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Sustainable Development and Resilience: Can Education Systems Deliver?

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Professor Konai Helu Thaman (second from left) with other participants of the conference.

Professor Konai Helu Thaman’s response to the above question, asked on the first session of Day one (1) of the 20th Conference of the Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM), in Nadi from 19-23 February 2018, was a resounding No and argued that education systems cannot deliver  if it is going to be business as usual.

A renowned educationalist in the Pacific, and Professor of Pacific Education and Culture at USP,  Professor Thaman said this was because our education system is a remnant of a colonial system of education, which privileged academic education based on subjects, reflect the knowledge systems of Europe (from where the colonisers came) rather than Pacific Knowledge Systems and people. 

“This is making our education systems focus a lot on unsustainable development, having replaced Pacific indigenous education systems which focused on cultural continuity and survival,” Professor Thaman said.

Furthermore, she suggested, the realities of the region provides a weak foundation for the success of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), as shown by the failure of many Pacific Island Countries to achieve the targets of global educational instruments, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Education For All (EFA), especially in the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD).

The region’s realities collectively provide a weak foundation for sustainable development, which include: small and vulnerable communities; cultural and language diversity; heavy dependence on foreign intellectual and financial resources; lack of recognition of the importance and relevance of traditional knowledge (indigenous and local) in sustainable development; and, lack of good governance and leadership.

She touched on the early involvement of USP in the activities of DESD beginning with its recognition as a Regional Centre of Excellence and Expertise in ESD, its partnership with the United Nations University (UNU) to publish resources in ESD, to mainstream ESD in teacher education courses and to introduce a Postgraduate course on ESD.  

Staff of the School of Education and Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD) were involved in many ESD activities related to the Decade.

In 2014, at the  at the UNESCO World Congress on ESD in Nagoya, Japan, four (4) main areas were identified that member states needed to focus more on in order to realise the goals and targets of ESD. They include:

  • The need to include ESD in educational and curriculum policies at all levels from early childhood education to university;
  •  The need to develop and test ESD frameworks and tools;
  • The need to establish ESD networks; and
  • The need to build capacities.

Since then and with the focus now on SDGs, Professor Thaman noted that member states are beginning to implement some of the suggestions from Nagoya. 

She pointed to the recently accepted Commonwealth Curriculum Framework for ESD in 2017 which provides information about developing resources, teaching and research to support the development of values and competencies associated with the SDGs including empathy and recognition of indigenous cultures and rights.

Professor Thaman suggested that this Framework may be contextualised by some states, however, she highlighted there remains significant challenges facing the Pacific region in terms of achieving any of the SDGs, especially Goal 4 on Education.

These include; lack of information about Pacific people’s perceptions of sustainable development; a lack of coordination of activities associated with sustainable development; the slow progress to institutionalise ESD at all levels of education; the slow pace of acknowledging the role of traditional knowledge in ESD, especially those related to climate change adaptation and resilience; the continuing focus on curriculum content (subjects) and the absence of any serious attempts at values education; and finally, our countries’ over dependence on  foreign aid donors (now referred to as development partners)..

 Professor Thaman ended her intervention by suggesting possible ways of addressing such challenges, which include: 

  • Conducting more research into Pacific communities’ notions of sustainable development and sustainable livelihoods, using local approaches;
  • Curriculum planners to gather resources about sustainability and resilience from the traditional knowledge systems of Pacific peoples and integrate these into the curriculum of formal education;
  • Higher education institutions to more seriously encourage the use and further development of local and indigenous approaches to learning and research;
  • Education systems to re-focus on the development of exemplars of learning soft skills that are closely associated with learning to live sustainable lives in Pacific Island communities; and,
  • Re-focusing on learning  values, especially those  of respect (of others as well as of the environment), together with the humility to recognise that Pacific communities have long cultural histories, knowledge and value systems that date back thousands of years and have a lot to offer  in addressing issues related to sustainable development, in a holistic manner.

Professor Thaman also encouraged Pacific communities to take time to create safe spaces in which all people can talanoa (in their own languages) about their development issues and how to address these, using their human resources, in order to minimise dependence on foreigners.

This news item was published on 26 Feb 2018 12:34:06 pm. For more information or any High-Res Images, please contact us on email

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