What Rule of Law and Slum Entrepreneurs have to do with Science Education

A Letter from Geneva

 

The “Celestial Sphere” behind the Palais de Nations at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

By Joshua Sheridan Fouts

“Rule of Law is like Higgs boson,” said the Ambassador from Italy at the IDLO breakfast meeting at the UN in Geneva, “It gives mass matter.” This interesting turn of words, borrowing from science and yet addressing a very human rights-centric subject was an apt introduction to an engaging week I spent at the United Nations in Geneva.

I’ve just returned from Geneva, Switzerland where Science House Foundation participated in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) High Level summit. Science House Foundation, had a booth — shown below — to describe our work to attendees of the accompanying Innovation Fair. In addition, I participated in several series of meetings with UN ministers, ambassadors, and leaders from organizations such as IDLO, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and UN Habitat, a division of the United Nations that works to promote socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements.

 

The view of the Science House Foundation booth at the UN.

The weeklong discussions held around the high level meetings and policy issues being addressed by ECOSOC representatives from countries around the world were focused on “Science, technology and innovation (STI), and the potential of culture, for promoting sustainable development and achieving the MDGs.”

The title alone made the gathering of great interest to Science House Foundation. But it was also an opportunity to discuss the challenges and opportunities of science education with NGOs and governments who we might not normally connect with.

Below are some notes from some of my myriad interesting and productive discussions.

What the Rule of Law Has to Do with Science Education

The connection between the importance of countries adhering to Rule of Law as a fundamental tenet of human rights and the importance of science education may not be an intuitive or obvious one for most readers. But in my discussions with IDLO at a meeting they hosted, it became quite clear that a serious investment in education in a country can be dependent on a government that supports the Rule of Law.

Put another way, investment in the Rule of Law, as one speaker put it, is tantamount to democratizing access and democratizing competitiveness. For more on this, see UNESCO’s June 2013 must-read “Education for All Global Monitoring Report.”

A much more dramatic example of what the Rule of Law has to do with education can be seen in the story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who today celebrated her 16th birthday at  the United Nations. Malala was shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls in Pakistan.

I look forward to continuing my discussions with the team at IDLO.

UN Habitat

The median age of a person living in the slums of the world is 18. Or, in other words, as Daniel Ragan of UN Habitat (officially the United Nations Human Settlements Programme) told the group, most people in slums are youth. Further, Ragan explained, most of these youth do not have families. These variables create significant challenges in the the work of UN Habitat, which works to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. Ragan spoke about a number of important projects in which they are trying to empower youth in slums to follow their entrepreneurial inclinations and develop businesses that will help them get out of the slums through modest financial grants from UN Habitat. Ragan noted that entrepreneurial projects of youth occur in spite of the allure of gangs, which often provide a much-needed sense of community to many of these kids.

One of the most riveting presentations at the breakfast was by  Dr. Joan Clos, the head of UN Habitat who spoke about the worldwide trends of increased urbanization of the planet and how most cities and countries are failing to adequately prepare for this. Dr. Clos described how nearly three billion or almost half of the total global population is under 25. The majority of these populations are living in cities and towns in the developing world where nearly 90% of the world’s urban growth is taking place.

“We therefore need to change the current model of urbanization to create more productive cities by focusing on more strategic issues including urban legislation, land tenure, urban planning and designing, urban economy and municipal finance to prepare the cities to be places that generate jobs for its ever increasing population … Youth issues should be at the center stage of this urban transformation.”

Dr. Clos went on to describe what cities in the world he felt are well-designed (Geneva, except its too expensive) and a fascinating discussion on the different successes and failures of democratic versus totalitarian approaches to urban design. Dr. Clos argued that urban planning is far easier to implement if you have a centralized government but that successful democratic urban planning models exist, such as New York City.

Science House Foundation works in several urban and slum communities. Thus the work of UN Habitat is particularly relevant and of interest to us.

Science Education and Intellectual Property

I had several other interesting conversations with members from the World Intellectual Property Organization, with whom I talked about science education as a catalyst for creativity. WIPO is particularly interested in cultivating creativity among youth and empowering them to think about ways they can monetize their creative works through a better understanding of intellectual property.

Science House Foundation and the United Nations

Science House Foundation is an avid supporter of the work of the United Nations these meetings served to further highlight the complementary roles of our work and the potential for collaborative projects yet to come.

 

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