Building peace in the minds of men and women

UN event calls for greater focus on learning to unlock the transformative power of education

On 11 June, UNESCO and the Government of Denmark brought together international leaders and education experts to discuss the global learning crisis and its implications for development. All speakers underscored the central role of education in fighting poverty, driving growth, and strengthening peace and development.

“There can be no development breakthrough without quality education for all.  It empowers people and transforms lives,” UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson stated in his opening remarks.

However, there was also broad recognition that education systems were inadequately equipped to play this transformative role.

“There are today 250 million children of primary school age who cannot read, write or count well -- whether they have been to school or not. These figures tell us education systems have been failing children for years. This is a crisis, a crisis that jeopardizes social cohesion, economic development and political stability,” UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova warned, calling for renewed global action to improve the quality of learning and ensure students receive the skills they need to be empowered global citizens.

The Minister of Secondary Education of Benin, Mr Alassane Djimba Soumanou, and the US Under Secretary for Education, Martha Kanter, both put the spotlight on the need to build stronger links between education and the world of work.

"Education must provide the learning skills for life," declared Minister Soumanou. "Every child in Benin has to be provided with the means to take his destiny in his hands and make a living for himself while contributing to the social and economic development of his nation. For that, it is essential to reach an equation between learning skills and employment,"  added the Minister.

U.S. Under Secretary Martha Kanter referred to the American community college model as a way of reinforcing the relevance of learning to local employment needs and opportunities.

Similarly, Minister Soumanou stressed that "schools have to become true technical and vocational training centres in order to provide youth the means to become agents of development and change."

U.S. Under Secretary Martha Kanter went to stress that "increased learning happens outside the traditional schooling. There should be shared responsibility in education attainment to restore sustainable levels of prosperity and economic development." This poses the challenge as to "how to measure learning both quantitatively and qualitatively," she added.

"We need to look at our investments and see if they are properly targeted. This also applies to the USA; we need to look at best practices to fill the various social, economic, and cultural gaps into an integrated system," she pursued.

Amina Mohamed, the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning, urged greater attention also be given to the role of education in shaping a reorientation of values and instilling dignity, self-confidence and hope, a concern echoed by many other speakers.

The importance of well-defined goals and indicators in driving improvements in education quality was widely debated by participants, as was the need for more robust assessments and data collection in order to inform policy reforms, enhance teaching and learning practices, and ensure a smarter targeting of resources. The importance of strengthening government capacity to effectively collect and use data on student learning was highlighted, and reference made to the potential for new technologies to support these efforts. All speakers recognized the need to ensure a strong commitment to improve the quality of learning in the post-2015 development agenda, while at the same time highlighting that progress in education also required sustained efforts to eliminate poverty, improve student health and nutrition, and address social inequalities.

In ending, H.E. Mr. Carsten Staur, the Danish Ambassador to the UN, organizer of the event, concluded by stressing that "education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. It holds untold potential for change," emphasizing that at the time the MDGs were defined, the main focus was laid on access, giving many positive results and reasons to celebrate; however it has not provided guarantees on learning outcomes and their relevance for children "to be able to cope in the world at large: in today's knowledge-based economies, neither access nor literacy is sufficient to get a job. The aim of education has to be wider, we need to look at creative approaches and critical thinking".  Ambassador Staur concluded "education is the best investment a country can make as it is also important for social mobility."

Following the high-level event on education, the Director-General delivered an inaugural lecture at the Foreign Policy Association as part of the IDP Foundation - Irene D. Pritzker Distinguished Lectures Series on Social and Economic Development. The lecture took place in the presence of Ms. Irene D. Pritzker, President of the IDP Foundation; Mr. Noel Lateef, President of the Foreign Policy Association and Mr. Luis Antonio Ubinas, President of the Ford Foundation. The lecture and lively interactive debate which followed with an intergenerational audience addressed the challenges of education to drive equity and sustainable growth. "On a planet under pressure, education is the best way to shape new ways of thinking and acting for global solidarity and sustainability" concluded Irina Bokova.