The murmuring of starlings – this is the astonishing behavior of thousands of birds, seemingly uncoordinated and with no clear leader, that gather momentum and fly in cloud formation making beautiful patterns in the sky. It is inspiring, beautiful, inclusive, and gets the job done. *

This blog is based on a longer commentary which can be found here.

By Liesbet Steer and Andrew Steer

In virtually every country, education tops the list on surveys of what citizens want for a better future. Sadly, the global community has not prioritized education accordingly. As documented by the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief and the Save Our Future campaign, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded and magnified the world’s pre-existing education crisis, putting the futures of an entire generation at risk. This raises an urgent question: is the global architecture supporting education organized for success?

Another important crisis – climate change – has benefitted from a rich array of formal and informal mechanisms that, combined, have created a sense of ownership, accountability, common purpose and opportunity that appear to be leading to a positive inflection point.

Can the education sector learn lessons from climate?

Climate: A wicked problem. Climate change is perhaps the most difficult global collective action problem the world has ever faced. Its solution requires fundamental restructuring of the economy – in energy, agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, and in the way we consume and live our lives – and demands extraordinary political leadership, great disruption, and massive investments.

Until recently, these challenges have seemed insurmountable. But in the past six years, the prospects for success have risen: over 100 countries – including the three mega-polluters, China, the US and the EU – have committed to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century, as have 1500 global corporations and 11,000 cities. Multilateral development banks and bilateral donors are ramping up their climate programs at unprecedented speed, and private financial markets are shifting rapidly. $10 trillion in assets under management are now committed to aligning with net zero emissions, and asset holders, employees and citizens’ groups are demanding dramatic shifts in behavior from corporations and governments.

How did climate create momentum?

Creating a movement for change often involves these common elements:

  • Evidence of the problem, well-monitored and well-communicated
  • Evidence that success is possible, and beneficial for citizens and politicians
  • Bottom-up citizen voice, which persuades governments more than policy briefs
  • Top-down political vision, which drives policy and public spending

In the case of climate action, each of these elements has helped to create a common motivating narrative. But often, less obvious elements in the global architecture can be even more influential. These were particularly important for climate change:

  • Coalitions for change: a group of “soulmate” leaders – committed to change, sharing experiences, and encouraging each other.
  • Deep multi-stakeholder ownership of the issue, encouraged by shared leadership, and multiple strands of dialogue and mobilization.

Combined, these have created a sense of excitement around the climate issue and what’s known as “ambition loops” – an upward spiral of encouragement among governments, corporations, financial institutions, and civil society. They have inspired a feeling that “we’re in the fight of our lives, and we’re in it together.”

Global governance for a global issue?

As the ultimate global issue, one would expect that addressing climate change would surely need centralized global governance and collective action. Interestingly, despite climate’s clear global and cross-border relevance, its governance is remarkably decentralized.

In one area – climate negotiations and associated targets, monitoring and accountability – it is certainly centralized under the UNFCCC.[1] But beyond this, activities, dialogues, coalitions, and finance in the climate field is surprisingly distributed. This gives the issue its energy and momentum.

UNFCCC’s inclusive approach. The UNFCCC Secretariat plays a crucial role in managing the highly complex process of getting 197 countries to agree to setting goals for climate change, implementing rules of the Convention, and supervising reporting. It also plays a critical role in creating an authorizing environment and a sense of urgency for action. UNFCCC leadership has also actively encouraged multi-stakeholder dialogues and coordination mechanisms outside the UNFCCC process.

These complementary processes, often referred to as “track 2” processes, deal with practical solutions and finance, and have helped depoliticize the process.

Building momentum on multiple levels

Government-led processes. Examples of influential fora include the annual Petersberg Climate Dialogue, created by Angela Merkel in 2009 to provide an informal forum for policymakers from around 40 governments to encourage higher ambition, and a similar gathering convened by the Japanese government last year. In April, President Biden will re-establish a new version of the Obama administration’s “Major Emitters Forum” at the head of government level. This year’s G20 and G7 meetings both have climate change high on their agendas.

Multi-stakeholder coalitions and leadership. These coalitions have been crucially important over the past few years. Some take the form of commissions and sectoral alliances: e.g., the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has played a vital role in reshaping the understanding of climate economics, and the Global Adaptation Commission is leading to new initiatives and financing mechanisms for climate resilience. The World Economic Forum has also played a key role by convening heads of state together with corporate and civil society CEOs to advance ambition.

Climate finance initiatives. Critically, the sector has recognized that financing needs will only be met by combining financing from all actors in new and innovative ways. Important actors are ministers of finance, donors, MDBs, the private sector, and big philanthropies. The climate sector has been at the frontiers of financial innovation with numerous public and private initiatives that generate billions of dollars.

Private sector engagement. Contrary to common perceptions, the corporate sector has played a central role in advancing action. Most forward–leaning international corporations now recognize the importance of climate, and have not only set their own targets, but also added pressure on governments and UNFCCC processes – including helping to secure the Paris deal.

Citizen and civil society engagement. CSOs play a very important role and are usually regarded as trusted partners. There was a time when environmental NGOs were fiercely at odds with corporations and governments; today, NGOs have moved away from adversarial relations, as have their former adversaries, towards a focus on practical solutions. Strong differences of opinion may remain, but CSO leaders are consistently invited to participate in and even lead major meetings with political leadersYouth-led citizen action has also been especially effective recently. The movements catalyzed by Greta Thunberg and other youth activists as well as groups such as Extinction Rebellion (UK), the Sunrise Movement (US), and similar climate justice campaigning organizations are having real impact on politics, legislation, and spending.

Concluding thoughts

When facing a complex global problem with no real success in sight, it is natural that we should seek to centralize governance and coordination, so ideas, solutions, and delivery are disciplined and effective. But to solve big problems, energizing multi-stakeholder movements are as vital as any central coordination. Movements are rarely, if ever, created by coordinating committees but supported by them. They require multiple ownership strands and distributed leadership, with passion, vision, initiative, and occasional chaos.

Climate change is far from being solved. The coming decade is decisive, and there is a real chance that we may have reached a positive tipping point. If so, it will be due to hundreds of leaders taking initiatives and being welcomed into the broader array of established government, UN, MDB, and CSO orbits.

What might this mean for education?

We are at a pivotal moment. How can we collaborate for maximum impact and progress on our education goals? We should consider three important lessons from the climate sector:

1. Global coordinating structures work best when they are focused on fewer outputs, delivered in a disciplined manner. In particular, they should focus on three outputs: setting targets, monitoring delivery, and ensuring accountability. One could imagine much more wide-ranging responsibilities for the UNFCCC, including country implementation or financing –but its limited remit and detailed focus on these three tasks has been key to its success.

The SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee[2] could perhaps rise to become the “UNFCCC of education” (just as UNESCO as a whole is analogous to the “UNEP of Education”) – with similar responsibilities for agenda-setting, targets, monitoring, and accountability.

2. Real change requires a variety of complementary and “track 2” processes that need to be empowered and encouraged. The climate sector makes it clear that success will not come from trying to fit everything neatly under one central mechanism or committee but from combining a centralized accountability framework with a variety of other critical independent processes that can help advocate, coordinate, stimulate, and finance global action. The sector needs to embrace “track 2” processes that can complement and catalyze a global movement for change and be empowered and encouraged by the strengthened SDG-Education 2030 Education Steering Committee.

3. The sector needs to adopt a less adversarial, more positive, open, and solutions-driven approach to challenges. This is urgently needed and will be critical to forming the coalitions that will drive change. Education has not successfully tapped into innovative financial solutions, and the attitude of some key organizations towards other major stakeholders (such as the private sector or MDBs) has at times been damaging. This has likely contributed to the sector’s inability to mobilize sufficient finance or make the private sector part of the solution. While private corporations are totally dependent on an educated workforce and consistently express interest in engagement, opportunities to do so in a constructive way are rarely available. Unfortunately, the link between the private sector and education has too often been hijacked by debates on private education, rather than focusing on the more pressing issue of engaging the private sector in preparing young people for the workplace of tomorrow. This is perhaps analogous to the climate field two decades ago, when the corporate sector was broadly understood to be the problem rather than the solution. Attitudes have changed radically since then.

*Coda: The murmuring of starlings. A friend of ours is the UN High-Level Champion for Climate action. He is responsible for convening multi-stakeholder coalitions with the purpose of catalyzing system-wide shifts across key sectors. His wife, a birdwatcher, remarked after witnessing several months of his high–octane activity, that at times seemed uncoordinated and disjointed and yet seemed to be adding up to a gradual build-up of momentum, that it reminded her of the murmuring of starlings. This is the astonishing behavior of tens of thousands of birds, seemingly uncoordinated and with no clear leader, that fly in cloud formation making beautiful patterns in the sky. It is inspiring, beautiful to watch, inclusive, and gets the job done.

We need a little more of this spirit.

[1] UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its Secretariat sits in Bonn.

[2] In October 2020 the Global Education Meeting called on UNESCO “to develop a proposal to strengthen the SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee to be able to effectively steer and coordinate the global education cooperation mechanism….”.