1. Defining (and debating) development education

Public education 'Cultures Colliding' mural construction coordinated by 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World as part of the Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Culture (2008). Photo: Dylan Creane

In recent years there have been many attempts to agree ‘the definition’ of development education; an often counter-productive exercise as the terms ‘development’ and ‘education’ are both contested and controversial. We certainly rarely agree on what we mean by ‘development’ (with different groups and individuals emphasising diverse dimensions) and, more often about how it is to be realised or achieved.

The realm of education itself remains keenly contested again with interest groups and education sectors placing emphasis on different (and sometimes contradictory) dimensions of the process.

It is routinely argued that the lack of an agreed definition of development education holds the agenda and the sector back. This is a highly unlikely scenario; while we may not agree a universal ‘one size fits all’ definition, we are nonetheless agreed on the broad parameters of the agenda. The different emphases highlighted in discussions of ‘definition’ are, in itself, a rich source of understanding, analysis and debate within development education.

What follows below addresses much of the discussion and debate, which includes:

  1. A brief overview of selected ‘definitions’ offered with a view to stimulating discussion and understanding; initially, we offer the understandings of a number of organisations and structures as a means of describing the ‘map’ of development education.
  1. Our own ‘description’ of the core characteristics of development education – this is offered by way of by way of discussion and debate.
  1. The ‘story’ of development education (in brief)
  1. A starter activity on debating the term ‘development’

1.1 Some definitions for development education

Definition 1: Most recently, Goal 4.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals focuses on ‘global citizenship’:

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

Key ideas: knowledge, skills sustainable development, sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, culture of peace, nonviolence, global citizenship, diversity.

Definition 2: For Irish Aid, development education is:

“An educational process aimed at increasing awareness and understanding of the rapidly changing, interdependent and unequal world in which we live. It seeks to engage people in analysis, reflection and action for local and global citizenship and participation. It is about supporting people in understanding, and in acting to transform the social, cultural, political and economic structures which affect their lives and others at personal, community, national and international levels.”

As part of Ireland’s updated policy on international development, its states

“[In Ireland] … development education aims to deepen understanding, and encourage people towards taking action for a more just and equal world. It provides a unique opportunity for people in Ireland to reflect on their roles and responsibilities as global citizens.”

Key ideas: process, awareness and understanding, interdependence, inequality, analysis, action, citizenship, transformation, personal, community, national and international levels.

Definition 3: The Irish Development Education Association (IDEA) shares this definition with Irish Aid and adds:

“Development Education enables people to understand the world around them and to act to transform it. Development Education works to tackle the root causes of injustice and inequality, globally and locally. The world we live in is unequal, rapidly changing and often unjust. Our everyday lives are affected by global forces. Development Education is about understanding those forces and how to change them to create a more just and sustainable future for everyone.”

Key ideas: transform, root causes, injustice, inequality, global forces, change, just and sustainable.

Definition 4: In 1975, the United Nations definition of development education stated:

“The objective of development education is to enable people to participate in the development of their community, their nation and the world as a whole. Such participation implies a critical awareness of local, national and international situations based on an understanding of the social, economic and political processes.

Development education is concerned with issues of human rights, dignity, self-reliance and social justice in both developed and developing countries. It is concerned with the causes of under-development and the promotion of an understanding of what is in development, of how different countries go about undertaking development, and of the reasons for and ways of achieving a new international economic and social order.

The objectives of development education can be achieved through formal and non-formal education but, in the formal context in particular, they inevitably imply fundamental educational reforms.”

  • Statement by UN Food and Agriculture Organisation & UN Information Committee (1975).

Key ideas: participation, critical awareness, processes, understanding, human rights, human dignity, self-reliance, social justice, root causes, new international economic and social order

Definition 5: For the Ubuntu Network of educators in Ireland development education is:

“…about raising awareness and understanding of local and global inequality. It looks at poverty, injustices and unsustainable practices. It questions why the world is the way it is and what we can do to make it better. Development education builds the skills necessary to engage with these issues (critical thinking, information processing, systems thinking and communication). Development education considers the role of the Developed World in perpetuating and responding to global inequality and, most of all it fosters an attitude of empathy and care for other people and the planet…”

Key ideas: awareness and understanding, poverty, injustice unsustainability, appropriate action, skills, the role of the Developed World, care and empathy, people and planet

Definition 6: For the European Confederation of Development and Relief NGOs (Concord):

Development education is an active learning process, founded on values of solidarity, equality, inclusion and co-operation. It enables people to move from basic awareness of international development priorities and sustainable human development, through understanding of the causes and effects of global issues to personal involvement and informed actions. Development education fosters the full participation of all citizens in world-wide poverty eradication, and the fight against exclusion. It seeks to influence more just and sustainable economic, social, environmental, human rights based on national and international policies.”

  • CONCORD Statement on Development Education and Awareness Raising, (November 2004)

Key ideas: active learning, solidarity, equality, awareness, understanding, cause and effect, personal informed action, participation, citizenship, human rights, national and international policy.

Definition 7: For the UK’s Development Education Association and Global Dimensions, development education and the ‘global dimension’ (with a focus on schools-based learning and the role of young people):

“With a global dimension to their education, learners have a chance to engage with complex global issues and explore the links between their own lives and people, places and issues throughout the world. Education plays a vital role in helping children and young people recognise their responsibilities as citizens of the global community. It equips them with the skills required to make informed decisions and take responsible actions.”

By including the global dimension in teaching, links can easily be made between local and global issues, and young people and educators are given the opportunity to:

  • critically examine their own values and attitudes
  • appreciate the similarities between people everywhere, and learn to value diversity
  • understand the global context of their local lives
  • develop skills that will enable them to combat injustice, prejudice and discrimination.

Such knowledge, skills and understanding enable young people to make informed decisions about how they can play an active role in their local and global community.

Key ideas: complex global issues, links, responsibilities, citizenship, skills, action, values and attitudes, similarity and diversity, combatting injustice, prejudice and discrimination.

From the above definitions, then, it can be argued that there are three main aspects that appear in definitions of development education:

  1. personal development,
  2. problems to be solved, and
  3. social change; specifically in the context of human development, human rights and sustainable development.

1.2 So, a description of development education…

Arising directly from the above (brief) discussion on definitions, it is possible to offer a description of key characteristics of development education. Such a description is inevitably limited and selective and is, again offered for discussion and debate.

Development education:

  • Focuses directly on key development and human rights issues locally and internationally
  • Seeks to stimulate, inform and raise awareness of issues from a justice and/or rights perspective
  • Routinely links local and global issues
  • Explores key dimensions such as individual and public dispositions and values; ideas and understandings, capabilities and skills
  • Critically engages with the causes and effects of poverty and injustice
  • Encourages public enquiry, discussion, debate and judgement of key issues
  • Encourages, supports and informs action-orientated activities and reflection in support of greater justice
  • Takes significant account of educational theory and practice
  • Emphasises critical thinking and self-directed action
  • Seeks to promote experiential learning and participative methodologies
  • Routinely challenges assumptions by engaging with multiple, diverse and contested perspectives 

1.3 The ‘story’ of development education

There are many other similar descriptions of development education and what is obvious from such descriptions and those above is that there is very considerable common ground and little disagreement (as illustrated by the list of associated key ideas above).

Development education has much in common with other ‘linked’ social and political educations – environmental education, gender education, human rights education, anti-racist education etc. Each ‘education’ chooses to highlight and explore its own particular focus and this is commonly done in a shared educational framework.

Development education has its roots in the ‘aid and development co-operation’ agenda of the 1960’s and 70’s and was initially promoted and supported primarily by non-governmental aid and development agencies, churches and trade unions. More recently, it has been supported and promoted by governments via their aid organisations (and via other government departments or ministries) and has been integrated into the policies and practice of many educational structures and institutions.

There has been a growing tendency in recent years to emphasise the role of schools, the formal sector of education – this is as it should be yet it is clear that development education is not simply about the role and responsibilities of ‘young learners’; it is very much about the roles and responsibilities of all citizens, especially adults.

The challenges associated with international human development, human rights and sustainability are hugely about ‘adult’ beliefs, practices, prejudices and (in)actions and it would be a significant disservice (to everyone including schools and students) to ‘reduce’ DE to a schools and formal sector agenda. Adult, youth and community education, public information and debate, campaigning and action agendas remain vital to the overall DE agenda.

For more on the background on the story of overseas aid and Ireland see this extract from Debating Aid (2010).

From the Millennium Development Goals to the Goals for Sustainable Development


The Global Goals for Sustainable Development are a new set of 17 development goals agreed by governments across the world at the United Nations and which replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which expire at the end of the 2015.

The goals were measurable (with targets) that helped to underpin progress on 7 key goals as part of the largest agreement by heads of state and committed those countries – rich and poor – to doing all they could to eradicate poverty.

The new set of goals go beyond the health, hunger and education focus of the MDGs and include goals on climate and peace. They are also universal – unlike the MDGs, which focused only on developing countries.

The Global Goals have 17 targets that are organised into 5 broad principle areas for action for humanity and the planet: place these 5 in a box?


We are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.


We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.


We are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.


We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.


We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.

The interlinkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals are of crucial importance in ensuring that the purpose of the new Agenda is realised. If we realize our ambitions across the full extent of the Agenda, the lives of all will be profoundly improved and our world will be transformed for the better.

The ‘Global Goals’, set to be accomplished by 2030, provide the new platform for learning about and engaging with development issues from 2016 onwards as they set out to finish the job that the MDGs started.

Check out:

1.4 Short activity – exploring development education

Facilitator notes: Consider the key ideas as concepts for exploring with the group. Particular attention can be paid to key concepts such as ‘development’, sustainable’, ‘justice’, ‘human rights’ and ‘education.

  1. Display the word ‘development’ in front of group. Ask for ideas of what they think this means – jot feedback notes from the group beside the word ‘development’. Think of positive and negative examples.
  2. Ask the class how they feel about the examples that have been put noted.
  3. Conduct a similar exercise with the word ‘education’, then ask participants to discuss
  4. Write a selection of the concepts from a range of the definitions above on large labels/paper and place around the room.
  5. Display a set of photographs on the floor (or project a range onto a whiteboard)
  6. Read out loud a selection of the definitions
  7. Ask each participant to choose a photograph from the selection that in their view relates to one of the concepts that they recognise and explain in their group why.
  8. Ask the groups to feedback their decisions and explain to the class why they believe this is the case.
  9. Use the ‘story of development education’ and A description of Development Education above to provide a summary of what DE is and why it is important

For lesson plans and more on activities introducing DE see section 1 of the Transition Year guide to DE (2015).

And, for those who want more…

One of the most detailed and extended discussions of development education, its core rationale and key components was published in 1999 by the Development Education Commission in association with the Birmingham Development Centre (now TIDE Global Learning) and 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World. The Commission involved some 24 practitioners from England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Its report entitled Essential Learning for Everyone: civil society, world citizenship and the role of education outlined an overall framework for approaching development education.

For ongoing debate and discussion in development education see the journals Policy and Practice (published by the Centre for Global Education, Belfast) and the International Journal for Development Education and Global Learning – published by the Institute of Education, London.