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FOCUS June 2006 Volume 44

UNESCO Expert Meeting on ESD: Reorienting Education to Address Sustainability

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is a vision of education that seeks to empower people to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future. In recognition of the importance of ESD, the United Nations (UN) has declared 2005-2014 as the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD). UNESCO was requested to lead the Decade. The goals of DESD are to: (i) facilitate networking linkages, exchanges and interaction among stakeholders in ESD; (ii) foster an increased quality of teaching and learning in ESD; (iii) help countries make progress towards and attain the Millennium Development Goals through ESD efforts; and (iv) provide countries with new opportunities to incorporate ESD into education reform efforts

Two of the major tasks to begin the work of ESD are to improve basic education and to reorient existing education to address sustainable development. However, the concept of ESD is very complex and may mean different things to different groups of people. It is recognized that understandings of and visions for sustainability will be different for different individuals. Therefore, it is essential to deconstruct and analyze this complex concept from different perspectives before it can be operationalized in different cultural contexts. As mentioned earlier, there are many different stakeholders in sustainable development, and each group has a different vision for and role in sustainable development. Some are interested in environmental preservation and protection, others are interested in promoting intercultural and international understanding and yet another group may be more interested in pursuing economic development. All these groups will have to work together to negotiate the process of achieving sustainability

Although ESD carries with it the inherent idea of implementing programs that are locally relevant and culturally appropriate, it is imperative that the complex concept of ESD be fully understood before effective implementation can take place. In reorienting education to address sustainability, it should be noted that many topics inherent in ESD are already part of the formal education curriculum. However, these topics or content areas need to be identified or seen to contribute to the larger concept of sustainability

Expert meeting

On 1-3 May 2006, the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok held in Kanchanaburi, Thailand an Expert Meeting on ESD. The main purpose of this expert meeting was to identify and recognize the key components of ESD so that educators from different disciplines can examine the curriculum and school activities for existing contributions to ESD. In addition, educators can identify potential areas of the existing school curriculum in which to insert examples that illustrate sustainability and additional knowledge, issues, perspectives, skills and values related to sustainability

The meeting also aimed to discuss the relationship of ESD with other education initiatives such as Environmental Education (EE), Education for International Understanding (EIU), Education for All (EFA), UN Literacy Decade (UNLD), and Millennium Development Goals (MDG); recommend guidelines for reorienting existing education to address sustainable development; and plan the organization of the workshop on "Reorienting Teacher Education to Address Sustainability" in 22-25 August 2006.[1]

Experts working on environmental education, peace education, values education, education for social justice, indigenous culture education and human rights education attended the meeting. There were also representatives from the UNESCO ESD partners in the region, namely, Institute for Advanced Studies of the United Nations University, the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU), and the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding (APCEIU)

The participants presented and discussed what would be the appropriate contents of ESD in terms of issues on the environment, social justice, peace and human rights. There were also presentations on existing ESD projects such as the IAS-UNU regional centers of expertise project, and ACCU's project to fund education programs and institutions that will work on ESD

Discussion highlights

From the point of view of human rights education, the meeting is significant for the following issues:

  1. Networking among institutions (including universities) that have programs related to ESD. The networking experience presented in the meeting (International Network of Institutions of Teacher Education) provides a good example of sustainable effort of information and experience sharing among concerned institutions. As experienced in human rights education, there is a need for educators to link up in order to maximize existing resources (expertise, materials, programs) which support the development of ESD.
  2. Teacher education as a primary focus for promoting ESD. It has been observed that education programs introduced into the school curriculum have less prospect of success if the teachers are not properly trained to undertake them considering their already heavy teaching duties. Aside from training those already in service, teacher-students should be given proper understanding of ESD, and training on how it can best be implemented. Thus teacher education institutions should be properly engaged in ESD, reorienting its curriculum if necessary. This perspective applies to human rights education.
  3. Link among international programs on education. ESD aims to promote Education for All (EFA), UN Literacy Decade (UNLD), and Millennium Development Goals (MDG). But it should also support equally important initiatives such as the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World (2001-2010) and the World Programme for Human Rights Education (WPHRE). It has been observed that existing UN literature on ESD do not include these initiatives which form a constituent part of the concept of ESD.
  4. Conceptual linkages and confusion. ESD has been misunderstood as equivalent to environment education, and has not been clearly promoted as conceptually linked to education for international understanding, human rights education, peace education, values education and other "educations." Human rights principles, for example, have been defined in relation to development, environment, peace, culture and social justice concerns. But these principles have not yet been given much attention in ESD literature, as they should be.
  5. Reorienting education toward ESD. This is an important effort that can help mainstream ESD into the education systems (by improving on existing programs on international understanding, human rights education, peace education, values education and other "educations."). The task of reorienting education towards ESD is not without problems in view of the difficulty in changing education policies and curriculums.

The meeting provided the opportunity for these issues to be discussed, or at least noted, for future ESD activities of UNESCO and national institutions

The first phase plan of the WPHRE, which focuses on the formal education system, provides for the creation of "synergies with the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014), coupling efforts to address issues of common concern." The synergies between WPHRE and DESD will not be difficult to obtain in light of existing collaboration among networks and institutions in the Asia-Pacific on human rights, development and environmental concerns

For further information, please contact: APEID-ESD, UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok, Thailand; ph (662) 391-0577 ext: 203; fax (662) 391-0866; e-mail:
You may also visit (Expert Meeting webpage) and (UNESCO ESD website).


1. This workshp is being organized jointly by the Asia-Pacific Programme of Educational Innovation for Development (APEID) and APCEIU.