The SDGs are missing an important opportunity on education

City leaders can use education to grow their economy and much more. But the 'urban SDG' has little to say on the issue.

Children attend class in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2013. (Khairul Effendi/Shutterstock)

One area where education doesn’t have to make its case is in its power to foster economic growth and innovation in urban areas. Cities seek to attract human capital and foreign direct investment by positioning themselves as global hubs for higher education, skills, talent, knowledge and innovation.

Take Shanghai as an example. The Chinese megacity has doubled the proportion of its college-educated labour force in a decade, to the point where today it has access to over 100,000 graduates. Similarly, Stanford University in the United States reportedly has had significant global economic impact: Some 18,000 firms created by its alumni are based in urban areas in its home state of California.

Clearly cities are about more than infrastructure, clean air and economic growth. People live in these urban areas — and more are arriving every day. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which came into effect this year, include a landmark goal on cities, SDG 11, aiming to make them “inclusive and sustainable”. But this framework says nothing about making cities into built-up metropolises, which is currently the case. Far more needs to be done to ensure the calls of SDG 11 are reflected in city planning.

One of the major challenges cities face is that they house many people working in vulnerable jobs and informal employment. In 2013, domestic workers, home-based workers and street vendors accounted for about a third of urban employment in India, for example. In South Africa, street vendors alone accounted for 15 percent of the urban workforce.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

Since education is inextricably tied to employment prospects, it is a vital partner in fostering more-inclusive economies. UNESCO’s latest Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM) showed that 39 percent fewer workers from poor backgrounds would be in low-paying informal work if they were able to attain the same education level as workers from richer backgrounds. For example, based on data from the 2011 Indian Census, the GEM Report team calculated that adult women in Mumbai who were not fully employed had a higher level of illiteracy (19.2 percent) compared to fully employed women (13.5 percent).

Making cities inclusive goes beyond the provision of decent work opportunities. Many city residents, including rural migrants, slum dwellers and refugees, are denied access to vital services, including public education. More than a third of urban residents in lower-income countries live in slums or shantytowns in city centres or urban peripheries. These areas often are characterized by poor access to basic services, including education, particularly quality education that is publicly provided.

Lifelong need

This point is especially salient as countries currently face the highest levels of global displacement in modern history — influxes that city officials and municipalities need to deal with urgently. By late 2014, 6 out of 10 refugees lived in urban areas, and many of their children were not going to school. Turkey, for example, has been the recipient of a huge proportion of ongoing migrant and refugee flows into Europe, yet today just 30 percent of refugees in urban areas in that country are enrolled in school.

“Education is rarely mentioned when considering how urban areas should respond to climate change, disaster preparedness or urban sprawl. The role of schools also is mostly missing from debates on urban priorities such as slum upgrading.”

Migrants to cities looking for employment face challenges such as discrimination, language barriers, unemployment and exploitation in the informal economy. Education in such situations is important not just because it is a human right. It also can provide support to those who lack official documents — and thus are essentially invisible to state services.

[See: In Berlin, a school that helps immigrant children find their place in the city]

Here, lifelong learning, especially among adults, is key. That includes teaching not just through schools and higher-education institutions but also in informal and non-formal education settings. Non-formal learning activities are often job-related, but they also provide training in life skills and other types of self-development. And we should not forget the needs of over 750 million adults worldwide who are unable to read a single sentence. Yet in the poorest countries, fewer than 5 percent of adults have attended a literacy programme.

More and more cities have been putting education and lifelong learning at the heart of their development, recognizing the role it can play in transforming cities and bringing prosperity. Cities such as Amman, Jordan, are turning themselves into “learning cities”, for example, aiming to promote sustainable, economic, social and environmental development.

Curitiba, Brazil, is another key example of a city that has integrated lifelong learning into its development planning. It has built new libraries around the city and offers in-service training through an Open University for professionals to learn about the environmental aspects of their jobs. It has used retired buses as mobile training centres, and on certain days buses are sent to informal settlements to teach adults basic literacy skills, combining literacy studies with health education.

[See: How Nashville is training a new generation of local leaders from its immigrant communities]

Moreover, when cities begin using technology to improve governance and improve participatory decision-making, lifelong learning is particularly important. Citizens need to be trained and educated to use ICT services, and computer literacy is pivotal in ensuring citizens’ acceptance and usage. In sub-Saharan Africa, the most common challenges to implementation of e-government initiatives include issues of language, literacy and human capacity, alongside infrastructure, legal frameworks and Internet access.

Similarly, in Peru, participatory budgeting was found to be less effective and susceptible to takeover by elites when populations were less literate and lacked access to information in local languages. Participants with higher levels of education are shown to have higher influence on participatory meetings. Participatory budgeting in La Serena, Chile, was considered successful because the mayor emphasized education for civil society.

Indicator gap

For all of these reasons, the “indicators” for SDG 11 on cities are, in their present state, disappointing. These indicators, which remain under development, are critical metrics that sit below each goal’s target, offering both officials and civil society ways to track progress in specific areas of the goals. SDG 11 currently has 10 targets and 15 indicators; yet despite the centrality of education to creating sustainable cities, these indicators say nothing on this issue.

For instance, education is rarely mentioned when considering how urban areas should respond to climate change, disaster preparedness or urban sprawl. The role of schools also is mostly missing from debates on urban priorities such as slum upgrading. (Another goal, SDG 4, does deal specifically with education, but delinked from these critical urban considerations.)

[See: Can we actually agree on indicators to measure urban development?]

Look at the first targets that sits beneath SDG 11 — Target 11.1, which aims to provide access to all basic services. It could include close monitoring of equitable access to quality education as an essential public service. Similarly, many of the SDG 11 targets will require improvements in innovative and planning capacity, which entails the availability of well-trained local government officials and other members of the urban workforce.

There is time to rectify some of these gaps, as around seven of the 15 indicators in this goal remain under discussion. As such, we should look to the discussions happening at the March 2017 meeting of the body that oversees development of the indicators — what’s known as the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators, usually called the IAEG — as an opportunity to lobby around these issues.

To be clear, none of the points above are intended to push an education indicator over other indicators for SDG 11. The key here is that those who are monitoring SDG 11 will need to ensure that review includes a wide range of issues beyond these global indicators. They will need to ensure that the main ways in which education should feature — including basic services, skills, workforce capacity, lifelong learning — are all incorporated.

Making this sort of step change also will require us to train urban planners to better understand local needs. They need training in how to treat cities as living organisms, not just as a group of buildings and houses. They need to learn to approach planning in ways that will involve going out and talking to people about their needs, and engaging more closely with those who live in different neighborhoods.  

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

Better training for city leaders is not just important for urban planning in general but also for integrated urban planning that addresses education. The peer-to-peer network of planning schools (AAPS), initiated by university students from Tanzania, for example, has revised its curricula to incorporate actor collaboration, climate change, spatial planning and infrastructure, informality and access to land.

Another example can be found in Japan. That country responded to a growing influx of foreign migrant workers by forming a committee that developed policies and programmes to facilitate their integration, including a joint focus on job security and special language classes.

More should be made of the potential of such collaborative ventures, with better exchanges of knowledge between city leaders. It would be a shame if a lack of capacity holds us back from our ambitions.

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Aaron Benavot

Aaron Benavot is director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report. He joined the report team as director in June 2014, bringing with him decades of experience in global education policy analysis and comparative research. Previously, he served as professor in the School of Education at Albany-State University of New York, USA.