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Learning vs. Training: Education is the Key to Sustainability

NOTE: This guest post was written by John Sinden, Jr. John is a 2012 graduate of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations. His research interests include the effective utilization of technology for development and diplomacy and Asian security. He is the Digital Marketing Coordinator for American University’s online international development masters program and lives in Washington, DC.


“Training is what you do with dogs, education is what you do with people,” Shulamith Koenig of The People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning stated as she discussed her plan for ensuring learning is part of the Post-2015 development agenda at the 65th Annual UN/DPI NGO conference. Koenig wasn’t the only panelist to argue this point. One attendee at a sustainable learning workshop stated that the developed world often creates plans for the people in the developing world to rise out of poverty and disease, or that people without disabilities often make plans for people with disabilities concerning how to better integrate themselves into society.

I couldn’t help but think of the proverb “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Sustainability is the message from this proverb, but how can we move from teaching a man to fish to including him in the teaching process? How can we turn teaching a man to fish into a two-way system in which both parties are learning about the behavior and ecosystem in which fish and man live? I know, the horse was dead long ago, but the idea remains relevant: a want-based system of development works far better than a needs-based plan. In a needs-based approach, the entity aiding in the development often determines what is needed, how to best attain those needs, and who should be involved. In a wants-based system, both parties learn from each other, the beneficiary describes what opportunities for development they need and want, and then a plan is co-created and co-implemented; both sides win. I didn’t coin this theory, and I haven’t worked in development, so I can only speak to how I saw it implemented and discussed at last week’s UN/DPI NGO conference.

So what? As proponents of cultural diplomacy will tell you, exchanges are essential to developing closer relationships between nations and help to bridge the gap on global issues. The developing world clearly has something to teach the developed world: in 2009 the Happy Planet index ranked Costa Rica as the happiest planet on earth. Costa Rica is also considered a developing country by the World Bank’s ratings. Facts like this prove that partnerships like Digrius’s engineering program are essential learning opportunities for students throughout the world as she exposes them to a world they have never experienced. Furthermore, by sharing the experiences of her students with hundreds of attendees of this workshop, she effectively conveyed the importance of higher education and all of the opportunities it presents.

The result of the conference was a declaration that will be presented as a learning tool for the creation of the Post-2015 development agenda. Many groups already travel together to the developing world, whether it’s to lend a hand for a week or to share knowledge, but how can higher education play a bigger role in the Post-2015 development agenda? Having a seat on the panel at conferences similar to the UN/DPI NGO conference is important, but why not create a more defined channel for universities to create dialogue on UN initiatives and programs? This movement, combined with the large shift towards sustainability, presents the opportunity for a better-connected and better world.

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