UNESCO education leaders present on the stage where the UN Charter was signed in 1945

22 April 2019



Four current and past UNESCO education leaders recently took to the stage at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, in the United States, the historic site of the 1945 signing of the United Nations Charter.

The UNESCO officials were part of a Keynote Lecture of the 63rd annual conference of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), held from 14-18 April 2019 with the theme education for sustainability.

The event was not just a salute the past and the distinguished history of the Herbst Theater. It was an opportunity to get insights on how UNESCO is supporting countries in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a universal agenda of 17 goals to eradicate poverty, inequality, and injustice while tackling climate change and environmental protection by 2030.

Moderated by Aaron Benavot, previous director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, the panel featured Suzanne Grant Lewis, Director of the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, Jordan Naidoo, Director of Division for Education 2030 Support and Coordination at UNESCO, and Claudia Uribe, Director of the Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago).

The panellists, each representing headquarters, a regional office and an Institute, demonstrated how UNESCO is contributing to the SDGs - notably the fourth goal for education - and promoting human rights. They also spoke of the organization’s relevance in the face of persistent and new global challenges.

While SDG 4 is taking root in national policies and regional strategies, as well as in civil society movements, much work remains said Naidoo.

“There are still 750 million youth and adults who cannot read and write, 262 million children, and youth who do not attend school…Only half of all adolescents and youth complete secondary school, with only 18% in low-income countries – and 1% of poorest girls,” Naidoo remarked.

To address this reality, UNESCO convenes the multi-stakeholder SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee to ensure coordinated support towards the achievement of SDG4.

Over the past three years, since the adoption of the SDGs, UNESCO has convened regional SDG 4 meetings in Amman, Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Cochabamba, Nairobi, and Strasbourg that involved governments, civil society, multi-lateral agencies, private sector, academia, and youth to review progress and share experiences and solutions.

“These meetings illustrate that each region has challenges that are distinctive to the region, but that some of the challenges transcend regional boundaries just as some country challenges transcend country boundaries,” said Naidoo, adding that the meetings have demonstrated the value of partnership and a commitment to collective action.

Grant Lewis, who is the highest-ranking American official within UNESCO, clarified that SDG 4 is not a national plan or an international benchmark. Rather it is “a source of inspiration for national visions, policies, and plans. While UNESCO has been preaching sector-wide planning for years, the Education 2030 Agenda really demands this,” she said, adding that planning is more than a simple technical or mechanical process.

“At its best, planning is both visionary and pragmatic,” Grant Lewis said. “There is also a need and an opportunity to increase the role of evidence in this process, starting with the sector analysis of needs but also to inform the allocation of resources, to select strategies, and to monitor and evaluate progress, all with the objective of ensuring all children are educated, healthy and safe, and become agents in their own destiny.”

The UNESCO leaders also discussed the myriad of challenges facing today’s world. Claudia Uribe put special emphasis on the right to education of migrants, as the region in which she works - Latin America - is witnessing one its major humanitarian crises in modern times.

“The displacement and migration of thousands of people in the last three to five years involves most countries in the region either as origin, transit or destination. The most severe case being that of Venezuela, where the political, socio-economic and human rights situation has led millions to migrate to neighbouring countries and elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Uribe said.

To help respond to this, OREALC has drafted a regional migration strategy to support Member States in planning, improving data, making schools more inclusive for migrants, and in advancing systems to recognize degrees and other knowledge and skills migrants may have when they arrive in a new country.

Understanding the transformative power of education, Naidoo similarly reflected on the global challenges facing youth today.  “Learning must reinforce an individual’s resilience and empathy, nurture an ability to appreciate diversity and change,” he said, “and contribute to building sustainable societies.”