Learning not only “to do things better” but also “to do better things”

This commentary has been written by George Lueddeke PhD, Chair of the One Health Education Task Force. It was originally published in Africa Health News. 

Resource shortages, demographic realities, and planetary boundaries’ (1) along with the threats of ideological extremism necessitate a redirection towards well-being and sustainability. While the survival of all species is wholly dependent on a healthy planet, urgent research and policy action at the highest levels to address large-scale problems are needed to counter the thinking that perpetuates the ‘folly of a limitless world’ and largely ignores the socioeconomic and geopolitical effects (or plight) of present-day scenarios on the daily lives of most people on the planet  in particular the young, the poor and the marginalised (2).  Severe socioeconomic impacts are likely to be felt most by those living in global coastal regions (three-quarters of the world’s mega-cities!) where ‘climate change will increasingly threaten infrastructure and food supplies especially in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and South East Asia’ (3), and most recently in the Caribbean islands. Another major global threat to millions is posed by antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to infections caused largely by crowded sub-standard living conditions (affecting more than half the world’s population of  c.7.6 billion) and antibiotic overuse (4). Incorporating technology – artificial intelligence, big data, robotics – into our daily lives as a public good rather than as a threat, for example, replacing people with robots –  presents a  major challenge not only for  developing and low middle income countries  but also for those in higher income nations, some of which appear to be facing industrial decline in the next few years . The gap between  individual aspirations and socioeconomic realities has already widened for many given the rise of  youth unemployment (over 50%) in many regions  across the world – Africa, Americas, Europe, Middle East, SE Asia  (5).

Two independent  global surveys have shown significant  differences   between  skills in high demand over the next 5 years  and  current student career tracks (6,7).   In a world steeped in digital technology and artificial intelligence, the findings  are not surprising given the usual time lag between education and training responses to emerging societal trends.  The main omission, however, is that the studies do not reflect what may be the most important factors  influencing  the successful application of these skills/programmes while also addressing perhaps the most important social issue of our time: to change the way we relate to the planet and to each other (8,9) – tackling, among many others,  socioeconomic inequalities, conflicts, corruption, food security, urbanisation, and environmental degradation (2).  It is for some of these reasons that more universities are beginning to offer hybrid programmes, including technology, the social sciences, management, and other disciplines. Given historical precedents, it must be said that technological progress (prowess?) alone does not by itself readily translate into social cohesion nor respect for all life forms that make living on this planet possible in the first place. The 193 Members of the UN General Assembly well recognised the importance of working  toward  meeting the needs of  human beings and our ecosystems  and committed to the UN-2030 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 (10). Johan Rockström, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, posited  that ‘pushing ourselves beyond the planet’s boundaries,’ the SDGs  ‘are maybe the biggest decision in history…a much more complex agenda, which requires humans to reconnect with their planet (11).

In sharp contrast, the G20, the group of 19 major economies and the European Union, at their 2016 and 2017 summits in China and Germany, respectively, seem to have largely ignored key aspects of the 2030 Agenda –  especially in areas related to ecology  and human rights – and focused primarily on the economy, demonstrating a strong ‘bias toward business’(12). In a summary report, Jens Martens, executive director of the Global Policy Forum (GPF),  noted that many of the plans for action  developed in preparation for the July 2017 G20 Summit –  by the Employment Working Group, the Framework for Growth Working  Group, the Health Working Group  and 9 others – ‘played hardly any role in the political talks at the Summit itself and in media reports.’ G20 main concerns were ‘ subordinated to the primacy of economic growth and the creation of investor-friendly framework conditions.’  The Executive  Director’s  observation that  the assumption ‘what is good for the economy is good for society and the environment just won’t work’ is likely shared by many. As one example, some may recall a World Economic Forum study of 103 countries in 2016 which found that  a majority ‘saw their inclusive development index scores decline over the past five years, ’ attesting to ‘the difficulty of translating economic growth into broad social progress (13).  It may be telling that ‘Between 1988 and 2011 the incomes of the poorest 10% increased by just $65, while the incomes of the richest 1% grew by $11,800 – 182 times as much (14).

Closely associated with these inequalities and inequities is the environment on which we depend for sustenance. The planet’s fragilities have increasingly and rightly been the subject of concern or pleas  by global thought and spiritual leaders – Professor Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, Pope Francis.   Based on hard evidence, Marco Lambertini, director general of World Wildlife Fund International (WWF), concluded  in the Living Planet 2015 (15)  that the status quo is unsustainable- destroying ‘the living forms that constitute the fabric of the ecosystems which sustain life on Earth.’ He challenged global leaders to address  three fundamental questions: ‘What kind of future are we heading toward? What kind of future do we want? ‘ and ‘Can we justify eroding our natural capital and allocating nature’s resources so inequitably?’ In response the authors of the seminal paper on human well-being and social sustainability (1) would likely counter  that these questions demand ‘a significant paradigm shift , away from conventional growth, competition and personal gain, and towards shared wealth, well-being and happiness’ to enable ‘the kinds of joint decision-making and collaboration needed to solve the world’s problems.’

Since economic markets and profits still seem to be the key measures of societal progress, evidenced most recently at the G20 Summit, perhaps – and at the very least – business leaders and governments  might reflect on their own place in the general scheme of things. An important step might be to consider a possible alternative to  traditional Western style capitalism – a  concept known as conscious capitalism (CC) (16,2). CC  recognises the importance of  businesses to operate with a higher purpose beyond immediate profits – underpinned by a values-driven culture focusing on sustainability (17, 2). The shift from a reliance on short term GDP income/consumerism metrics to ones that espouse people and planet well-being  and growing relationships  is likely the most difficult but also the most critical  to ensuring that human societies, the biosphere and  ecosystems function in harmony.

How society moves forward toward this new paradigm or worldview  necessitates a steep upward climb, but not doing so could have disastrous consequences. There is growing support for the UNESCO notion that the transformation to ‘bring shared values to life’ and ‘cultivate an active care for the world and for those with whom we share it’ (18)  must begin in the early lives of children and be reinforced throughout their lives and learning experiences into adulthood for  effective participation in civil society.  Awareness of both the SDGs and the One Health approach are vital elements of such  curriculum threads and have  been  explored extensively by the One Health Education Task Force (19) consisting of members from  the One Health Commission (20) and the One Health Initiative (21) with a view to implementing pilot projects across developing and economically more advanced nations.

Complementing  these developments is a proposed consortium project involving eleven  global partners prompted by an InterAction Council (IAC) (22)  Collaborative Framework for Action (23) and  underpinned by a unique Dublin Charter for One Health (24), both of which grew out of an annual IAC conference in Dublin, Ireland.  The main intent of the project, Civil Society Action on One Health and Well-Being for the Planet, is for partner organisation to work closely with  community-based Civil Society Organisations in a number of  sub-Saharan nations  to help increase their direct involvement in intergovernmental policy and practice related to poverty reduction and social protection strategies with potential international scale-up in subsequent phases.  Evolving policies and strategies informed by the SDGs and One Health through lifelong learning, the overarching aim of the project  is to help support CSOs to build well-functioning and empowered societies that place collaboration over division, sustainability over short term gains and well-being, prosperity and peace over self-destruction.


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InterAction Council. Dublin Charter for One Health. Available from: http://www.interactioncouncil.org/34th-annual-plenary-meeting-concludes-dublin-charter-one-health


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