HLPF Day One: Education is the golden thread running through implementation of all 17 SDGs


“Education can make the difference between life and death.” My experience of the 2018 UN High Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals began with these words. At an event hosted by the Education and Academia Stakeholder Group on ‘Education for Social, Economic and Environmental Sustainability’, Vernor Munoz of the Global Campaign for Education outlined the central role of education in sustainable development, and the Sustainable Development Goals. He argued that education plays a crucial role for sustainable development and citizenship. It should be integrated in all development processes. Education is needed for the changes in production and consumption patterns that have to make. Munoz concluded that the right to education is a foundation for ecology and development, and that it is essential to focus and refocus on education as a human right.

This theme was continued by Katarina Popovic of the International Council of Adult Education who said that education is the golden thread that runs through the implementation of all 17 SDGs. However, she argued, the transformative role of education is ignored and side-lined within the SDGs. Popovic stated that education in the SDGs is reduced to a focus on economic growth and dominated by the skills agenda. SDG 4.7, which contains the SDG focus on Global Citizenship Education, is crowded by poor indicators and poor implementation. It becomes a catch all for ‘everything else’. Popovic was critical of current education practices, saying that education is not dealing with the causes, it’s reactive. She also critiqued the emphasis on measurement, arguing that it ignored implementation.

Megan McHaney, Advocacy Coordinator of Bridge 47, presented civil society responses to these challenges through the Bridge 47 project, in which IDEA is a partner. She described the four pillars to the Bridge 47 project which aim, together, to build the impact of Global Citizenship Education. The Bridge 47 network brings together practitioners in value based education globally, and its advocacy will build recognition for Global Citizenship Education in policy process. Bridge 47 partnerships, which are led by IDEA, will develop new constituencies for Global Citizenship Education and new partnerships for an equal and sustainable world. The project will also support and promote innovation and good practice in Global Citizenship Education.

The event concluded with a discussion about power, with Katarina Popovic arguing that the resistance to Global Citizenship Education was not due to the case that civil society made but due to the resistance of the powerful to the transformative change that education can create. Panellists argued that the content of education has to be in the hands of people and needs to be addressed in a very participatory way. Education is a prerequisite for all SDGs.

This theme of participation was strongly echoed in two other key meetings of day one of the HLPF. The Irish civil society delegation, Valerie Duffy of NYCI, Michael Ewing of IEN, Frejya Bourke of Friends of the Earth, and I attended a meeting convening everyone with an interest in commenting on Ireland’s Voluntary National Review. A key theme of the discussion was on civil society participation within the UN and the HLPF, the importance of that participation and the need for vigilance to promote and defend civil society space. David Donoghue, Ireland’s Ambassador to the UN who co-chaired the SDG negotiations, was a strong supporter of civil society participation in the SDG processes.

At the end of the day, All Together in Dignity (ATD) 4th World hosted an event on How to Define Poverty with Those Left Furthest Behind. Professor Robert Walker of Oxford University spoke passionately about a research project led by people experiencing poverty working with researchers. This highlights aspects of the multi-dimensionality of poverty by working with “the experts in poverty, those experiencing poverty.”  “Poverty is felt directly as emotions.” He spoke of “the anger of the child who sees their parent as the cause of the poverty they are experiencing.” Poverty is relational. It is experienced as oppression, exploitation, humiliation, stigimatisation and making people voiceless. The skills and knowledge that people acquire through experiencing poverty – survival skills, resourcefulness, organisational skills, resistance and resilience – are not recognised publically. Research and policy have only a partial understanding of poverty, and therefore our policies are ineffective.

Having listened to those speaking on the first day, it struck me powerfully how the connections between education and participation are central to what we do in Development Education. It is essential that we take up these challenges to end social exclusion and inequality. The SDGs will not provide all the answers, they will bring their own challenges, but they provide a truly global framework for us to work together to tackle these issues. Ultimately, after one day at the HLPF, I am left with a strong sense of hope. Seeing so many people from all parts of the world working together on the struggle to end inequality and injustice is inspiring, in spite of the enormity of our task.  

Frank Geary, Director of IDEA, is currently in New York, participating in the the 2018 UN High Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals