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New Social Compact

Higher Education for Sustainable Development

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2015 marked the outset of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which, alongside ‘Agenda 2030’ agreed on by the UN General Assembly, put the issue of sustainable development on the map. Nevertheless, not all subject areas have been equally impacted by the introduction of the concept of sustainability and by its adjacent endorsement. The Higher Education sector, for instance, has only recently started associating itself with the matter through the recognition of the issue of sustainability. In this sense, more than 600 universities worldwide have triggered the process of signing a plethora of international declarations such as the Talloires Declaration, the Halifax Declaration, the Bologna Charter and the Copernicus Charter for Sustainable Development. The sum of all of these statements of commitment were crowned by the development of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) just before the Rio+20 Conference.

What is HESI?

HESI has been used by higher education institutions as a platform to share their deepest concerns and latest implementation practices concerning the principle of sustainability. Noteworthy torchbearing stakeholders such as policymakers, scientists and, indubitably, the academia have used HESI as a medium through which they can accomplish their four major objectives, namely:

  • Teach sustainable development across all disciplines of study;
  • Encourage research and dissemination of sustainable development knowledge;
  • Support the creation of green campuses and local sustainability efforts;
  • Engage and share information with international networks.

Sustainability Partnerships

Promoting sustainability in higher education has not been an easy feat. Two years after the release of the SDG agenda, while most sectors have already incorporated the sustainability principles promoted within the document, collaborators with a vested interest in advocating for sustainability as a panacea meant to overhaul higher education finally came to their senses and placed themselves in a 12-step programme of aligning this sector with the UNSDG agenda. The first step they identified in the process of recovery is admitting they had a problem manifesting itself in the form of a pack in partnerships to support their sustainability initiatives.

This led HESI to be co-chaired by UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs – Division for Sustainable Development (UNDESA-DSD) which alongside UNESCO, United Nations Environment, UN-Habitat, UNCTAD and United Nations University, managed to organise an event on the extent to which the SDGs can be integrated into the sustainability practices of higher education institutions. This event became the central focus of the 2017 session of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and managed to address the intricacies of campus practices, pedagogy, teaching and research routines used to position the higher education sector as the lynchpin where under sustainability objectives in education could be met.

This event managed to look under the bonnet of the less obvious work conducted by universities all around the world and identified best practices coming from the movers and shakers of the education purview. Noteworthy examples are constituted by the Business School of Lausanne that works towards developing GAPFRAME – a “safe space for all of us” which serves as a basis for multi-stakeholders to address Grand Challenges, by sector, across industries, for an enterprise or as a responsible management educator, building on the “outside-in” perspective of true business sustainability. Likewise, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has managed to fabricate from the ground up a all-encompassing MIT Office of Sustainability (MITOS) aimed at utilizing the campus as a testbed and incubator in order to identify ways of responding to today’s sustainability conundrums.

Notwithstanding the amazing progress in promoting sustainability for the higher education sector, many devil’s advocates still chide against these initiatives because of their unrealistic expectations. In Kerry Shepard’s book Higher Education for Sustainable Development, all of these enterprises will never display that much power as to change a student’s sustainable or, for that matter, non-sustainable behaviour. This has nothing to do with the crux of the sustainability ventures themselves, but with the reluctance of faculty members to change their archaic views regarding their teaching practices by stepping away from teaching knowledge to teaching values. The argument does not presume that professors do not understand the importance of sustainability, but more that they do not want to take it upon themselves to change students’ deep-rooted perspectives and manners of conducting themselves.

To take stock of the HESI initiatives while incorporating the feedback coming from sustainable education scholars who have written extensively on the matter, we must acknowledge the great strides made within the course of merely one year since the 2017 session of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and desist from focusing on affective learning, but stick to cognitive learning by developing critical thinking skills. In Shephard’s words, this type of skillset will make students:

discern for themselves the hidden messages within the teaching that they experience in higher education.… They will be able to see the absurdity of teachers who claim to be aloof from concerns about sustainability and yet continue to teach traditional business studies, social sciences, or to some degree, physics, as if the knowledge within these disciplines was in some ways values-free and independent from the human world around them. (p. 37)

Alina Toporas is a recent Master of Science graduate in Global Crime, Justice and Security at the University of Edinburgh Law School. She has previously worked for the European Commission Representation in Scotland, the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA), the Romanian Embassy in Croatia and Hagar International (the Vietnamese branch). She is currently serving as a Communications Assistant of the British Embassy in Romania. Her research interests are mainly targeted at the EU-UK cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) post-Brexit. Alina is also the author of various pieces on transnational crimes (namely, human trafficking and illicit trade) with a geographical focus on South-East Asia.

New Social Compact

70% of 10-Year-Olds now in Learning Poverty, Unable to Read and Understand a Simple Text

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As a result of the worst shock to education and learning in recorded history, learning poverty has increased by a third in low- and middle-income countries, with an estimated 70% of 10-year-olds unable to understand a simple written text, according to a new report published today by the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, UK government Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This rate was 57% before the pandemic, but now the learning crisis has deepened.This generation of students now risks losing $21 trillion in potential lifetime earnings in present value, or the equivalent of 17% of today’s global GDP, up from the $17 trillion estimated in 2021.

The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update report shows that prolonged school closures, poor mitigation effectiveness, and household-income shocks had the biggest impact on learning poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), with a predicted 80% of children at the end-of-primary-school-age now unable to understand a simple written text, up from around 50% pre-pandemic. The next-largest increase is in South Asia, where predictions put at 78% the share of children that lack minimum literacy proficiency, up from 60% pre-pandemic. Emerging data measuring actual learning levels of children in reopened school systems around the world corroborate the predictions of large learning losses.  In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), increases in learning poverty were smaller, as school closures in this region typically lasted only a few months, but stand now at an extremely high 89%. In all other regions, simulations show increases in learning poverty.    

The report also shows that even before COVID-19, the global learning crisis was deeper than previously thought. The global average pre-pandemic learning poverty rate, previously estimated at 53% for 2015, was even higher – with updated and revised data revealing that 57% of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were not able to read and understand a simple text, the measure for learning poverty. In regions, such as LAC and SSA, in which temporally comparable data is available, the report notes that learning poverty has remained stagnant in this period. This highlights that returning to the pre-COVID status quo will not secure the future of the world’s children – a vigorous learning recovery and acceleration is needed.

Prolonged school closures and unequal mitigation strategies have worsened learning inequality among children. Evidence is mounting that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and other disadvantaged groups are suffering larger learning losses. Children with the most fragile grasp of foundational literacy before the closures are most likely to have suffered larger learning losses. Without strong foundational skills, children are unlikely to acquire the technical and higher-order skills needed to thrive in increasingly demanding labor markets and more complex societies.

The need for sustained commitment at all levels of society

The new World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, FCDO, USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation report emphasizes that learning recovery and acceleration requires sustained national political commitment, from the highest political levels to all members of society. Turning the tide against the longer-term learning crisis will require national coalitions for learning recovery – coalitions that include families, educators, civil society, the business community, and other ministries beyond the education ministry.  Commitment needs to be further translated into concrete action at the national and sub-national levels, with better assessment of learning to fill the vast data gaps, clear targets for progress, and evidence-based plans for learning recovery and acceleration. 

Given the scale of the challenges and scarcity of resources, countries need to concentrate their efforts on the most cost-effective approaches to tackle learning poverty. 

The RAPID framework offers a menu of evidence-based interventions that education systems can implement to help children recover lost learning, and to accelerate long-term progress in foundational learning.  Governments must make sure that education systems:

  • Reach every child and keep them in school
  • Assess learning levels regularly
  • Prioritize teaching the fundamentals
  • Increase the efficiency of instruction, including through catch-up learning
  • Develop psychosocial health and well-being.

These interventions must be implemented as part of a national learning recovery program that can also serve as a springboard for building more effective, equitable, and resilient education systems. To lead to broad, sustained change, the program will need to be accompanied by much-needed systemic strengthening. This is critical to closing learning gaps as much as possible by 2030 to ensure that all children and youth have the opportunity to shape the bright futures they deserve.  

Partner quotes:

World Bank:

Jaime Saavedra, Global Director for Education, World Bank: “COVID-19 has devastated learning around the world, dramatically increasing the number of children living in Learning Poverty. With 7 in 10 of today’s 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries now unable to read a simple text, political leaders and society must swiftly move to recover this generation’s future by ensuring learning recovery strategies and investments. The World Bank is committed to supporting countries during these challenging times. Together, we can build forward better more equitable, effective, and resilient education. We owe it not only to the children and youth of this generation, but to ourselves – in their minds rests our future.”

FCDO:

Alicia Herbert OBE, Director Education, Gender and Equality and Gender Envoy, FCDO: “This important document helps us to better understand where we are on education globally, and how we can ensure that all children are supported to get on track to achieve 12 years of quality education. The report shows what we feared. Even fewer children are now able to access a quality education, due to the impact of COVID-19 and school closures globally, especially the most marginalised. An estimated 7 in 10 of all children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read a simple text with comprehension by age 10.  This is unacceptable. We must come together to pay attention and to act, so that all children can get back to school and learn.”

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

Dr. Benjamin Piper, Director of Global Education, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “I want readers of this report to have at least two responses. The first is profound sadness at the magnitude of the learning crisis. The learning poverty data highlights the shocking inequality that persists in learning outcomes, with 87% of children in Africa unable to read and understand a simple text. This data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the new simulations suggest this has increased to 89%. This is sad, but it’s also wrong. The second is that we have solutions that can work at scale and in government systems. Committing to substantial learning recovery programs is a start, but the composition of those programs matter: measure learning outcomes, but also invest in improving instruction through structured pedagogy or teaching at the right level interventions while increasing instructional time. Countries that do this have a real opportunity not only to recover learning lost due to COVID-19, but to make significant progress to reduce learning poverty by 2030.”

UNESCO:

Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant-Director General for Education: “These estimates ring the alarm louder than ever on the urgency to prioritize education in recovery plans and beyond. We must invest in holistic and transformative policies that act on the multiple causes of the learning crisis, mobilize the international community, and put in place all the conditions to ensure that no child falls behind. The Transforming Education Pre-Summit, from June 28 to 30 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and the Transforming Education Summit, on 19 September in New York, are our opportunity to set learning on the right tracks and fulfill the SDG4 promise to ensure quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

UNICEF:

Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Global Director of Education: “Getting children back into the classroom is just the first step – but if we stop there, we will rob millions of children of the chance to reach their full potential.  Every child has a right not only to be in school, but to learn in school, acquiring the basic skills that are the foundation for higher learning and higher income levels someday – in turn supporting equitable development and sustainable growth. We need to reach every child, in every situation. We need to assess their learning level and help them master the basics, so they can move ahead as confident learners. And especially for children living through conflicts and crises, we need to support children’s learning by making sure they have the psychosocial support they need. We can’t let children’s learning become yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

USAID:

LeAnna Marr, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation, Center for Education, USAID: “The State of Global Learning Poverty is an urgent call for commitment. Recovering from this massive shock will require all of us – governments, families, educators, civil society, and the private sector – to double our efforts to ensure every child is supported to return to school and catch up on learning. In the wake of the worst shock to education and learning in a century, USAID is committed to continuing our support to the recovery and transformation of education to ensure all children and youth are able to return to safe and quality learning. USAID will continue to build on our investments and lead globally in foundational learning, strengthening resilience in education systems, and equipping the next generation with the skills needed for lifelong success.”

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New Social Compact

Overturning of Roe v Wade abortion law a ‘huge blow to women’s human rights’

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Friday’s decision by the US Supreme Court which overturns the 50-year-old Roe v Wade judgement guaranteeing access to abortion across the United States, was described by the UN human rights chief as “a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality.”

The widely anticipated Supreme Court decision, by six votes to three, was made in the specific case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health, and Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that it represents a “major setback” for sexual and reproductive health across the US.

The historic decision returns all questions of legality and access to abortion, to the individual states.

Reacting earlier to the US ruling, without making specific reference to it, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that a staggering 45 per cent of all abortions around the world, are unsafe, making the procedure a leading cause of maternal death.

The agencies said it was inevitable that more women will die, as restrictions by national or regional governments increase.

Restrictions, ineffective

“Whether abortion is legal or not, it happens all too often. Data show that restricting access to abortion does not prevent people from seeking abortion, it simply makes it more deadly”, UNFPA highlighted.

According to the agencies’ 2022 State of World Population report, nearly half of all pregnancies worldwide are unintended, and over 60 per cent of these may end in abortion.

UNFPA said that it feared that more unsafe abortions will occur around the world if access becomes more restricted.

“Decisions reversing progress gained have a wider impact on the rights and choices of women and adolescents everywhere”, the agency emphasized.

WHO echoed the message on their official Twitter account, reminding that removing barriers to abortion “protects women’s lives, health and human rights”.

An attack on women’s autonomy

Ms. Bachelet further reminded that access to safe, legal and effective abortion is firmly rooted in international human right law and is at the core of women and girls’ autonomy, and ability to make their own choices about their bodies and lives, free of discrimination, violence and coercion.

This decision strips such autonomy from millions of women in the US, in particular those with low incomes and those belonging to racial and ethnic minorities, to the detriment of their fundamental rights”, she warned.

The rights chief highlighted that the decision came after more than 50 countries with previously restrictive laws have liberalized their abortion legislation over the past 25 years.

With today’s ruling, the US is regrettably moving away from this progressive trend”, she said.

Meanwhile, the UN agency, UN Women, cautioned in another statement that the ability of women to control what happens to their own bodies, is also associated with the roles women are able to play in society, whether as a member of the family, the workforce, or government. 

Countries’ responsibilities

The 1994 Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), signed by 179 countries including the United States, recognized how deadly unsafe abortions are, and urged all countries to provide post-abortion care to save lives, irrespective of the legal status of abortion.

The document – resulting from a high-level meeting in Cairo, Egypt—also highlighted that all people should be able to access quality information about their reproductive health and contraceptives.

UNFPA, as the custodian of the Programme of Action, advocates for the right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so.

The agency also warned that if unsafe abortions continue, Sustainable Development Goal 3, related to maternal health, to which all UN Member States have committed, will be at risk of not being met.

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New Social Compact

The World Cup and beyond: Thinking strategically about LGBT rights

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When Egyptian football legend Mohammed Aboutreika came out swinging against homosexuality in late 2021, he touched a raw nerve across the Muslim world.

The tit-for-tat between Mr. Aboutreika and supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights laid bare a yawning gap.

For Mr. Aboutreika and many in the Muslim world, the issue is adhering to their values and rejecting attempts to impose the values of others.

For supporters of LGBT rights and LGBT soccer fans, at stake most immediately is LGBT people’s right to attend the 2022 Qatar World Cup without fear of discrimination or legal entanglement because of their sexuality.

Longer-term, it’s about ensuring recognition of LGBT rights, including social acceptability, inclusivity, and non-discrimination.

Solving the immediate problem may be the lower hanging fruit. However, it may also open a pathway to what is realistically achievable in the middle term.

The reality is that what may be realistically possible is at best akin to US President Bill Clinton’s application to gays in the US military of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell” rule or Indonesia’s de facto ‘live and let live’ principle.

That may not be satisfactory, but it may be the only thing that, for now, is possible without putting LGBT communities at risk by provoking public hostility and backlash.

To be sure, autocratic Middle Eastern regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt often target LGBT communities for domestic political gain. In addition, the United Arab Emirates, perhaps the Middle East’s socially most liberal society, recently backtracked on LGBT-related issues.

The trick in campaigning for LGBT rights is avoiding playing into the hands of autocrats while maintaining the pressure.

Simply attempting to impose recognition is unlikely to produce results. Instead, a more realistic strategy is to devise ways to stimulate debate in Muslim-majority countries and encourage social change bottom-up to ensure public buy-in.

That worked to a degree as human rights groups, and trade unions used the World Cup to pressure Qatar to make changes to its labour regime. LGBT rights are in a different category and relate more directly, rightly or wrongly, to perceived religious precepts.

As such, what worked with labour rights, even if human rights groups would like to see more far-reaching reforms, is unlikely to produce similar results when it comes to LGBT rights.

“Lobbying on behalf of a vast migrant labour force, which has historically been subjected to brutally exploitative practices, has yielded tangible results… But there is a long way to go before the rights of a mainly South Asian workforce, from some of the world’s poorest countries, are properly safeguarded,” The Guardian noted.

The paper backed proposals by human rights groups and British trade unions for the establishment in Qatar of migrant workers’ centres, which would offer advice, support and representation in lieu of a trade union, and compensation for relatives of labourers who died while employed in World Cup-related public works projects.

Going to extremes, Saudi Arabia, amid a push to encourage tourism, launched “rainbow raids” this month on shops selling children’s toys and accessories.

Authorities targeted clothing and toys, including hair clips, pop-its, t-shirts, bows, skirts, hats, and colouring pencils “that contradict the Islamic faith and public morals and promote homosexual colours that target the younger generation,” said a commerce ministry official.

Earlier, the kingdom, like the UAE, banned Lightyear, a Disney and Pixar animated production, because of a same-sex kiss scene, and Disney’s Doctor Strange in the Universe of Madness, in which one character refers to her “two mums.”

The UAE ban appeared to contradict the government’s announcement in late 2021 that it would end the censorship of films. The country’s Media Regulatory Office said it would introduce a 21+ age viewer classification policy instead. However, that wasn’t evident when the office tweeted an image of Lightyear, crossed out with a red line.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly charged that Egyptian police and National Security Agency officers “arbitrarily arrest” LGBT people and “detain them in inhuman conditions, systematically subject them to ill-treatment including torture, and often incite fellow inmates to abuse them.

With the World Cup only months away, Qatar is caught in a Catch-22. In a country where the few gays willing to speak out describe an environment of social and legal discrimination, Qatari authorities would like to see the World Cup finals as an interlude of ‘live and let live.’

Qatari officials have insisted in recent years that LGBT fans would be welcome during the World Cup but would be expected to respect norms that frown on public expressions of affection irrespective of sexual orientation.

Paul Amann, the founder of Liverpool FC’s LGBT supporters’ club Kop Outs, met in 2019 with Qatari World Cup organizers before traveling to Doha with his husband to evaluate the situation.

I’m very satisfied that their approach is to provide an ‘everyone is welcome’ ethos that does include respect, albeit through privacy. I’m not sure if rainbow flags generally will ever be accepted ‘in-country,’ but maybe in stadia,” Mr. Amann said upon his return.

Mr. Aboutreika put Qatar on the spot when he asserted in November 2021 that “our role is to stand up to this phenomenon, homosexuality, because it’s a dangerous ideology and it’s becoming nasty, and people are not ashamed of it anymore. They (the Premier League) will tell you that homosexuality is human rights. No, it is not human rights; in fact, it’s against humanity.”

The Qatari parliament and state-aligned media, imams in Saudi mosques, Saudi diplomats, and Al-Azhar, the citadel of Islamic learning in Cairo, rallied to reiterate Mr. Aboutreika ‘s condemnation despite his allegedly Islamist leanings.

Mr. Aboutreika’s remarks were in response to Australian gay footballer Josh Cavallo who revived the sexuality debate when he declared that he would be afraid to play in the Qatar World Cup because of the Gulf state’s ban on homosexuality and harsh legal penalties ranging from flogging to lengthy prison terms.

One of the few players to discuss his sexuality publicly, Mr. Cavallo expressed his concern a month after coming out as gay. Mr. Cavallo said other footballers had privately expressed similar fears.

What is evident in the sexuality debate is that few people, if any, will be convinced by arguments raised by the opposing side in what amounts to a dialogue of the deaf. Both sides of the divide feel deeply about their positions.

For proponents of LGBT rights, the challenge is to develop strategies that may contribute to change rather than insisting on a path that is more likely to deepen the trench lines than produce results for the people it is really about: the LGBT community.

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