Tensions and Dilemmas in the work of sustainability-focused NGOs

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There is a tension in the educational work of sustainability-focused non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that is not usually present in schools or other formal educational providers – although they have tensions enough of their own to be going on with.

Unlike a school, an NGO will likely be trying to bring about some sort of environmental and / or social change, [1] and there will be an understandable tendency for any educational work that it carries out to be focused, one way or another, on those ends.  Further, the NGO will likely have particular views of, and ways of thinking about, the issues and problems that it is trying to address and resolve.  These it will wish to share with others, and, probably like them to be adopted.  All this is quite rational and is in the interests of the NGO – and will be seen by the NGO as being in the interests of the wider community and world.

So far, so good.  When it comes to education (the process) and what we might call environmental learning (its outcomes), however, all is not quite so straightforward.

People, even very young ones, come to such processes with their own experiences, understandings, confusions, interests, values, and learning needs, even if these can not always be clearly or coherently articulated.  Although they may well value what the NGO stands for and has to offer them, people are unlikely to want to be told what to think, or to be told how to think about the world, because of their own interests and learning needs that will likely be highly personal and contextual.  Whilst some needs might be straightforward, which is where the easy fixes offered by social marketing can come in, most will not, particularly if they involve changes to deeply-held values or entrenched thought patterns and behaviours.  Thus, the NGO has to attend to people’s learning interests and needs, as well as to its own values and agenda, if it is to be successful and make a difference.

Thus, the dilemma for the NGO is to remain true to its own values and interests whilst helping others to learn [2] what is of interest and importance to them, and help them to evolve for themselves what IUCN [3] termed codes of behaviour.  This learner-led approach is already used in effective community development and some environmental NGOs have gone down that road; for example, Environ in Leicester: now part of Groundwork.

This tension between the interests of the NGO and those of the people with whom it works is one of the dilemmas that led to the development of ESD 1 / ESD 2 approaches; and it is such heuristics that offer NGOs a means of successfully navigating the difficult terrain whose successful traversing can lead to willingly changed values, altered mindsets, and new modes of living.


[1] Formal education in schools is, of course, not as value- or outcome-free as implied here.  Indeed, the very process of schooling is a social expression of values.  The contrast between schools and NGOs is strong, however.

[2] The need to pay attention to how people learn is something that both schools and NGOs have in common.

[3] IUCN (1970) International Working Meeting on EE in the School Curriculum.  Final Report. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, UNEP and WWF

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