Webinar on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), Arab Youth & COVID-19: Reflecting, Sharing & Planning

“ESD, education & COVID19”; “Rethinking ESD during confinement”; “Refugee camps, urban & rural contexts”; “Connecting, sharing resources”; “Envisioning a better future”; “Re-imagining and re-inventing”; “Responding to unemployment through ESD”; “Empowering youth leaders”…

These keywords summarize the thread of thoughts that were exchanged during the ESD Webinar entitled; “ESD Arab Youth & COVID19” which took place on May 2, 2020. The webinar was co-organized by UNESCO Beirut Office & Organisation De Developpement Durable (ODDD). It aimed to reflect on the impacts of the COVID-19 confinement on the current practice of ESD, focusing on youth-led stories and experiences from the Arab region and all around the world. The webinar also sought to address the post COVID-19 confinement period, identifying potential challenges, pinpointing the concerns and needs of youth activists, and exploring key priorities and opportunities for future planning.

More than 55 people took part in the webinar, joining from different corners of the world. Participants and their stories ranged from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia to Peru, India, Ireland, and several European countries, manifesting a global concern as well as hope in the role of ESD in paving a better future for all.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Salim Shehadeh, programme specialist at UNESCO Beirut Office, set a positive outlook for the seminar, shedding light on the importance of ESD as a tool to envision a better future, to reflect on the COVID19 impacts on education and on the SDGs, and to exchange & learn from good practices. He also shared key insights and actions taken as part of UNESCO Beirut Office’s response strategy to COVID-19, and stressed on the need to better facilitate education through digital platforms and make use of ICTs for enhancing the quality and reach of education for all.

The first main segment of the webinar, “5 stories, 5 continents plus One”, provided a platform for five young ESD leaders from diverse contexts and a UNESCO representative to share their stories and practices. The speakers shared the challenges they faced to implement ESD and the creative solutions to overcome the confinement.

Mohamad El Ihsan spoke about the condition and response of refugee camps in Kirkuk, Iraq. He highlighted that, with the lack of accessibility to the internet and to information, the youth created door to door hygiene awareness campaigns to promote public health and safety amongst the community. He emphasized that such initiatives not only addressed a health concern but also promoted a set of life skills for lifelong learning and for stronger solidarity at a communal level.

In Tunisia, Wafa Hmadi explained that many projects and activities had shifted to digital platforms, and highlighted the challenge of maintaining coordinated communication with local authorities for the provision of community support. The discussion also addressed the increasing role of digitization not only in education or employment but in the everyday life. An example is the interesting story told by a participant about how Tunisia’s police has resorted to deploying police robots to patrol some areas of the capital in an effort to ensure lockdown and house confinement.

In India, Gurjeet Heer emphasized the different challenges faced by rural & urban educational centers. She indicated that rural areas often have no access to internet, nor devices to be used to receive the educational information; therefore sharing devices and resources in the local community was important to be able to reach out to a larger number of people. In the urban areas, whilst the provision and accessibility of the internet came as a rescue, yet the main challenge was the fact that most instructors were not equipped, neither technically nor per knowledge and pedagogy, to utilize and manage these tools for providing quality education. The discussion thus highlighted the importance of building the skills and competences of teachers for leading classes remotely and through online tools.

In Iquitos, Peru, which is the fourth most hit city in Latin America by the COVID-19 crisis, Cristian Velez from the organization CREA shared stories of the impact on wildlife and nature conservation efforts. He explained that the rescue centers’ volunteers and workers were continuously coming to take care of the animals and wildlife despite the multiple health risks. In order to compensate the visitors’ absence, who were the main funders of the centers & positive promotional ambassadors, the centers joined forces with the government to disseminate their educational tools while using different channels including internet, television, radio, and “Aprendo en Casa” (learn at home) initiative.

In Beirut, Lebanon, Ounsi El Daif explained the rationale behind his new initiative ‘the alternative Academy’ and shared the good practices of his two environmental organizations Eedama & Jibal. He indicated that the team had to shift their informal educational platforms from in-person to digital to cater for confinement measures. He also indicated that seeing the nature claiming back the city in a balanced way made the group reflect on how best to sustain such balance without going throughout a pandemic. The ensuing discussions presented an opportunity for different participants to share their views and ideas for promoting equilibrium between the natural and human world, and the role of ESD in this process.

Along these discussions, Bernard Combes, ESD focal point at UNESCO HQ in Paris, pointed out that, with 92% of students out of school due to COVID-19, it has become essential to rethink societies, to emphasize on quality education and on scientific research, and to be creative and innovative in our educational practices and methods. He discussed the need for integrating a variety of digital tools to help spread important messages at a global scale and yet think and act locally. “Education is about how to be human, how to connect to each other, and how to deal with pandemics. Such reality is a driving force to rewrite the 2030 Agenda”, he expressed.

The second part of the webinar focused on ESD future response to the post-confinement period and the identification of key priorities and opportunities for future planning. The participants shared their ideas and concerns, which mainly revolved around the importance of adapting ESD to the local context to ensure a tailored and relevant response. The discussions also addressed the need to learn from mistakes, identify and exchange best practices, and to address the precise needs of each community through targeted interventions.

Finally, the moderator, Perla Mansour, asked the participants to reflect on the long-term impact of this pandemic on the evolvement of ESD in terms of its principle role as well as methods. They agreed that the disruption created by COVID-19 provided an opportunity to expand our notion of learning beyond the traditional approach, and to invest and innovate in participatory and creative educational initiatives and tools. As such, participants emphasized the importance of mobilizing ESD into the forefront, promoting critical reflection on values and lifestyles, and systemic thinking of the inter-connections across our lives. They also indicated that the time was high for generating innovative education and learning methods that capitalize on technology as well as on art and music, and that engage all relevant stakeholders in partnership and empowerment.

Overall, this webinar provided an important platform to gather diverse young activists and leaders and to reflect on the ESD challenges in different corners of the planet. The discussions and reflections that took place were valuable yet many questions remain to be answered in-depth: How could ESD evolve during the period of post COVID19 confinement? What is the role of the youth within an AI (Artificial Intelligence) era at the door? With the severe economic impacts, could we rethink ESD as a pathway and a tool to generate employment? What type of training and capacity-building will youth require in the near future? How can we best tailor education to the needs of the local context; whether refugee camps, urban, rural, poor, rich areas? How can ESD help make sure that we leave no one behind?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the hope that young generations continuously bring to light. As stated by one participant when questioned about technology replacing youth interventions; “youth leaders were around way before and they will stay long after.”

For further reading, some of the shared links during the ESD Webinar:

UNESCO-UNEVOC: TVET peer support in response to COVID-19: https://unevoc.unesco.org/home/COVID-19 disruptions

TVET Forum is offering a platform to exchange information about actions undertaken by different organizations and countries as well as accessible tools, and to peer support https://unevoc.unesco.org/home/TVeT+Forum/lang=en

UNESCO is spearheading a Global Education Coalition in support of countries affected by the current Covid-19 crisis: https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationglobalcoalition

COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response:

https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse

Prioritize Health and Well-Being Now and When Schools Reopen:

https://en.unesco.org/news/prioritize-health-and-well-being-now-and-when-schools-reopen

Back to school: Preparing and managing the reopening of schools: https://en.unesco.org/news/back-school-preparing-and-managing-reopening-schools

New guidelines provide roadmap for safe reopening of schools:

https://en.unesco.org/news/new-guidelines-provide-roadmap-safe-reopening-schools

Earth School initiative: https://ed.ted.com/earth-school

How countries are using ed-tech (including online learning, radio, television, texting) to support access to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic:

https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/edutech/brief/how-countries-are-using-edtech-to-support-remote-learning-during-the-covid-19-pandemic

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