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Very often, the words ‘Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)’ bring varied opinions to the minds of environmental educators, practitioners, researchers, scientists, experts and all those passionate about ensuring that our planet remains healthy for now and the future. And in this context, a number of terms are coined, with the hope that every new term will pave a new direction for actions towards a healthier environment. But despite the decades of actions, every time there is a gathering of such like–minded individuals or groups, there is always a distress call signalling the need for more positive and determined action.

Having taught Environmental Sciences at university and then moved on to managing the implementation of ESD projects in the UAE, the one thing that has always baffled me is the lookout for immediate ‘impacts’ by all the project stakeholders concerned.

Classically, ‘impact’ is the result of long-standing, continuous action, and may not be completely attributable to that action alone. It could very well be a cumulative effect of a number of actions, one of which could be the attributed project. And hence, when impacts of ESD projects on a community are considered or spoken of, I would give a reasonable timeframe to analyse the outcomes, and also be wary of singling out a single contributing factor — a case in point being the ESD project itself.

This leads us to the need for collaborations and partnerships that help promote a multi-pronged approach towards sustainable development. Any ESD project initiated in a community either by an NGO or a government entity or an international organisation must be a collaborative effort of a range of partners, each contributing or supporting or merely facilitating different processes, all of which together can weave the carpet of impact on the community over a period of time.

So, say a ‘Green School’ project is initiated in a community. Besides the resources and toolkits provided by the implementing organisation, I would hope to see the involvement of the utility company in the community, along with the municipality, households, retail outlets, suppliers and all those associated with schools to encourage and facilitate processes that ultimately enable every link in the chain to adopt sustainable practices. Only then would the actual ‘impact’ of a ‘Green School‘ programme be measurable. If not, what results is a plethora of activities implemented with a lot of effort and some statistical data, produced to merely serve as useful inputs for a future PowerPoint presentation.

This takes me to the next big criterion that determines success for most stakeholders — that of ‘numbers’ depicting almost every component of the project. While measurements are key tools used for evaluation of projects and programmes, there must be space for non-tangible results as well. Change in attitudes can result in actions that clearly may not have immediate tangible results. But the long-term behaviourial changes resulting from such positive attitudes are really what any ESD project aspires for.

A case in point is the innovation demonstrated by a public school participating in an ESD project in the UAE. Students from this school identified the need for more wall space to spread environmental awareness messages in their school. Given the limited options available to them, they created a huge mobile wall of used cartons piled one above the other! Besides reducing the amount of waste produced in their school and saving school funds, these students put forward the important message within their school community and beyond, of thinking innovatively to make maximum use of available and reusable resources. Imagine the kind of pro-environmental decisions these students will be capable of making in the future! This is exactly what ESD hopes to imbibe.

As environmental educators and promoters of a healthy planet, it is vital that we push for more synergistic relationships, more meaningful activities and encourage recognition of impacts beyond numbers as well.

Ajita Nayar is an environmentalist specialised in Education for Sustainable Development.