By Stephanie Bengtsson, researcher in the IIASA World Population Program

In the months after finishing my doctorate, I would often find myself having some variation of the following conversation upon meeting someone new, particularly in a social context:

New person: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “Actually, I’ve just finished my doctorate.”
New person [impressed]: “Wow! In what field?”
Me: “Education.”
New person [after a long pause]: “Oh.”

The tone of that “oh” has stayed with me in the years since: “You can get a doctorate in education?”, that little word seemed to say, following up with: “What does that involve? Stacking ABC blocks and looking through picture books? It can’t possibly be as challenging as a doctorate in a real subject, like economics or neuroscience.”

Many of my education colleagues around the world have had similar experiences, especially those who, like me, work primarily in the field of development. At the same time, the global news media is rife with articles about ‘failing’ school systems, a dwindling ‘supply’ of qualified teachers, ‘underperforming’ teachers, low Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, and more, as the international community searches for quick-fix solutions with easily quantifiable measures of progress to address these problems, often outside the realm of education research. Generally, within the dominant development discourse, the aim of these solutions is clear: to increase attainment and improve student test scores, particularly in the so-called STEM subjects (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), in order to build human capital and subsequently grow and sustain the labor market and economy. In other words, improvements to education are typically justified only to the extent that they will increase education’s instrumental value (leading to improvements in other sectors), rather than its intrinsic value.

As such, those of us working in international educational development often find ourselves caught in a paradox, as our sector has been (and continues to be) simultaneously under-appreciated in terms of the contribution it can make to other aspects of development and wellbeing (and subsequently under-prioritized), and over-emphasized in its role as a tool of development when it does make it onto the agenda. We therefore frequently find ourselves having to first ‘make the business case’ for education by proving its instrumental value before beginning any research or development project, in a way that would be considered ludicrous in, for instance, the sectors of health and nutrition. Once we have successfully argued that case, the pressure is on to measure inputs and narrowly-defined short-term outcomes, leaving little time to examine complex educational processes and longer-term impacts of education.

In late September 2015, Heads of State and High Representatives from around the world committed to a new sustainable development agenda consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 accompanying targets. The framing document for the SDGs, UN Resolution 70/1, Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, envisions an important role for education within this agenda, both as an end and a powerful means of development:

“All people, irrespective of sex, age, race, ethnicity, and persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples, children and youth, especially those in vulnerable situations, should have access to life-long learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities and to participate fully in society. We will strive to provide children and youth with a nurturing environment for the full realization of their rights and capabilities, helping our countries to reap the demographic dividend including through safe schools and cohesive communities and families.” (UN 2015, article 25)

For those of us working in international educational development, the SDGs thus represent a significant step forward from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as well as an opportunity to encourage the wider development community to engage with and invest in a shared vision for equitable, inclusive, quality lifelong learning opportunities.

In our new book, The Role of Education in Enabling the Sustainable Development Agenda, my colleagues and I conduct an extensive critical review of literature from a range of disciplines, attempting to find answers to these fundamental questions about the value of education and the dynamic nature of the relationship between education and development. We engage with the argument put forward in the capabilities approach to development that the capability to be educated is, in and of itself, an important freedom, and a fundamental aspect of human wellbeing. Given that processes of teaching and learning are a natural and defining characteristic of human society, we argue that education is most successful at contributing to sustainable development across all dimensions at once if, rather than being crafted as an instrument to achieve a specific and narrow development objective – no matter how worthy – education is improved on its own terms, and as an end in itself.

We also draw from recent work by the economist Kate Raworth, which attempts to connect the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, by combining social justice work with planetary boundaries research in order to define a space within which humanity can survive and thrive:

“Between a social foundation that protects against critical human deprivations, and an environmental ceiling that avoids critical natural thresholds, lies a safe and just space for humanity [. . .] where both human wellbeing and planetary wellbeing are assured, and their interdependence is respected.” (Raworth 2012, p. 7)

This book builds on work we carried out for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, and shares in UNESCO’s urgent sense of purpose to demonstrate not only “the potential for education to propel progress towards all global goals”, but also that “education needs a major transformation to fulfil that potential and meet the current challenges facing humanity and the planet” (UNESCO n.d., n.p.). At no point do we claim to be providing the definitive account of the role of education in the sustainable development agenda; rather, we hope that our book will inspire critical reflection, engagement, and, above all, learning, among a wide audience of scholars, students, policymakers, and practitioners alike.

Harber, C. (2014). Education and international development: Theory, practice and issues. Oxford: Symposium Books.
Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Discussion Paper. Oxford: Oxfam.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.
UNESCO. (n.d). Education needs to change fundamentally to meet global development goals. Retrieved from:

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

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