Change Making

Irina Bokova and the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) • 01-08-2013
Human Dimensions: The magazine on the human factor in the global environmental debate
Change Making

This article and all images shown here were originally published in the August 2013 issue of Human Dimensions: The magazine on the human factor in the global environmental debate.  See also the related news article here

Human Dimensions magazine interviewed Irina Bokova, Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  Bokova suggests that the future SDGs should define targets to promote education, culture, science, technology, innovation and freedom of expression.

Dimensions: The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), have been developed as global targets. At the same time, many of the goals and targets are context-specific, and inextricable from culture, religion, race, institutions and politics. How can this be resolved? Should the SDGs be global targets, or do you think it would be better for each country to provide their own set of targets to be accepted by the global community, and with the responsibility for reaching those targets lying with the individual countries themselves?

Irina Bokova: At the Rio+20 Conference, Member States agreed that the SDGs should be “global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”. I concur with the view of the UN Technical Task Team to the Open Working Group on SDGs that it is indeed important to have a universal framework of the SDGs including a common set of goals, while at the same time allowing adaptation to national priorities, capacities and contexts of development. Various ways to realize this flexibility could be conceivable. The targets under each goal could either be adapted to national circumstances or countries could prioritize, choosing from multiple targets. With respect to the content of the upcoming development agenda, let me add that in my view, the Millennium Declaration embodies a great humanist ambition to promote the human rights and dignity of everyone; it is as relevant as ever and should inspire the post-2015 development framework.


D: The ethical aspects of sustainable development surrounding many of the MDGs are not addressed in most countries’ educational curricula. Is UNESCO planning to change this? Would it be possible to establish a target on education to increase awareness of the ethical foundations of sustainable development? (An example might be connected to the CBD Target 1: “To increase awareness of biodiversity conservation among the general population”.)

IB: The preliminary results of the recently-launched (and still on-going) UN My World Survey asking individuals to choose their priorities for a better world (more than 600,000 respondents thus far) are clear: a “good education” comes out as the top priority among all gender and almost all age groups. Access to education is in itself an ethical act; and educational contents and pedagogical approaches are a most powerful element to trigger an ethical consciousness. Education for sustainable development (ESD) has a particular important role to play. Sustainable development cannot be achieved by technological solutions, political regulation or financial instruments alone. Achieving sustainable development requires a change in the way we think and act, and a transition to sustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns. Only quality education and learning at all levels and in all social contexts can bring about this fundamental change.


D: Where do you see some of the main challenges of achieving the SDGs? Will they largely mirror those of the MDGs, or do you see new ones arising?

IB: As already noted, the SDGs shall be universally applicable, while allowing for context flexibility, and they are expected to encompass all three pillars of sustainable development in a balanced manner. As for the MDGs, political will and sufficient financing will be crucial to achieve the SDGs. The future SDGs should be fully funded, using both innovative and traditional funding mechanisms. For instance, we can only be ambitious in our efforts to promote quality education for all, if we can ensure adequate funding. However, aid to education stagnated at US$ 13.5 billion in 2010 and the financing gap remains at US$ 16 billion. We also need more emphasis on aspects of quality in the SDGs. The MDGs were the “what”. They did not sufficiently address the “how”: yet, we know that development can only be sustainable in the absence of conflicts, in the respect for human rights, and by fostering innovation and creativity. The world should not only invest in development, it should promote long-term enablers for development and empowerment. UNESCO is convinced that education, culture, science, technology and innovation, as well as freedom of expression are such enablers and therefore specific goals and targets could be defined in all these areas. I welcome the Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which was just released. It calls for a new partnership based on a new spirit of solidarity, cooperation and mutual accountability. As the report notes, the contribution of scientists is essential for this partnership, also emphasizing that having technology is not enough, but that we need to understand how to use it well and locally. Universities, technical colleges and well-trained and skilled workers are needed in this respect. The report puts forward a goal on education, going beyond the education-related MDGs with an emphasis on quality and equity, secondary education and life-long learning. It also emphasizes the importance of freedom of speech and access to independent media and information.


D: Science and innovation are central for sustainable development solutions, including the social sciences, given the role of humans in the issue. How do you see UNESCO playing a key role in ensuring successful input of science—including the social sciences—in the development of the SDGs?

IB: First of all, science has profoundly reinvented itself in light of the sustainable development discourse since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. We are witnessing a transformation of both natural and social sciences into solution-driven sciences. Today’s successful economies in developing countries are all based on a science, technology and innovation (STI) revolution in various areas of application (information technology, health, applied engineering such as transportation). We need to reflect in an explicit and strong manner the cross-cutting contribution of STI to various dimensions of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This political recognition will trigger the necessary investments in STI including in many developing countries around the world. Moreover, as highlighted by the Rio+20 outcome document, there is a strong need to ensure that decision-making processes at national, regional and global levels are informed and based on scientific evidence. We need therefore to ensure a successful science–policy–society interface. As to the human sciences, the notion of sustainable progress has always been embedded in the humanities. Social inclusion is among the most important challenges facing societies today. In a globalizing world, the acceleration of social transformations, the increase in inequalities and the diversity of societies are all putting models of cohesion and social integration to the test. Especially, social sciences can promote social transformations that work towards sustainable development, lasting peace, human rights and human dignity. Social and human sciences can assist us to better define and adjust the boundaries of the sustainable development discourse if we want to pursue it in a manner consistent with the goal of benefiting humankind as a whole. At a practical level, in the area of natural sciences, UNESCO is informing the SDGs process through inputs on possible SDGs on science education at all levels, gender equality, disaster risk reduction and mitigation, the role of STI to enable green growth and related human and institutional capacity-building, biodiversity, freshwater and the ocean. All of the UNESCO inputs to the SDGs process are science-driven as they are informed by the findings of UNESCO’s intergovernmental scientific programmes in the areas of ecological sciences and biodiversity, water sciences, ocean science, as well as disaster-risk reduction, engineering, science education and science communication.

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Tags: frameworks and conceptualizations,higher education,Human Dimensions magazine,International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP),Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),science-policy,SDG primer,United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),youth and education