development that benefits all and sustains cultural diversity. We must ensure that Africa has full access to the collective knowledge resources that humanity has accumulated over generations.  And, as important, we must ensure that Africans are able to contribute to, and add, their indigenous wisdom and innovation to the global knowledge commons.  

We strongly support the aspiration of social and human development that benefits all and sustains cultural diversity

What lies behind the idea of “reframing humanism” that is emphasized in the report?

‘Reframing humanism’ is about finding new directions for humanity by reconsidering who we are and how we think of ourselves in relation to each other, the living planet, and technology. Covid affected us all and reminded us how tightly humanity is linked together. But it affected us differently – with poorer communities suffering more, and girls and women more economically impacted than boys and men. Covid reminds us how important it is to fight power imbalances and eliminate exploitation wherever it exists. 

Furthermore, human existence is inseparable from the larger natural world of which we are a part. We must adopt a new ecological consciousness that will ultimately make us more human. Recent technological advances are also blurring the lines between human and machine. The ethical decisions that we face about technologies like artificial intelligence and bio-enhancement should not just be made by elites, but need to involve us all. We all need to be involved in ensuring that technology is used in ways that support our shared futures. Education is one of the key sectors where we can make advances in rebalancing our relationships with each other, with the living planet, and with technology.

What are the basic skills that future generations will need to live in a world transformed by human activity, and digital, biotechnological and neuroscientific developments?

There is work that can be done in all curricular areas to teach the art of living respectfully and responsibly on a planet that has been considerably altered by human activity. Future generations will need education that promotes a consciousness of the planet, and fosters critical thinking and civic engagement. An awareness that the world will continue to change can be built into curricula by cultivating learners’ capacities for problem recognition and problem-solving. 

Schools will need to focus on the basic literacies of reading, writing, and mathematics but also go beyond them. Everyone everywhere must learn to be and to become. To be means learning to participate, develop one’s personality, and act with independence, judgement, and personal responsibility. To become means learning to transform oneself and the world – committing to this as a lifelong responsibility, and ensuring that these same possibilities remain open to future generations.

How can global solidarity be enhanced in the field of education?

International co-operation among governments, international organizations, civil society organizations and other partners is a critical way we can strengthen global solidarity in education. One crucial step forward is to elevate the importance of knowledge sharing. We need to strengthen the capacity of all areas of the world to generate and use knowledge to advance education. Regional organizations have a key role to play. We also need to strengthen multilateral channels, and bring different actors into dialogue and consensus building around shared norms, purposes, and standards. 

At the same time, global solidarity needs to extend to all. The human capacities for empathy and co-operation are among the better angels of our nature. We possess extraordinary creativity, imagination, and the ability to envision and build things – and to deviate from what is broken or not working. In our report, we try to help people envision future worlds – where curricula, teaching, schools, universities, and all educational platforms help us to better understand our common humanity, and build global solidarity.

In October 2018, you were appointed the first female President in Ethiopia’s modern history, after a 30-year career as a diplomat. What message does this appointment send to the young generation of girls in your country?

There are many prominent women leaders in the history of Ethiopia, such as Empress Taitu [1851-1918] and Empress Zewditu [1875-1930]. However, we have not seen any high-level women leaders in modern Ethiopian history. I grew up and came of age at a time when there were very few women leaders to look up to as role models. I believe that the appointment of a woman in my position sends a resounding message to young Ethiopian – and indeed African – girls that they can achieve anything. 

Young women and girls today can stand on the shoulders of current women leaders and reach heights that we could not imagine. We, as women leaders, must come together to not only keep open the doors of opportunity that we had, but also to expand them for those who follow us. We say to future generations: “Yes you can” and “We are here to help get you there”. 

Read more:

An opportunity to reinvent school, The UNESCO Courier, July-September 2020
Climate change and education, The UNESCO Courier, July-September 2019
A road map to change the world, The UNESCO Courier, January-March 2018


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