Educating Ethical Leaders for a Sustainable Future

Educating Ethical Leaders for a Sustainable Future
By Joanne Lu

Graduation Day. Photo provided by Ashesi University Foundation.

At Commencement, Ashesi Provost, Angela Owusu-Ansah, confers degrees on members of the Class of 2019. Photo provided by Ashesi University Foundation.

We all know how important an education is for getting a good job. But education should be much more than job training. It is a human right with the power to break cycles of poverty, achieve peace, change values and behaviors for the better, and move entire nations up the ladder of development.

But simply teaching literacy and arithmetic or even vocational skills isn’t enough to unleash the full potential of education. It takes quality education that equips every individual with the ethics and skills they need to tackle the daunting challenges ahead as effective leaders for a sustainable future. Especially in the face of added climate pressures, quality education for sustainable development is more important than ever.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that globally there are now 100 million more children in school than a decade ago. Under the UN’s Millennium Development Goals from 2010 to 2015, a concerted push to achieve universal primary education increased the primary school enrollment rate in developing countries to 91 percent, compared to 83 percent in 2000.

These improvements are critical to the world’s efforts to eliminate poverty. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (UIS) estimates that the number of poor people in the world would be reduced by 55 percent if all adults completed secondary education. That’s 420 million people lifted out of poverty, because of the social mobility offered by a good education.

But quality education is also an important enabler for other development goals, including good health, reducing inequalities, tackling climate change and building peace. In Indonesia, for example, a study found that education levels were an especially strong predictor of who survived the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

However, the world fell short of achieving universal primary education by 2015, and now it looks like we’re not on track to achieve the latest goal for education either.

Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030. But progress has stalled, according to UIS, and an estimated 262 million children and youth between six and 17 years old are still not in school. That’s a staggering amount of kids who are being deprived of education because of injustices including war, famine, child labor and child marriage. They’re also at higher risk of exploitation because they’re not in school.

Much work has been done over the last couple decades to increase children’s access to education and encourage attendance – whether by building more classrooms, helping offset the cost of school books, fees and uniforms, or, in Brazil’s case, for example, even giving families a stipend in return for sending their children to school and getting immunizations.

Girls’ scholarships have also been very effective in not only providing access to girls whose families might otherwise prioritize boys, but also in keeping them out of child marriages. Educated mothers, too, are much more likely to make sure their own children go to school and complete their education. That’s why many organizations have made it a central focus to improve gender equality in education and promote a “gendered approach” – including safe, gender-separated and accessible toilets, reproductive and sexual rights education in curricula and the promotion of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects for women and girls. Although a gender gap persists (girls are 1.5 times more likely to be excluded from primary education than boys), today women (and men, too) are more educated than ever before.

Photo provided by Sahar.

Students participate in Sahar’s Early Marriage Prevention Program in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Photo credit: Freshta Ameri for Sahar.

With an increase of migration and displacement, children’s educations are also being disrupted, and the older a refugee gets, the less likely it is they’ll receive a quality education. According to the UN, less than a quarter of all refugees make it to secondary school, and a mere one percent makes it to university. Already overstretched refugee agencies are doing what they can to keep refugee and migrant kids in school, but much more still needs to be done.

The problem goes beyond just access to education, because even those who are attending school are not necessarily learning. An estimated 330 million children are in school but failing to learn, while only half of the adults in developing countries who have completed five years of school can even read a single sentence. UIS also projects that if current trends hold, four in 10 youth will have dropped out of secondary school by 2030.

The UN, World Bank and others call this problem the “global learning crisis.” A large part of the problem, they say, lies with a shortage of qualified teachers. In 2016, UNESCO warned that universal primary and secondary education would be impossible without 69 million new teachers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. And data from the World Bank show that a substantial portion of existing teachers in Africa are functionally illiterate and innumerate. While almost 90 percent of teachers in Kenya could do a simple division problem, less than 6 in 10 teachers in Nigeria could do the same.

Solving this qualified teacher deficit requires investing heavily in teachers – in their wages, training, supplies and support system. And technology advances are making it easier. Remote teacher training platforms are now able to reach teachers in poor, rural areas that have relied for too long on rote learning and dictation.

New investments in teachers also creates an opportunity to expand students’ learning beyond just the basic subjects. We need to “ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” This is Target 7 under SDG 4.

Icon of Sustainable Development Goal 4 - Quality Education

As conflicts have become deadlier and more prolonged, as inequalities undermine and stall progress, and as climate change threatens the very existence of species and communities, we must prepare students today to become effective leaders and innovators of tomorrow. It is critical that they are empowered at every level  – from primary school to university – to “change the way they think and work towards a sustainable future,” as UNESCO puts it.

Ashesi University in Ghana, for example, recognizes that university students will most likely be the future leaders of the African continent. So, in addition to equipping them with technical majors based on market needs, including computer science, engineering and business administration, they also aim to “cultivate within students the critical thinking skills, the concern for others and the courage it will take to transform the continent.” This understanding is built into their curriculum, into the teaching style of their professors, and into the culture of the school.

Even if we miss certain targets within the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we can still lay the groundwork for achieving them down the road by making sure everyone has access to quality education that transforms the way we interact with our planet and each other for the better. This is the full potential of education.

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The following Global Washington members are working to improve access to quality education around the world.

Ashesi University Foundation
Ashesi University aims to propel an African renaissance by educating a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders. Located in Ghana, this private, non-profit, liberal arts university combines a rigorous liberal arts core with degree programs in Computer Science, Business Administration, Management Information Systems, and Engineering. Ashesi invests in students from diverse economic, ethnic, religious, and national groups by building leadership development, character, and community service into a four-year curriculum. Upon completion, Ashesi graduates are emboldened to tackle persistent problems in their communities, create jobs, and lead with purpose. The Seattle-based Ashesi University Foundation exists to fundraise for Ashesi University and raise international awareness about the school’s impact.

For two decades buildOn has mobilized rural communities in some of the economically poorest countries on the planet. The organization builds schools with villages that lack adequate classrooms – where students learn in huts, are taught under trees, or walk miles to a neighboring villages. Or don’t go to school at all. To date, buildOn has built 1,323 schools internationally.

Committee for Children
Committee for Children is a non-profit on a mission to ensure children everywhere can thrive emotionally, socially, and academically. Best known for its innovative social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula that blend research and rigor with intuitive program design, Committee for Children empowers children and their adults with skills that help them realize their goals in the classroom and throughout their lives. Since 1979, the organization has been connecting experts in the field to share experiences and advance the cause of educating the whole child. A force in advocacy, Committee for Children is helping pass policies and legislation that place importance on creating safe and supportive learning environments. Today its programs reach more than 15 million children in over 70 countries worldwide—by lifting up children today, Committee for Children is helping them create a safe and positive society for the future.

InformEd International works to create sustainable solutions to the toughest education challenges through data-driven consulting services and market-based programs. The organization supports non-profit organizations and businesses operating in the international education sector to strengthen their social impact through evaluations, operational research, strategy design, and data systems that enable achievement of organizational and project objectives. Furthermore, InformEd’s program designs aim to change the world by thinking outside-the-box, creating business opportunities that improve social wellbeing. Currently InformEd is using a Developmental Evaluation approach to drive the creation of a School Leadership and Management program with Save the Children. InformEd is also building monitoring and evaluation systems for organizations like World Vision and Amplio, bringing data to life through interactive data visualizations. The team is excited about upcoming opportunities to improve numeracy outcomes and strengthen the global book supply chain.

Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps helps young people and adults access education in the face of war, poverty or other crises. Last year the organization supported more than 237,000 people access quality education and helped reconstruct or build more than 320 schools around the world. For example, Mercy Corps provides education and skills building training to children and teens living in conflict zones in Colombia. Through after school programs, investments in teacher training and increased involvement of parents in students’ academic life, Mercy Corps’ program contributed to an over 30 percent improvement in mathematics and language among student participants. 

Mission Africa
Mission Africa believes that education is the key to ending generational poverty and that investment in education can have a profound impact on communities. Many African countries do not offer free education and Mission Africa is dedicated to ensuring that all children regardless of their income level have access to quality education. In the past ten years, Mission Africa’s academic scholarship program has awarded 795 scholarships and has allowed more than 300 students in rural villages in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Togo, Rwanda and Uganda to graduate high school and continue on to college or vocational training. Mission Africa has also shipped ten 40-foot containers filled with books and school supplies to children and families in Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania.

Mona Foundation
Since its founding in 1999, Mona Foundation has had a simple but compelling goal — to support grassroots educational initiatives that build stronger and more sustainable communities and ultimately alleviate poverty. Mona partners with organizations that work to reduce the barriers to education, improve quality of learning and cultivate agency of the individual. The foundation’s programs use an integrated approach to develop academic skills, and creative and moral capabilities, to transform young people into agents of change in service to their families and communities. Mona Foundation has awarded more than $12 million to 38 initiatives in 18 countries, providing access to quality education and training for more than 258,000 students, teachers and parents annually.

The Northwest School
The Northwest School in Seattle is an independent 6-12 school that strives to develop active informed citizens who understand the complex interconnections that characterize our most urgent challenges, both locally and globally. Through intentional curriculum and programs, students develop social justice awareness, environmental stewardship, and global perspective, and come to understand the critical intersection between these three. The Humanities curriculum emphasizes literature by developing world writers, people of color, and women. Seniors engage in college-style seminars examining literature, history, and world politics through equity and social justice lenses. The Environment Program requires students to clean the buildings and school grounds, as well as recycle and compost, while the student-led Environmental Interest Group maintains the school’s urban farm/garden. Domestic students learn alongside 50-80 international students in the boarding program. Students also participate in three annual trips abroad to China, Taiwan, France, Ethiopia, Spain, and El Salvador, and immerse in six-week study-abroad opportunities in France, Spain, China, and Taiwan.

NPH USA supports Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Spanish for “Our Little Brothers and Sisters”) which is raising more than 3,400 orphaned, abandoned and disadvantaged boys and girls in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. NPH believes that a quality education is the key to a better life. Many children arrive at NPH with little or no formal schooling. Each child is given a strong foundation of basic academic and interpersonal skills and provided with an extensive variety of educational opportunities. Nearly all of NPH homes feature on-site schools from Montessori preschool through middle or high school, as well as vocational trade certification courses. In 2015, NPH supported 369 students in university – the most in the organization’s history. An additional 2,100 children who live in low-income areas outside the homes receive scholarships to attend NPH schools.

Rwanda Girls Initiative
Rwanda Girls Initiative’s mission is to educate and empower girls in Rwanda to reach their highest potential. The organization strives to cultivate inspired leaders with a love of learning and a sense of economic empowerment to strengthen their communities and foster Rwanda’s growth. The Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST) was opened in 2011 as an innovative and socio-economically diverse model upper-secondary school, designed to provide a “whole girl” education. GGAST provides a rigorous college prep academic program, combined with leadership training and extra-curricular activities that fill girls with confidence that they can pursue their dreams of university education and fulfilling and impactful vocations.

Sahar’s mission is to create educational opportunities in Afghanistan that empower and inspire children and their families to build peaceful, thriving communities. Sahar achieves its mission by partnering with the Afghan Ministry of Education and Afghan-based organizations to build schools and design educational programs that address the key barriers to accessing and completing education for girls. Sahar’s programs include a unique Early Marriage Prevention program, designed to encourage girls to delay marriage and stay in school; teacher training courses that provide jobs to young women, while simultaneously decreasing the lack of female teachers that keep many girls out of school; coding classes; and much more. Currently, Sahar is raising funds to build the first public boarding school for girls in Afghanistan, providing a safe option for rural girls to receive their education.

Schools for Salone
Schools for Salone is a non-profit that revitalizes Sierra Leonean communities, empowers children and improves socioeconomic conditions for families, communities and future generations. The organization improves access to and quality of education, and has built 18 schools and three libraries since 2005. Schools for Salone also trains teachers at intensive summer institutes. With a proven track record of working with Sierra Leoneans as they rebuild after a ten-year civil war, the organization builds new schools within three months after funds are raised. Through opportunities that only an education can provide, Schools for Salone strives to break the cycle of poverty, one school at a time.

Spreeha empowers underprivileged people by providing healthcare, education, and skills training. Spreeha’s work in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh builds on its core values of empathy, creativity, lean methodology, continuous learning, and partnership. The objective is to create longer term positive changes like healthcare and education for women and children.  In most cases, those being served are pregnant and rape victims or children who have been orphaned. Spreeha’s early childhood development centers aim to create a safe and supportive learning environment for the refugee children with pre-school education.  Spreeha strives to create lasting impacts on the lives of those who are in the most difficult of situations.

The Spring Development Initiative
The Spring Development Initiative (TSDI) is a Redmond-based global non-profit that supports aspiring African leaders working towards positive social change. TSDI provides training, collaboration and investment to self-employed and early career professionals, with the aim of fostering new and innovative business and non-profit ideas and models that will lead to sustainable development. As part of its work, TSDI recruits experienced mentors and encourages a positive work ethic for future careers in policy making, business, governance, etc. TSDI is currently working with SI4DEV, a local organization in Nigeria, to provide two programs aimed at establishing quality education, entrepreneurship, sustainable lifestyles, gender equality, peace and cultural diversity among local communities. The Life Skills project reaches students 10 to 19 years old, and encourages self-reliance, resilience and employability. The Street Business School project trains youth and women living in urban-poor communities how to increase their income by building and scaling sustainable businesses.