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Series: Democracy & Sustainability

The Tools For Democracy

September 25, 2013 | by HALINA WARD

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In order to overcome the short-termism that plagues the practice of democracy, the idea of civic education needs to be revitalised, argues Halina Ward in the third part of our series. Do we need a new type of citizen?

Democracy and sustainability are mutually interdependent. But there are tensions too. In particular, the needs to place a higher value on long-term thinking in politics and in society and to foster a greater sense of our connection with future generations stand out at the heart of the democracy-sustainability challenge.

It seems almost intuitive that education holds many keys to unlock solutions to the problems of short-termism that plague the practice of much democracy. Its significance in the process of change is reflected in the text of a Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability, which was launched in March 2013 based on an international consultation process with around 330 respondents. Its expressed aim is ambitious: "to guide a global movement for change".

The consultation process began in June 2012, coordinated by the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development (FDSD) where, at the time, I was Director. Consultees were asked what they thought about six draft Principles based on FDSD’s research over the previous three years. Over and over again, consultees pointed out that education was a missing and vitally important ingredient in our initial draft Principles.

We responded. Principle 4 of the Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability is dedicated to the link between education, citizenship and sustainability:

Education must link citizenship and sustainability

Education must nurture the knowledge and values needed to strengthen democratic action for sustainability. It must empower all people, whatever their age, to be active as citizens and followers, and wise as leaders. It must help to unlock the potential of being, not having.

All people, from an early age, should have access to an education that builds the skills and knowledge to shape democracy so that it can deliver a healthy environment and fairness for everyone.

Commitments: We support civic education that develops active citizens and builds deep understanding of the case for democracy and its practices in different contexts.

We advocate strong programmes of lifelong sustainability education.


In French, and in Spanish too, there is a word that is too little used in English which encapsulates the process: "formation" (or formación in Spanish). This formation needs to nurture the knowledge and values needed to strengthen democratic action for sustainability. It’s a process which needs to be recognised to take place informally as well as formally through all of the "formative" experiences that make us who we are as people.

Clearly, education in this broad sense isn’t something that happens only in schools and universities. There is an education for life which happens in communities and workplaces, and in meeting spaces and gatherings of friends and families around the world. After all, democracy has social as well as political forms. It finds expression in all of these places and more. This education for life needs to foster a deep respect for the earth’s natural processes, for people everywhere and for those who have yet to be born. It should empower people. And it should nurture both the commitment to and belief in democracy and an understanding of and sympathy for the imperative of sustainability.

What is needed then, if education is to work better for vibrant democracy and for sustainability? In the first place, the idea of civic education needs to be revitalised so that it can prepare citizens to be active, participative and engaged. From an early age, people need to have an understanding of what democracy is; why it matters, and over time to develop an awareness of its meanings and applications in different contexts.

This revitalised civic education needs more directly to be connected to strong programmes of sustainability education. This too must start from an early age. The active citizens of a democracy designed to deliver sustainability will need an understanding of the interlocking nature of environmental and social challenges around the world. They will need a sense of connection to the natural environment and of their impacts upon future generations.

What is missing currently is an awareness not only that education is important; but that education for active citizenship and education for sustainability need to be more closely linked.

What does the evidence show us?

The Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) have potential to illuminate OECD country performance in relation to the democracy-sustainability challenge. The overall composite Status Index question rolls together present and future in the question: "How effectively do current policies serve the needs of present and future generations" (emphasis added). Sweden performs best overall in the SGI 2011, while Turkey ranks last in the comparison of 31 OECD countries.

If the heart of the challenge can be boiled down to a particular kind of short-termism (as I believe it can), one would expect to find that OECD countries that perform better in the SGI 2011 composite index might also perform better when it comes to “formation” on citizenship and sustainability combined.

Although the broad idea of "formation" can’t be found in a single SGI indicator, it lurks in many within both the Status and Management Indexes (the latter examines how effectively governments develop strategic policy solutions). Indicators on education, citizens’ participatory competence, and intermediary organizations such as parties and the media are all relevant. Here again Sweden consistently ranks in the top group.

Separate indicators for "sustainability education" and "citizenship education" might provide further valuable insights. Ingolfur Blühdorn points out in his earlier piece in this series that the concept of sustainability provides general orientation but is far from exhaustively normative. But one might look to develop an indicator of sustainability education that itself draws on the notion of sustainability that is embedded within the SGI. Equally, a separate indicator of "citizenship education", even if limited to formal education, could also provide valuable additional insights into the links between education, citizenship and sustainability.

So far, so OECD. In principle though, the case for strengthening both citizenship and sustainability education, and the links between them, so that the foundations for democracy to work for sustainability are built, is equally strong in those non-OECD countries that are committed to democracy.

Education is not only the foundation for any progressive development of democracy. It is vital if institutional or policy innovations to get democracy working for sustainability are to last, so that they rest on strong values and sturdy cultural foundations.

In the words of the Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability, "if it is to thrive and bounce back from shocks and uncertainties, democracy needs to be supported through citizenship education". Sustainability citizenship, in turn, provides foundations to secure not only the resilience of democracy itself, but also to develop the tools, the capacities and the institutions to ensure that democracy delivers sustainability.

Halina Ward is an independent sustainability analyst. From June 2012 to its launch in March 2013, as Director of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, she led an international process to develop a Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability.

This article is part of the series "Democracy & Sustainability", a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy: Two authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.

In part 3 of our series, Carsten Bünger and Halina Ward look at the relation of education, democracy and sustainability: Do we need a new type of citizen?

Education at the Limits of Growth. Please find Carsten Bünger's article here.

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