Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, spoke to Ashok Kumar of OneWorld South Asia, at the launch of the UNESCO Chair at TERI University in New Delhi. Bokova explained how the gap between the knowledge and decision making is a big bottleneck in the path towards sustainable development globally.
How far do you think are we from achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on education looking at the deadline of 2015?
There has been a lot of progress but we are not there. What we are trying to do now is that we are launching the process of national assessment. We are mobilising governments to take stock of the progress. This shall be done by identifying the challenges and the bottlenecks coming on the way.
The initiative of the UN Secretary General, ‘Education First’, which relates to access to education is very important, but then the problem is also about the quality of education, the dropouts and we are trying to tackle this, particularly in Asia.
Looking at the challenge of sustainable development, do we need to change our education system?
Oh yes, we do need to change our education pattern for sustainable development. We are the lead agency for the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, 2005- 2014. We will hold a major conference in Japan on this issue in the year 2014. In fact, changing the curricular, training the children and empowering them with the knowledge about sustainability are crucial for sustainable development.
Unless we change the way we live, and the way we consume, we can do very little in our pursuit of sustainable development.
How do you look at the progress of education in South Asia, particularly in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh?
I think there has been an enormous progress. Talking about India, the breakthrough came when the education Act was adopted two years ago. It was an extremely important piece of legislation with provisions of compulsory education and it really achieved results.
Bangladesh is making a huge progress in primary education. They have almost reached the Millennium Development Goal in gender parity in primary education, which is very important. But still the question of quality in teachers stays in serious mess.
What is the biggest challenge in the field of education?
The quality of education is the biggest challenge all over the world, but for the developing countries, definitely, this is a challenge.
How crucial is the development of women in terms of sustainable development?
I think this is really the issue. (It is) about gender equality and how women take the responsibility of changing communities and contributing to sustainable development. That is why the question about literacy and education among women becomes more crucial. We know that the educated woman will take care of the health of the family, about the environment.
One of the issues, I believe for the future sustainable development goals is women, and including women by educating and empowering them, so that they become part of the solution.
Is poverty a bottleneck on the path to sustainable development?
Yes, definitely, poverty is a bottleneck in achieving the goals of sustainable development.
Is the gap between science (knowledge) and policy (action) more explicit in the developing countries rather than developed countries?
I would say, it is all across the board. The gap between science and policy is a global problem. I have seen frustration over growth in some of the most developed countries. Their analysis and their recommendations (by the scientific community) have not sufficiently been taken on board (by the decision makers).
May be, in the developing countries, in some parts, I would say here also it is very uneven. May be, in some developing countries, it is much more difficult to (to take a) call, because they do not have themselves very developed scientific communities and we are helping them also put the respective scientific policies and to create their own capacities for this.
So definitely, in the least developed countries it is a problem, and I would say it is a global issue.
As you say, the apathy towards the scientific ideas by the policy makers is global. What kind of intervention can we expect from a global body like the United Nations? And, what kind of sensitisation can change this scenario?
I just want to say (that) probably for the first time this question becomes very important for the whole UN system. We also give this example when we find research solutions for some questions to strengthen this policy-science interface. I would say that if you look at all the other agencies, of course, we are the agency that is mandated to boost the royal sciences in general terms and of course we have a specifically working oceans freshwater bio-university.
But all the other agencies including the Food and Agricultural Organistaion (FAO), which is an agricultural organization, the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is a health organization, and of course, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a lot of them have disseminated. So, the question now is how each of these bodies, members of the UN family, strengthens this interface of science and policy.
And, I believe that, the fact that the United Nations Secretary General, who took the initiative of establishing a panel on sustainability and has asked us to, and we have done this by working in close co-coordination with the other UN partners to put this high panel of scientists which will advise him, is already, I think, a big achievement. It is a recognition of the royal sciences and we hope that this will boost and further encourage the political decision makers.