Sustainable Development Starts with Safe, Healthy and Well-Educated Children

July 1, 2013

This blog post originally appeared in the Education for All Blog of the Global Partnership for Education on 1 July 2013.

By Richard Morgan and Shannon O’Shea

New UNICEF paper about the role of quality education and learning opportunities for sustainable development

© UNICEF/2013

As the world moves closer to mapping a post-2015 world, we must make sure that children’s health, growth, education and safety are at the heart of any global plan. We now have another chance to learn from past experiences and craft a better way forward. We must seize the opportunity. As we mark the recent one year anniversary of the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has released a paper outlining the importance of investing in children to achieve a sustainable world of progress for all. The paper, Sustainable development starts with safe, healthy and well-educated children, outlines three messages that are key for achieving a world fit for children – today and in the future:

  • Sustainable Development starts with safe, healthy and well-educated children;
  • Safe and sustainable societies are, in turn, essential for children;
  • Children’s voices, choices and participation are critical for the sustainable future we want.

Children are drivers of and should be key partners in creating healthy and sustainable societies. Sustainable development is not a new concept, nor is its importance to children. And, it will not come as a surprise that UNICEF is committed to make that case. However, the purpose of the paper is to put forward a stronger evidence base to support the above messages, particularly highlighting the dynamic and dramatic interplay between the realization of children’s rights and sustainable development.

Investing in education – for both girls and boys — has many benefits
The role of quality education and learning – beginning at the earliest years – cannot be underestimated. The development impacts of education, particularly for girls, are shown to have multiple benefits for individuals, families, communities and societies. The benefits of education are both immediate and intergenerational, and span the economic, social and also environmental dimensions of development. For example, an educated girl is likely to increase her personal earnings potential, and be more likely to delay marriage and pregnancy and access health support, leading to lower rates of maternal mortality.[i]

For families and communities, investments in girls’ education can reduce poverty, and evidence shows that better educated girls have fewer, healthier and more educated children. Inclusive education for all girls and boys – regardless of location, ethnic background or disability status — is a primary mechanism for breaking the structural inequalities that impede sustainable development and social cohesion.

For societies, declining rates of child mortality over the past few decades are strongly correlated with women’s increased education levels. Experience and evidence shows that educating girls leads to improvements in national economic growth, better health and an increase in female leadership. Moreover, educating girls has been shown to reduce population growth and, thus, to less population pressures on the environment. There are also indications that investment in education could be a more cost-effective carbon emissions abatement strategy than more direct strategies, due to the strong impact education has on lowering fertility rates and population.[ii]

These are but a few examples of how educating both girls and boys — together with ensuring their health, nutrition, safety and care –may prove to be a decisive determinant of successful, sustainable development.

Education is good for sustainable development
Education is considered by many to be the fundamental tool that links the three core dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. By integrating sustainability into education for children and young people, we can engender the core values of social justice needed for sustainable societies. In turn, children and young people themselves can create the momentum for long and lasting social transformation through their actions and choices to live sustainably.

Children and young people are not – nor should be seen as — passive “recipients” of development. They are the stakeholders with the most to win or lose from its success or failure. Every day children and young people are innovating and advocating for ideas and solutions to the complex issues that face our communities and our planet. Quality education and learning opportunities are essential for children and young people to have the skills, judgement, confidence and passion to take on these issues. Our common future depends on them.


[i] DFID. Girls’ Education Challenge: Business Case. (2012)

[ii] Wheeler, D. & Hammer, D. The economics of population policy for carbon emissions reduction in developing countries. Centre for Global Development Working Paper (2010)

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