Training for the Profession of Sustainable Development: Educational Requirements for Practical Imperatives

McARTHUR, John (2010)

John W. McArthur (USA) Chief Executive Officer of Millennium Promise.

In this article, the authors explain that a new type of cross-disciplinary practitioner is needed, one who understands the complex interactions between fields and is able to effectively coordinate and implement the insights offered by subject-specific specialists in order to solve the sustainable development challenges. In response to this need, the Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) programme launched at Columbia University in August 2009, and will begin at 21 additional universities in 2010 and 2011, establishing an expanding global network of leading institutions to promote and support sustainable development.

I. Introduction

The interwoven challenges of sustainable development—from extreme poverty and disease control and ecosystem vulnerability—can only be resolved by leveraging knowledge and skills from a range of disciplines. Meaningful progress requires practical, well-managed policies and programs that incorporate insights from the health sciences, natural sciences and social sciences.  These complex challenges demand integrated, cross-disciplinary approaches guided and managed by skilled practitioners. Unfortunately, multidisciplinary training and problem solving remain rare, with very few practical connections across communities of expertise, particularly between natural sciences and social sciences. Individual disciplines tend to value inward-looking specialization rather than outward-looking problem solving. This therefore makes it rare for individual organizations or professionals to have the background required to conduct cross-disciplinary policy management or problem solving.
As one example, consider the challenge of combating chronic hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa. Knowledge of agriculture is required to understand the biophysical factors that are contributing to the stagnation of crop yields and the technical solutions that could quickly boost food output and nutritional intake in rural areas. A background in environmental science is required to manage the agricultural land environment and to understand its interactions with climate change. Core knowledge of engineering is required to understand the fundamental infrastructure requirements to support energy, irrigation, storage, transportation and irrigation systems.  An understanding of health and disease control is required to promote nutrition and labour productivity among farmers and to fight the parasites that contribute to under-nourishment. Familiarity with economics is required to ensure that both farm- and macro-scale policy solutions are economically sustainable and supportive of long-term solutions to the poverty trap. Knowledge of political science is required to understand investment promoters and inhibitors in rural areas. An understanding of anthropology is required to ensure that priorities and innovations are relevant and manageable in local contexts.  Participatory planning skills are necessary to ensure multi-stakeholder design of solutions, while at the same time, management and administration skills are necessary to promote institutional development at the local and national level. Crucially, none of these individual areas of knowledge is sufficient on its own to solve the challenge of hunger, but all are necessary. The same need for multidisciplinary problem solving arises across a range of policy challenges in developing countries, such as disease control, water management, energy service delivery, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.
In recognition of this pressing need for a new form of training to improve problem-solving strategies for development, the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice was established in early 2007 to identify the core cross-disciplinary educational needs to support problem-solving in the realm of sustainable development. The Commission’s work was anchored in an understanding that professionals working in the field of sustainable development—whether in developing country ministries, inter-governmental organizations, developed country aid agencies, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions or private sector companies—are not sufficiently prepared to overcome the challenges they are face. While PhD graduates and other advanced specialists provide significant contributions within distinct fields of knowledge, these contributions too often remain circumscribed within the intellectual and institutional silos of their respective disciplines. As a result, opportunities are typically lost for integrated policy solutions that are scientifically, politically and contextually grounded.
It remains an unresolved paradox that the parameters for policymaking in all sectors—such as education, health, and the environment—are set by finance ministries and other powerful fiduciary institutions, where the individuals who set the policy parameters tend to have extremely limited knowledge of the sectors whose outcomes they define. Through little fault of their own, the finance officials are typically classroom-trained in the theories of economics, with no background for evaluating the absolute or relative merits of a plan to control a disease, manage an ecosystem, or deliver an energy service. Nor do they typically have much exposure to the ground-level practicalities of policy management and project implementation. Yet the consequences are of the highest order when decisions affect, and sometimes even cost, millions of lives at a time.
The Commission therefore has recommended the establishment of new educational programmes to forge links across disciplines, with particular emphasis on bridging together health sciences, natural sciences, social sciences and management. A new type of practitioner is needed, one who understands the complex interactions between fields and is able to effectively coordinate and implement the insights offered by subject-specific specialists. Meanwhile, specialists like physicians and PhD graduates require mechanisms to round out their knowledge base for the practice of sustainable development so that they can contribute as effectively as possible to cross-disciplinary policy teams. Moreover, the rapid pace of scientific advancement and the requirements for skill upgrading through lifelong learning underscore the need for a “lifecycle” continuing education approach to sustainable development.
To that end, this article outlines the Commission’s core recommendations for a new approach to educating development professionals. The Commission’s Final Report, released in October 2008, proposes rigorous training for aspiring practitioners, embedded in practical experiences that draw from a diversity of delivery methods in order to address needs throughout the professional lifecycle. Specifically, the proposed reforms target graduate-level degree programmes and lifelong learning initiatives, including organization-based training programmes. In this context, the Commission report places particular emphasis on the need for a new class of professional: the cross-disciplinary development practitioner.
II. Key Skills Required
Effective, comprehensive development work requires proficiency in several cross-disciplinary skill and knowledge areas.  These core competencies enable a sustainable development practitioner to analyze the complex nature of development issues; choose a course of action based sound ability to diagnose the key drivers and the relevant obstacles of a situation and the practical steps that can most directly affect outcomes; and effectively manage policies, programs and projects.
This work is rooted in each of the four key disciplines that must inform the training of the sustainable development practitioner.  Drawing from the key disciplines of health sciences, natural sciences and engineering, social sciences and management, the core competencies define the essential knowledge, skills and attributes of an effective sustainable development practitioner.  These include, but are not limited to, the knowledge areas and skill sets listed below.
- Nutrition. Malnutrition, particularly in pregnant women and children, is a leading cause of disease and death and represents a significant threat to any development effort.
- Health and Epidemiology. Development interventions are ineffective if they fail to address the basic life-and-death issues pertaining to child health, reproductive health, maternal health, infectious disease control (such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis) and non-communicable disease control.  As just one example, child mortality rates in the poorest countries are often 30 to 50 times higher than in industrialized countries. Most interventions to reduce this gap require the implementation of basic and proven technologies.
- Population Sciences. Population dynamics must be a key consideration in any long- or short-term development strategy.  Understanding the strong connection between high fertility rates and poverty, practitioners must have the basic knowledge of reproductive health, family planning and voluntary child spacing strategies, as well as interventions to promote gender equality and health education to enable women and men to make informed family planning decisions.
- Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Management.  The majority of people living in extreme poverty throughout the world depend on agriculture, fisheries and forests for their livelihoods, although biophysical environments vary tremendously both by region and within regions. Food production and rural economic transformation often hinge on animal productivity, crop yields and forest production, which in turn hinge on soil fertility, availability of inputs and land management.
- Energy. Essential to all aspects of development—including agricultural productivity, access to water, health, education and transportation—is a safe and consistent supply of energy.  Well-designed interventions must consider how renewable or non-renewable energy sources will be harnessed and distributed, and the associated economic, environmental and health impacts.
- Engineering and Urban and Rural Planning. Public infrastructure is essential to poverty reduction and economic growth, including water supply systems, waste management systems, clean air systems, irrigation systems, roads and transportation systems and telecommunication systems.  The strategic design of such systems must also take into account the environmental, economic and social impacts and include appropriate adaptations for predicted changes in climate.
- Environment, Water and Climate Science. Large numbers of the world’s poor live in fragile ecosystems and many developing countries are experiencing severe ecosystem degradation as human settlement expands and natural resource bases are mined. Coastal populations depend heavily on fisheries and marine management. Evolving ecosystems typically define transmission patterns of diseases affecting human, animal and plant health. All of these dynamics are affected by climate patterns, which are shown to be shifting due to anthropogenic climate change. Policy diagnosis and prescription is imprudent without a sound understanding of basic environmental, water and climate science.
- Delivery Science. In order to achieve measurable success, development practitioners must know how to strategically apply, implement and deliver prescribed interventions, including technological innovations.  Drawing upon the lessons of past successes and failures, practitioners must be able to identify and design the most appropriate and effective means of delivering a given intervention.  This requires a keen understanding of the economic, political and logistical factors that must be considered in order to successfully implement and later “scale-up” interventions.
- Economics. Microeconomics is essential for understanding the ground-level incentives and practicalities of policy design. Macroeconomics is crucial for understanding how programmes interact with large-scale government decision-making and budgets, and the movements of goods, resources and services across countries.
- Education. A critical component of any long-term development strategy, formal education systems must ensure students acquire the knowledge and skills that will bring them improved quality of life, appropriate competencies to prepare them for the work force, and creative problem-solving skills to pave the way for future innovations.  Non-formal and community-based education programmes are also vital as they catalyze the adoption of improved agricultural, health and sanitation, nutritional and vocational practices, and can play a vital role in peace-building and conflict resolution.
- Politics, Anthropology and Social Studies. To affect long-term, structural change, interventions must be designed with careful consideration for the culture, local history, local and regional politics, and political and institutional structures of a given location.  In addition, development efforts must take into account power and social relations at various levels: within households, within communities and across societal groups.
- Statistics. The collection and analysis of critical information is essential to the project design, management, monitoring and evaluation.  In addition, key decision-makers must be able to understand and interpret statistical findings in order to make informed policy decisions and to design appropriate development strategies.
- Budget Planning, Financial Management and Commodities Management. Sustainable development practitioners must be able to design and manage programs and project budgets with transparency and efficiency.   Knowledge of financial markets, credit and microfinance is required as well as the procurement, supply chain, production management and distribution of essential commodities.
- Communications and Negotiation. Project implementation and policy design at the local-, regional-, or national-level require keen understanding of power relations and cultural interactions.  Practitioners must be able to interact with local community leaders, colleagues, partners, and stakeholders from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to coordinate participatory planning processes to implement sustainable development programmes.  Effective practitioners must also have skills of social entrepreneurship such that they can pull together a variety of political, financial and institutional resources to imagine, build, market and deliver new ideas.  In addition, practitioners need to be able to reflect on their own attitudes, perceptions and biases in terms of how they are formed, and how they affect their choices and performance.
- Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Appropriate applications of GIS allow the development practitioner to effectively analyze agricultural, demographical, ecological, environmental, infrastructural, social and other conditions.  This information is used to develop comprehensive needs assessments, risk analyses, implementation plans, as well as dynamic monitoring and evaluation tools.
- Institutional and Human Resource Management. As professionals advance in their careers, they must be able to lead, mentor, and inspire ever-larger numbers of subordinates to achieve successful outcomes. Institutional development is a key element in building long-lasting programmes that result in valuable, measurable solutions.
- Information Systems Design Management. The rapidly evolving use of information systems in the field of sustainable development provides growing opportunities for professionals to quickly transmit vital information and key indicators, to share best practices, and to engage in virtual mentorship.  Practitioners must be able to collect, monitor and evaluate relevant information to inform and update policy and project implementation.
- Project design and management. Practitioners need to be able to design and manage work streams that measure progress against clear benchmarks. They also often require strong proposal-writing skills.
Mixed with an understanding of the global and cross-cultural influences on development, educational programs grounded in these core competencies would provide a major step forward in preparing professionals to confront the complex challenges of sustainable development.
III. Current Gaps
To investigate the educational needs of development practitioners and to map out the landscape of existing training programs, the Commission engaged in regional consultations spearheaded by six Regional Coordinators working within Africa, East Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and South Asia. The Commission’s review of university degree programmes, executive training programmes, and organizational training programmes highlights the following gaps:
Gaps in Graduate-level Degree Programmes. Most academic degrees relevant to sustainable development, whether based on the natural sciences or social sciences, tend towards academic specialization within a particular discipline. While many universities around the world offer graduate degree programmes that have a “development” label, typically with a focus on either social sciences or environmental sciences, these offer few opportunities for systematic, cross-disciplinary education or management training. Across these programmes, there are no consistent standards for prerequisite training, core curriculum or programme length. In addition, within programmes, there is great variation in the number of practice-focused faculty versus research-focused faculty.  Furthermore, the acquisition of practical skills requires opportunities for reflective experimentation and “hands-on” experiences, yet few programmes stimulate learning around functional and practical knowledge and students’ opportunities for course-related fieldwork or internship are rare.
Lack of Appropriate Training Programmes for Lifelong-learning. Mirroring the shortage of comprehensive, cross-disciplinary degree programmes, development professionals have few opportunities for refreshing and upgrading relevant skills throughout their careers. Instead, professional development programmes typically focus on management or leadership techniques and fail to address the essential, cross-disciplinary knowledge and skills required of a sustainable development practitioner. Within organizations working in sustainable development, in-service training programmes generally do not provide staff and management with adequate cross-disciplinary knowledge.  Moreover, experts of a specific discipline are often promoted to assume ever-greater substantive and managerial responsibilities, but with no corresponding training.
With no established minimum standards for professional competencies and no opportunities to round out their skills across the range of cross-disciplinary knowledge areas, professionals too often lack the ability to coordinate effectively across the needed range of technical specialists, policy makers and implementers.  On a practical level, there are no reference points for objectively evaluating competencies across disciplines. How does an economist know, for instance, whether a colleague’s disease-related research meets basic epidemiological standards? Or how does a health specialist know when a colleague’s environment-related policy recommendation meets the latter field’s basic standards? Such questions highlight the urgent demand for the cross-disciplinary practitioner, defined by a new set of professional standards that would incorporate the best practices and key competencies from a range of specialized fields.
To address the gaps outlined above, the Commission has outlined some key recommendations and with the aim of supporting future generations of professionals as well as those currently working in the sphere of sustainable development.
1.- Global Network of Master’s in Development Practice Programmes
As the flagship of the new field, the two-year Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) programme provides graduate-level students at key academic institutions around the world with the core skills and knowledge required of a cross-disciplinary development practitioner.  The MDP curriculum draws upon the core competencies listed in Section II and includes practical learning through projects, exercises, and case studies; global learning through web-based communication, collaboration and sharing of curricular resources; a vibrant network of global universities, research institutions, development agencies and affiliated organizations participating in academic exchanges, mentorship programs and curriculum development; and innovative field training programs to build practical skills through 3-6 months of holistic, “clinical” training.  In addition, each individual academic institution may include a particular emphasis on a discipline-based specialization, a cross-cutting theme (e.g. Gender, Indigenous Studies, etc.) or a regional focus.
2.- Ongoing Professional Development Programmes for Sustainable Development
The Commission recommended that new training programmes be developed to support “mid-career” MDP programmes, virtual learning, and certification programmes to develop the core competencies of a sustainable development practitioner.  Within organizations tasked with responsibilities to plan or manage sustainable development interventions, the Global Network of MDP programmes aims to support the creation of induction and in-service training programmes to improve the integration of cross-disciplinary knowledge and skills into their daily operations.
3.- Global MDP Secretariat
Established in October 2008, the Global MDP Secretariat, based at The Earth Institute, at Columbia University, coordinates the expanding network of MDP partners, manages the development of MDP curricula, facilitates global MDP courses, and is leading the development of an open-source, online portal for communication, collaboration, and the sharing of MDP resources.  The flagship global course of the MDP program, “Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Development Practice” first launched in January 2008 and continues to bring together students, faculty and practitioners from around the world for live discussions and collaborative course-work. The MDP Secretariat, guided by an International Advisory Board, also works to ensure that participating programmes around the world maintain high-standards that are consistent with the recommendations of the Commission.
4.- Early Implementation of the Commission’s Recommendations and Challenges to Reform
In support of the Commission’s recommendations, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation committed $16 million to 20 universities in order to launch new, cross-disciplinary “MDP” programmes for development practitioners around the world selected through a competitive review process.  In August 2009, Columbia University welcomed its first cohort of 24 MDP students and 21 additional universities will begin new MDP programmes in 2010 and 2011.
While there has been an outpouring of enthusiasm for the MDP programme from universities and development organizations around the world, full implementation of the Commission’s recommendations will require significant, long-term reform. For example, universities and training schools would need to develop strategies to recruit and retain active practitioners who meet high standards as teachers and mentors, while providing necessary support that would allow them to continue working as practitioners. In many if not most cases, teaching staff will initially need to be recruited from existing within discipline university programmes. There are also significant financial implications. Programmes would need to be affordable and accessible, given that remuneration in the field of sustainable development is typically modest, particularly at junior levels. Moreover, professional and organizational cultures would need incentives for welcoming and systematically respecting the insights of disciplines that are historically under-represented. This implies revising status quo hierarchies and designing new professional reward systems to encourage multidisciplinary acumen. The proposed reforms must also be accompanied by the formation of a structure of clear ethical standards and accreditation bodies, which would most likely be established by a newly formed association of professionals and development practitioners.
Nonetheless, the implementation of these recommendations would dramatically increase the opportunities for improving policies and programmes for sustainable development. By creating educational training programmes that target students, professionals, and organizations, the Commission’s recommendations should assist professionals in developing the competencies required to be a skilled practitioner.
5.- Towards a Future Generation of Multidisciplinary Practitioners
Throughout the formulation of the Commission’s work, we found that there was tremendous agreement among practitioners and educators around the world on the need for a coherent new approach to educating professionals with the multidisciplinary skills required to solve the day-to-day challenges of sustainable development. The diverse range of institutions now participating in the MDP program includes: BRAC Development Institute, CATIE, Columbia University, Emory University, James Cook University, Sciences Po, TERI University, Trinity College Dublin with University College Dublin, Tsinghua University, Universidad de Los Andes, Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro, University of Botswana, University Cheikh Anta Diop, University of California Berkeley, University of California Davis, University of Denver, University of Florida, University of Ibadan, University of Minnesota, University of Peradeniya, University of Waterloo, and University of Winnipeg. Based on the early uptake of the MDP at universities around the world, it is conceivable that, as early as a decade from now, new international norms will be consolidated for training multidisciplinary development practitioners across a broad range of scenarios. By 2025, we look forward to a new generation of skilled practitioners to actively support and lead day-to-day development problem solving around the world. The growing complexity and interconnectedness of our planet’s sustainable development challenge will require such professionalism. These future professionals, in turn, require training today.
Further information on MDP partner universities is available at


About the author

John W. McArthur is the Chief Executive Officer of Millennium Promise, the United States’ only international non-profit organization solely committed to supporting the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. He is also a Research Associate at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, where he previously served as Policy Director, and teaches at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is also Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Monday, August 30, 2010


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government