“It is education that sustains one’s future.
It cannot be forcibly taken away by enraged kings and ministers.
It cannot be plundered by robbers
Nor can it be carried away by rolling floods.”
— Poem sung by generations of Sri Lankans
Seventy years ago (just three years after the establishment of the United Nations), the U.N. General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the most translated document in the world. Each translation is listed on the United Nations Human Commission for Refugees website. All 500 of them.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the chair of the drafting committee, wrote: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
In 1955, Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) provided a striking visual portrayal of the human condition in many of those small places. 273 photographers from 68 countries depicted life in all its magnificence and tragedy. Short poems from every continent — evocative, instructive, arresting—enabled viewers to pull back the lens of their experience from the microscopic to the telescopic. By seeing the rest of the world, we began feeling what others felt. Borders seemed to melt away, revealing a far bigger picture of who we are.
Carl Sandburg, the great American poet (and Steichen’s brother in law) called the exhibit “a drama of the grand canyon of humanity.” In his introduction, he wrote: “People! Flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers…,” of “blossom smiles or mouths of hunger” and “Faces in crowds, laughing, and windblown leaf faces, profiles in an instant of agony, mouths in a dumbshow mockery lacking speech, faces of music in gay song or a twist of pain, a hate ready to kill, or calm and ready-for-death faces.”
The Family of Man was not without its critics. Some called it western-centric, sentimental, idealistic, patronizing, sententious, formulaic, even prurient. Others took issue with the very idea that the human condition could be summed up or represented so categorically and simplistically in a single art exhibit. Walker Evans, an author and photographer himself, dismissed it as “bogus heartfeeling.”
And yet, the crowds came day after day after day, lines stretching for city blocks to feel a sense of similarity in our difference. With the dark clouds of isolationism and paranoia on the rise once again, one felt, in the company of poems and pictures from places they would never visit — less alone. The images were not exotic, the poems not abstruse. Steichen invited photographers from around the world to submit their work. Two million arrived, winnowed down to 10,000, then to the 1955–1956 checklist listed the exhibit’s contents, in four columns: photographs #1 through #503; Where Taken; Photographer, Publication, and Nationality; and Size.
The kernel of universality lay in the chronological grouping of photographs under 42 Sections: Lovers. Marriage. Pregnancy. Childbirth. Nursing Mothers. Children. Family Activities. Land. Revealing something about the curators themselves in the 1950s, there were Sections titled: Fathers and Sons. Work (A) and (B), followed Women’s Work. The lens pulls back further to introduce a world beyond subsistence: Adult Play. Classical Music. Jazz and Blues. Dance. Folk Music. Food. A curious Section titled “Ring Around the Rosy” included images of a man in a tie salting an egg in a park; birthday parties; women laughing at a hamburger counter facing the street; family meals; circle dances. A Section titled: Learning included a storyteller and enraptured listeners in the Behuanaland Protectorate (now the Republic of Botswana); a tiered lecture hall of students taking notes; a seminar at Berkeley; an old woman practicing letters; children reading out loud; a monk; Einstein at Princeton, looking for a calculation or his keys; a man in a hazmat suit, holding a lab rat.
There is war and natural disaster here. Broken relationships; loneliness; alcoholism; suspicion and bigotry; mental illness; the exasperating calamity of poverty; death from war, a child lost, death too soon, death from the cruelty of others or inequality; the Warsaw ghetto; death as release, and always the desperation of grief. Childhood could be painful, angry, and beatific. Work could be punishing and dignified. We pray, drive too fast, dig holes at the beach, worry, take risks, vote, seek justice, seek a better life, seek each other.
The exhibit ends with couples, under which the caption for each photograph is the same: “We two form a multitude.” The Family of Man has no Table of Contents nor Index because it is all recognizable. As Carl Sandburg wrote: “I’m not a stranger here.” We too form a multitude.
Transfixed by the book version, I often asked my parents: “Why do some people have to live so horribly and others so well?” The more I looked for answers, the more questions it raised — about justice, equality, human kindness. I took my Kodak Instamatic with me and saved pennies to get my rolls developed. I felt as if I were a part of something.
The Family of Man exhibit made accessible and reasonable the audacious responsibility of the United Nations itself — the mutual agreement to maintain peace and security following World War II; to protect human rights; to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid; to promote sustainable development; and to uphold international law. It used the vehicle of art to demonstrate how a family of nations would be far greater than the sum of its nation-state parts.
The United Nations Millennium Development Goals
The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted formally by 189 member states and 23 international organizations in September 2000, set out to enlist governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and global agencies to accomplish targets established in eight broad categories: (1) eradicate extreme poverty and hunger (2) achieve universal primary education (3) promote gender equality and empower women (4) reduce child mortality (5) improve maternal health (6) combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases (7) ensure environmental sustainability, and (8) build global partnerships for development. These goals were to be accomplished in fifteen years.
In just the first five years, aid flows doubled. Spending on health doubled; primary education spending tripled. At the close of the MDGs in 2015, proponents claimed that the MDGs catalyzed a global conversation about the responsibilities of the state, popularized pressing issues and global interdependence, and inspired action by using comparative data to measure progress. The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, pointed to evidence that the number of those living in extreme poverty had been halved. Credible experts have claimed that targets to provide access to clean drinking water had been met in dozens of countries; that efforts to stem malnutrition, remove barriers to school enrollment, curtail unsanitary conditions leading to child mortality, and combat malaria and tuberculosis had succeeded; and that public-private partnerships, increased government transparency, and rapid advances in technology had accelerated progress toward universal education and enabled millions to access the internet, resulting in positive impacts across all MDG goals.
MDG promoters pointed to compelling Nike curves to illustrate the impact of educating girls and women. The statistics were compelling. Educated mothers had become 50% more likely to immunize her child than a mother without an education. With an extra year of education, a girl could earn up to 20% more as an adult and often would reinvest 90% of her income into her family. Children born to literate mothers were far more likely to survive past the age of 5. Advances in women’s education have prevented more than 4 million child deaths.
Critics have claimed that the MDGs have been aspirational, shallow, hyperbolic, and unenforceable, nothing more than a public-relations stunt designed by rich countries to demonstrate their largesse or, more cynically, to mold the world in their image so that they may expand markets or exert political influence. Equally credible experts point to doctored statistics; faulty evaluation design, data collection, validity reliability indices, and under-trained monitoring capacity.
Some point to countries in greatest need of progress toward the Millennium Development Goals did not meet their targets; that fragile or marginalized countries were consistently incapable of building the resources they needed to address the fundamentals of human welfare and chose, instead, to (a) suck at the teat of donor-country charity, (b) take advantage of do-gooder NGOs, (c) pile on loans to take care of these essential services, or (d) abdicate their responsibility entirely. Heads of state pledged their allegiance to the MDGs, but had no intention of addressing corruption or promoting transparency other than a tokenistic photo-op in a village, distributing textbooks or visiting a hospital, surrounded by the appreciative poor.
Some took direct aim at the goals themselves. The right to water and sanitation as a human right was only recognized by the United Nations in 2010; that halving poverty was hardly ambitious enough; that in 47 out of 54 African countries, girls had less than a 50% chance of completing primary school; that in the least developed countries overall, more than a third of young women, 15–24 years old, still cannot read; that in several countries rated at the bottom of the United Nations Development Index, the pace of progress toward equity and human rights has not only slowed, but also gone backward.
Our Approach: License Plates
Confucius once said: “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps;” otherwise, they are as hollow as New Year’s resolutions. World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” Wars have continued. Genocide. Rights stripped. Promises and treaties have broken.
A Teachers Without Borders group in Nigeria was too impatient to wait for trickle-down development, too suspicious of their own country’s capacity or willingness to translate one-size-fits-all proclamations crafted from well-appointed rooms in Paris and New York into the practical steps necessary to make measurable gains toward the UN goals. They acknowledged the critical importance of setting a standard for improving the human condition but exposed the absurdity of relying on the false hope that governments would naturally come to their senses. Might it be better to take matters into one’s own hands? Photographs inspired by the United Nations may have personalized the world for viewers in the developed world, but how might clean water and human rights become a personal drive? If nations could unify and strengthen the family of man and arrive at a consensus on what the world needs to accomplish to make progress, might one progress with one’s own family? For them, global goals begin in the home; otherwise, they ring hollow, like stump speeches and photo-ops.
They landed on three inviolable principles of social change. First, communities had to accept responsibility and be accountable for their own commitments. To do so, they had to pool their efforts. How might we educate the midwives? Who knows about clean water? What can teachers do in classrooms to promote the MDGs? Second, there had to be room for solving problems creatively, enlisting incentives, levercultural . How can we Third, the program itself had to be sustainable, rather than rely upon handouts, grants, or government subsidies, as had so often been the case in prior initiatives.
Advertised throughout the capital city, Abuja, the Millennium Development Ambassador (MDA) program was open to “any individual with the drive and power to affect change.” To enroll, individuals would have to fill out an application form supported by a nomination from a colleague. Once accepted and a nominal fee paid, Ambassadors would participate in a mandatory introductory seminar, at which time they would officially endorse the vision of the U.N. Millennium Declaration and affirm their commitment to ensuring the active pursuit of MDGs.
Participants were responsible for supporting and building a network of educators, sports figures, governmental officials, clergy, politicians, academics, non-governmental leaders, and the art and business communities. They were obligated to contribute to — and distribute — a periodic newsletter with updates on best practices and challenges. Each was issued an MDA identification card. In partnership with the local department of motor vehicle licensing office, organizers issued a group life insurance policy and an official, personalized vehicle license for MDAs.
It was a stroke of genius. In several regions of Nigeria, roads are riddled with security checkpoints, some of which are blatantly corrupt. Most drivers expected to pressed into the guard’s hand pay an extortion fee or “toll,” along with the requisite driver’s license. MDA graduates would replace the cash with their ID card. Guards would leave the booth and check the license plate. Status trumps bribes.
The outcome: a growing network of passionate educators, driven by a deep commitment to own the Millennium Development Goals and rewarded with a reasonable group insurance plan and unencumbered travel to spread the word that much further.
One thing led to another—adaptations of micro-credit enterprises and small business opportunities for women, supported by community cluster funds designed to lower initial costs of entry. A cooperative venture launched a Millennium Development Goal Soccer Cup and Peace Cup, funded by local businesses who would agree to underwrite an 8-team tournament, sponsor a single team, advertise their business on the program to offset the costs of logistics and trophies. Others conducted village-level hygiene education programs or high-school age-level counseling programs on antisocial behavior, violence, and sexual health. Still others encouraged youth to get tested for HIV-AIDS and organized neighborhood clean-up campaigns. People were drawn in.
In partnership with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and the National Youth Commission, a Youth Millennium Development Ambassador program mobilized high-schools and universities to connect mandatory voluntary service with specific projects for each of the MDGs. A Youth Summit highlighted the extraordinary contributions of entrepreneurial students. To attract the research community, these same teachers created a Global Educators for All Initiative, calling for articles from educators in every Nigerian state, from both formal and non-formal settings, to examine critical issues facing the implementation of MDGs in their regions. And, in the true spirit of sharing ideas, the MDA program extended to Benin, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.
Yet another affirmation of Margaret Mead’s global development maxim: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I would add that we should never underestimate the power of teachers to mobilize their communities.
The MDGs are now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
If the MDGs were to halve poverty, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from 2015 on would set forth the mechanism by which the world would reach zero poverty; address the critical urgency of reducing economic, social, and gender inequality; build peace; create sustainable livelihoods; and honor the power of an informed citizenry.
The SDGs have attempted to learn from the successes and challenges of the MDGs. The SDGs recognized early that one size rarely fits all, and that ideas do not necessarily travel well unless there is a context to fit them into a given country’s contemporary cultural, historical, and economic landscape. They also acknowledge new challenges, such as a greater emphasis on the effects of climate change on migration, peace, and livelihoods, and the instability wrought by the nefarious activities of non-state actors to radicalize youth for membership in terrorist networks. The SDGs also provide greater objective measurement tools driven by big data.
Once again, it comes down to the family or the school. Parents in Pakistan or Nigeria, for example, may desperately want their children to go to school, but they may refuse to send them because they fear retribution by authorities, human trafficking networks, or school sexual violence, or have been intimidated into believing that religious doctrine forbids it. Whereas the MDGs tackled the issue of accelerating the number of children enrolled in schools, along with provisions for uniforms, the reduction of school fees, more teaching materials, and more schools themselves, the SDGs attempt to consider the destructive influence of educational inequality and fear on a family’s capacity to make decisions.
As a result, the SDGs acknowledge that more (relief, loans, schools) is not the answer, nor is the importing of an idea without the ability to lead and sustain a plan on the ground. A preponderance of evidence has made clear that the quantity of schools and teachers only goes so far, and that emphasis must be placed on quality teaching and learning, inclusion and fairness, supported by policies that enhance student engagement, teacher professional development, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity. The question now is not how many textbooks can be distributed, but the value of the content and how it is taught. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner shot by the Taliban for her advocacy of girls’ education, does not limit her efforts to getting children into school. Her mission is for all children to attend good schools staffed with well-trained educators who are passionate about their subjects and compassionate toward their students.
Malala recognizes that global compacts cannot rest on policy, political will, or pressure alone. They will depend upon teachers who — in turn — reach the children. They always have. They always will. That’s a goal you can count on.