Education and Sustainable Development in Small States

Posted on 29/06/2015
By Joe Byrde

The keynote address for the 19CCEM Civil Society Forum on Education and Sustainable Development in Small States, by H.E. Mrs Marie-Pierre Lloyd, High Commissioner for the Seychelles.

The Commonwealth has a unique position with respect to small states; of the 53 Commonwealth members, 31 are small states of which 25 are small island developing states (SIDS). In fact, small island states represent two thirds of the world’s small states and one quarter of votes at the United Nations General Assembly.

In a global framework this comparative advantage held by the Commonwealth has been critical in ensuring that the voices of small states have not been absent in global policy and decision-making processes.

Example: At the international level, Commonwealth support to small states for Rio+20 in 2012 helped highlight concerns around climate finance, green growth and sustainable development, bringing the small states agenda firmly to the table. The Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action (Samoa Pathway) is also evidence of this.

Small states do face many challenges due to their size but most have shown resilience in overcoming their vulnerabilities and turning them into strengths. 


Small is beautiful & adaptable

  • Our small size means that we can mobilise our resources in an integrated manner.
  • We are quick to adapt and change, and able to effect transformative changes over a short period.
  • Small island states are not afraid to stretch “beyond the horizon” – mentally and physically and have proved to be thought-leaders in many areas – climate change, blue economy, resilience etc. 
  • Our smallness provides us with opportunities to tap into our inner strength, indigenous knowledge, culture that have proved to be critical to building and developing our resilience. 
  • Our small size offers unique opportunities for innovation and finding new pathways to development, in education as well as other sectors.


 Small states and education in the global context 

Commonwealth small states are relatively advanced in progress towards basic education global goals and targets: 

  • Most have achieved almost universal access to basic education – this is in sharp contrast with the ongoing global focus internationally on access to basic education. Within the Commonwealth also, this places small states in a very different place on the basic education trajectory compared to our fellow members in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where the focus on access at the basic education still largely remain. 
  • Many small states have also achieved or are close to gender parity in primary and secondary schooling. In some, the disparities in access to education lie in favour of girls, and that is despite ongoing gender inequalities against women that persist in our societies.  
  • However, it is important that we remember the internationally agreed targets of the past fifteen years. The Education for All (EFA) and education Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) remain relevant even while pressing educational priorities for small states may have shifted beyond access towards issues relating to retention, quality, equity, inclusion and skills training. 


Education for sustainable development in small states

One of the main outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference was the agreement by member States to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build upon the Millennium Development Goals and converge with the post 2015 development agenda. 

As we move towards this new global framework of internationally agreed Sustainable Development Goals, we need to fully define and understand the concept of “sustainability”. 

The Sustainable Development Commission defines Sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 

The concept can be looked at in many different ways, but in essence it is based on key principles, notably:

  • The need to adopt an approach to development that looks to balance different, and often competing, needs against an awareness of the environmental, social and economic limitations we face as a society;
  • Ensuring that development is not driven by just one particular need, without fully considering the wider or future impacts;
  • Sustainable development is NOT just about the environment.  It also about development of a strong, healthy and just society. This means meeting the diverse needs of all peoples, promoting personal wellbeing, social cohesion and inclusion, and creating equal opportunity.
  • Sustainable development is about finding better ways of doing things, both for the future and the present. We might need to change the way we work, live and relate with each other without compromising our quality of life. 


Debate over the full meaning of sustainable development is sure to continue however, one thing is clear: 

Sustainable development is a concept that recognizes the inter-linkages between issues of social, environmental, economic, cultural and behavioral importance. It is an approach that is holistic, interdisciplinary and transformational with emphasis on social change through the adoption of sustainable behaviors, practices and perspectives.


So what role does education have to play in this? 

Education is critical if we are to change and transform the cultural, psychological and behavioural aspects of our societies which are currently pushing us to unsustainable limits. 

So what kind of education are we talking about?  It is evident that we are referring to a broader definition of education and not just the academic classroom- based type.   

What gets taught? Whilst there is a loosely-defined body of content associated with ESD – with focus on climate change, biodiversity, disaster prevention and management- socio-cultural issues related to traditional cultures, values, equity, inclusion, human rights, peace & security; economic issues, corporate responsibility are also gaining ground.  

Who do we need to educate? Many Ministries of Education in Small states have started to incorporate ESD into their education reform initiatives and efforts. There is however more that needs to be done in Community-based outreach education programmes.  

How do we educate? – adopt a whole school approach, engaging the students providing them with real experiences, adopting healthy lifestyles etc.; lead by example – There is no point in talking about conservation study in a wasteful school; using all media (radio, television, print, social media as may be appropriate for the target audience.) 


Small states and the critical areas in education that need our attention 

In the area of basic education, small state regions like the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are proud to show some of the strongest indicators not only within the Commonwealth, but amongst developing and middle-income countries globally.   

In Commonwealth Africa, small state countries like Botswana and Lesotho provide a clear example that chronic challenges to achieving primary education can be surmounted within the African continent.  However, in spite of the successes we have delivered over the last twenty years, it is critical that we do not get complacent. 

Our innovations and partnerships at the regional and international levels have demonstrated our ability to respond to the challenges we face. However   new and emerging challenges require that we continue to innovate and adapt.  

Moreover our successes create new challenges – as we are called upon to maintain and sustain demands for quality education.  

As far as Equity goes we have to ensure that those who are the most marginalised in our societies – children with disabilities, children living in the most remote locations, children from poor families, particularly girls, enjoy their right to education?

There are also specific challenges related to cost-effective provision of tertiary education that effectively connect small states to the global knowledge economies. How can small states pursue concepts such as lifelong learning, partnership and the development of science and technology, alongside investment in higher education and research capacity?

How can small states ensure that education, training and skills development respond to national manpower needs and address the challenges of unemployment and sustainable livelihoods? 


Going Forward: Small but brave?

For small states of the Commonwealth, the relationship between education and sustainable development provides a unique opportunity to both pilot and pioneer approaches and ways of working within education that could potentially lead the way.   

What role can civil society play in all of this? How can civil society engage with all stakeholders to make a difference in Education that leads to sustainable development in Small States?   

How and what can we contribute in the development of an integrated and holistic roadmap for ESD in Small states?



  • It is clear that it is no longer business as usual. We need to get SMART or smarter.
  • ESD is not an end in itself but rather a process of on-going learning whereby all involved grow and adapt as a result.

Government or policy-makers need to develop sector-wide strategies that will bring together line ministries and all stakeholders to collaborate, cooperate and support each other both at the level of policy making and implementation.   

It calls for a way of working and collaborating based on trust, respect and recognizing each other’s strength. Civil societies may have strong capacities in areas like non-formal education, pre- school, Early Childhood Care & Education and inclusive education. These experiences and capacities must be tapped into effectively. 

We need to explore and develop new modalities of partnerships among government and non- government actors in the country as well as with external partners, to develop and implement strategies to achieve the Education for sustainable development goals and build capacities for this purpose. 

An integrated, coordinated approach is essential in small states because of limited human and other resources. Global, regional and national goals (MDGs, SDGs) need to be integrated in a manner that makes them relevant and responsive to local needs.  They also need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and within a time frame) rather than general statements of intent!  

Commonwealth can use their comparative advantage by providing a platform for small states to have their voice heard and also by building the capacity of small states to engage in negotiations at regional and global level. 

The next few days would be a testimony that civil society can and will constructively engage with governance processes and has the rigour to do so. Let us work together to articulate education imperatives that would guide, be responsive to and help shape the sustainable development agendas of Small States in the Commonwealth. 



Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers: Civil Society Forum

The Commonwealth Education Ministers meeting takes place every three years. Constructive engagement between governance institutions and CSOs is crucial for the formulation of education solutions and innovation.