Research into Education in the context of Environmental Degradation, persistent poverty and health risks (particularly HIV/AIDS and Malaria)


The SADC Regional EE Programme has for the past ten years been working at the interface between the social, political, economic and biophysical dimensions of life in southern Africa. Working within this complex realm the programme has sought to support innovative education initiatives that are responsive to local contexts, are participatory and seek to support informed critical action for transformation. However given the ongoing environmental degradation in the region, the persistent poverty and increasing levels of health risk particularly related to the HIV AIDS pandemic the programme has been challenged to re-look at its relevance in contexts of increasing risk and vulnerability for the majority of people in the region.

Based on the successes of the programme over the past ten years, particularly with regard to innovative educational approaches and strong partnerships, in the context of complex environmental issues the current research seeks to expand its educational relevance at the interface of environmental degradation, poverty and health risks.

The research initiative has been supported by Sida and seeks to address the following broad question: "How should environmental education programmes (including the SADC REEP) respond within a context of increased risk and vulnerability, with particular reference to the relationships between environmental degradation, persistent poverty and health risks?"

Given limitations in terms of time and budget frameworks a 'two part' research process was developed. One part involves an in-depth literature review related to the field of study and particularly educational responses in contexts of risk and vulnerability exacerbated by the relationships between environment, poverty and health issues. This literature review has been supplemented by interactions with regional and international experts in particular aspects of the above mentioned fields. The second part has involved 10 emergent researchers (at Masters/ pre PhD. level) developing small scale local case studies that deepen our understandings of risk and vulnerability in the context of environment, poverty and health issues. The case studies have also focused on educational responses within these contexts.


Literature Review

The literature review has opened up a number of conceptual frameworks that shape and help us to understand the world that we live in. As educators focussing on environmental issues and sustainable development challenges these conceptual frameworks and their effects in the world have profound implications for our work and hence the future of a regional environmental education programme. Key areas include:

  • Risk and Vulnerability
    It is recognised that " over the past 30 years, the environment in Africa has continued to deteriorate, resulting in environmental change which is making more and more people in the region vulnerable due to increased risk and inadequate coping strategies. " (UNEP 2002). The research seeks to articulate this relationship between increasing risk (associated with environmental degradation, poverty and health risks) and inadequate coping strategies (limited choice, inability to adapt, marginalisation, victimisation, dependency) that is making millions of people in southern Africa vulnerable. This suggests the need to better understand the relationship between educational processes and the culturally grounded ways in which people perceive and respond to risk and vulnerability. A range of coping strategies and educational approaches that engage risk perceptions, support coping strategies and enable transformation have been piloted in southern Africa - how can a regional programme share and enhance these emerging strategies and approaches?
  • Poverty
    The research engages with diverse understandings of poverty many of which move beyond simplistic economic notions (such as US$1/ day) to explore issues of insecurity, deprivation of basic capabilities, power relations and lack of physical, human, social and environmental assets. This suggests that responses need to move beyond economic growth and engage with a complex range of capabilities, governance and power issues and access to and ability to enhance assets. How best can a regional education programme build key capabilities, engage with existing power structures and secure and enhance access to key assets including ecological services such as food production and healthy environments?
  • Capability
    The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, in developing the notion of 'development as freedom' and defining poverty with reference to human capabilities particularly with regards to the importance of choice and participation, provides a framework for understanding risk and vulnerability that has resonance with key educational orientations including the action competence approach. It is still uncertain whether this research initiative will explore these ideas further due to time constraints.
  • Sustainable Development
    Previous research carried out under the auspices of the SADC Regional EE Programme (Lotz-Sisitka 2004) suggests engaging with and critiquing sustainable development meanings and practices from within diverse socio-ecological contexts. This challenges a regional education programme to enhance processes of learning that enable sustainable development while at the same time keeping the notion of sustainable development open for question in specific contexts.
    • Privatisation and commodification
      The research opens up discussion on the effects of using economic models of valuing 'ecosystem services' and the privatisation of the provision of key services including water distribution, waste management, energy generation, health and education. These effects may be either negative or positive in terms of addressing risk and vulnerability. This suggests the need for a regional education programme to engage with dominant economic trends, to develop capacity to mitigate possible inequalities that result from privatisation and commodification and to create more effective public services that serve people at risk in the context of environmental degradation, poverty and health threats.
    • Environmentalism of the poor
      In addition to engaging with dominant economic trends the research suggests that there is a need to conceptualise alternatives to economic and social models that destroy the environment and marginalise people. These alternatives are often articulated in notions such as 'environmentalism of the poor' or 'environmental justice'. This suggests that a regional education programme will need to develop greater capacity to draw on a range of ideas and practices from justice-based, political, sociological, health related and economic discourses.
  • Sustainable livelihoods
    Although it is recognised in this research initiative that the ideas and practices associated with sustainable livelihoods approaches are significant for educational work in the context of risk and vulnerability this section has not yet been developed in the preliminary findings.
  • Health, nutrition and food security
    This is another key area that still requires work in the development of this research initiative.
  • Education for Sustainable Development in southern Africa
    In a number of documents relating to environmental education in southern Africa (EEASA, SADC REEP) it has been noted that both environment and environmental education have been broadly defined to include a wide range of educational processes focussing on the interactions between political, social, economic and biophysical aspects in diverse contexts in the region. As is noted in the UN DESD consultation synopsis above this has led to the feeling among some practitioners in the region that the introduction of Education for Sustainable Development discourses have unusefully oppositionalised EE and ESD thus failing to take into account educational processes that have engaged with sustainable development issues in the region under the name of environmental education. This research initiative thus seeks to explore a deeper interpretation of environmental education processes in the region, at the start of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, and to challenge and strengthen our work by supporting a critical engagement with environmental education and education for sustainable development practices in context.
    • Environmental and Health education responses
      Initial research suggests that the urgency and scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the environmental crisis has led to large scale awareness raising campaigns. As the limitations of these campaigns have become apparent a wide range of other approaches have been worked with including socially critical approaches, action competence approaches, etc. The research also draws on trends in the health education sector where culturally orientated, peer to peer and experiential orientated approaches to learning have been influential. This suggests that the SADC Regional Environmental Education Programme has both a great deal to offer to and learn from interaction with educators working in the health sector. While this interaction may well emerge in the broadening work of the programme possibilities for more formal exchanges should also be explored.
    • Pedagogical approaches
      As mentioned above a wide range of educational orientations and methods have shaped and been shaped by practices in southern Africa and in interaction with practitioners from other regions. The preliminary explores a dynamic interplay among what is termed: activist pedagogies (including socially critical and action-centred approaches that are politically orientated); socialisation (??) pedagogies (community-based education processes the pass on key skills and knowings within communities, this is sometimes attempted through social marketing strategies and awareness campaigns); responsive and reflexive pedagogies (open and active processes in context that involve investigation, interaction and change-orientated action). This suggests that given the diversity of education contexts, environmental issues and sustainable development challenges in the region that the SADC REEP will need to expand its already broad base of partners while at the same time creating a forum for sharing and learning amongst divers communities of practice.

Case Studies

As mentioned above 10 case studies have been undertaken. These case studies will be used in conjunction with the literature review. The literature review will allow for deeper insights into the case studies and thus enable educators and sustainable development practitioners in the region and internationally to understand and engage with EE and ESD processes in southern Africa. More importantly the case studies will give a detailed contextual picture of education, environment and sustainability in southern Africa and us to identify which conceptual frameworks seem particularly to our work in the region.

The following case studies have been produced:

  • Malawi: One village adjacent to Lake Malawi
  • Namibia: An urban school cluster
  • Botswana: Local Government in Gaborone
  • Zambia: Rural fringes of Lusaka
  • Swaziland: high School in northern Swaziland
  • Lesotho: urban and rural Maseru
  • Tanzania: Rufiji District (Coastal region) Mtanza - Msona Village
  • Mozambique: Gold panning/ mining in Chua and Nhamaxato Localities
  • South Africa: Neighbouring the Golden Gate National Park
  • Zimbabwe: Land use changes

These case studies have been supported by the collaborative development of a Research Toolkit and are currently being analysed. Some very tentative insights emerging from the case studies that are significant for thinking about how we shape the SADC REEP into the future include the following:

  • there is a high level of dependence on natural resources for livelihood strategies and food security in rural areas
  • health risks and issues present challenges to people living in poverty that require them to rely even more heavily on the natural resources they have access to - particularly those that are more vulnerable
  • there is a general experience of environmental change which is associated with a loss of access to abundant natural resources, and that these are in decline / being degraded leading to less availability and accessibility
  • health risks, high death rates, orphans and orphan care and loss of access to natural resources due to degradation and exploitation appears to be a concern for most communities involved in the study
  • communities are developing various innovative strategies to support the vulnerable and sick amongst themselves and various community-based support programmes and initiatives exist
  • educational interventions in most contexts lack policy synergy, and integration at implementation levels
  • policies appear to be having little impact on the ground (or are not experienced as having impact on the ground)
  • educational interventions to address environmental and health risks appear to be 'externally' funded / conceptualised which leads to lack of sustainability and fragmentation in implementation of these programmes

These initial trends and insights suggest that environmental education processes and education for sustainable development in the southern African region will need to take account of the following (this list is incomplete and based on preliminary data and analysis):

  • Strengthen capacity for integration and policy synergy at implementation level
  • Contribute to curriculum reform initiatives integrate environment, health and poverty prevention and response strategies into education systems.
  • Contribute pro-actively to the enhancement of quality and meaningful and relevant learning outcomes in educational programmes in schools and communities
  • Conceptualise and develop learning programmes and resource materials that strengthen livelihood and coping strategies (particularly food security initiatives such as gardening and rangeland management) and that strengthen and build on community-based initiatives to respond to risk and vulnerability
  • Pro-actively support and strengthen initiatives for natural resource management in communities that contribute to mitigation of environmental degradation and the development of sustainable livelihood strategies through educational interventions
  • Develop and strengthen educational capacity, methods and strategies in the following areas:
    • Advocacy for improved governance, policy integration and policy implementation
    • Prevention of environmental issues and risk
    • Mitigation and response to environmental, health and poverty related risk and vulnerability

SADC Regional Environmental Education Programme