1.1. The Study in a Broad Context
In 2015, United Nations Member States adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 [1
]. The 17 SDGs are an urgent call for action by all countries, developed as well as developing, and recognise ecological, economic and social dimensions of sustainable development. The aim is to achieve a better and more sustainable future for the globe and its inhabitants. All societies and countries have to contribute to the implementation of Agenda 2030.
Partnership is a key factor and is considered an SDG in itself. Thereby, SDG 17, “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development”, addresses the way to approach the other 16 goals and states that:
A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. These inclusive partnerships build upon principles and values, a shared vision and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre, are needed at the global, regional national and local level [2
Sweden, a developed country in northern Europe, has a long tradition of global commitment. Since the 1990s, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) has used the concepts of development cooperation and partner countries [3
]. Projects and programmes funded by SIDA are designed in collaboration with the partner countries and local partner organisations. For development to be sustainable in the long-term, the ownership of the projects must be in the hands of the partner organisation and country, and development assistance must be conducted on the terms of those who are to benefit from it.
The Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy (ICLD) offers a Municipal Partnership Programme to partners in developing countries [4
]. The aim of the programme, funded by SIDA, is to contribute to the development of efficiently functioning, democratic local authorities in both the partner countries and Sweden. The partnerships are reciprocal and results-oriented collaborations. By sharing experiences of how similar problems can be addressed in different contexts, the partners in a Municipal Partnership create knowledge together, along with new methods that increase citizens’ influence in local decision-making processes.
This paper considers the experiences of a municipal partnership between Sweden and Namibia, two municipalities working together in a mutual education for sustainable development (ESD) project on in-service training of teachers. Our analysis is concerned with the challenges, solutions and learning outcomes that take place, both intentionally and unintentionally, relating to the substantive aim of the partnership project.
1.2. Framework and Organisations Involved
The ICLD offers a Municipal Partnership Programme (MPP) to 19 partner countries in developing countries in Europe, Africa and Asia [5
]. By sharing experiences of similar problems addressed in different contexts, the partners create knowledge together, along with new methods that increase citizens’ influence in local decision-making processes.
MPP promotes local democracy development by building on knowledge and experience in Swedish municipalities and county councils, and research from an international perspective. The MPP is based on three fundamental principles: (1) Global challenges demand local action, (2) Institutions are built through knowledge, and (3) Face-to-face meetings in both partner countries for project teams and steering committees [5
]. The purpose of the programme is to mobilise commitment and enable solutions to create the conditions that allow the poorest and most vulnerable people to shape their lives and futures. At the same time, the activities aim to contribute to Agenda 2030—the international community’s joint response to the planet’s challenges.
In 2003, the United Nations University launched an initiative: a global network of Regional Centres of Expertise on ESD (RCEs) [6
]. As of April 2020, 175 networks of existing formal, non-formal and informal education organisations, mobilising to deliver ESD to local and regional communities around the world, have officially been acknowledged by the United Nations University. These networks play a crucial role in translating global objectives into the contexts of local knowledge and communities in which they operate, bringing together institutions and building innovative platforms to share information and experiences to promote dialogue through partnerships for sustainable development. They create a local/regional knowledge base to support ESD actors and promote four major goals of ESD in a resource-effective manner:
re-orient education towards sustainable development,
increase access to quality education,
deliver trainers’ training programmes and to develop methodologies and learning materials for them,
lead advocacy and awareness-raising efforts.
Malmö University and Malmö Municipality were two of the driving partners in developing RCE Skåne, in southernmost Sweden, launched in 2007 and supporting the region of Khomas-Erongo, Namibia, in their building of an RCE network.
1.4. Municipal Partnerships as a Framework for Learning
The partnership learning approach has been emphasised in research studies to bring about sustainable change within international development cooperate on [7
]. Wilson and Johnson [9
] stated that North-South municipal partnerships provide a foundation for shared learning and knowledge creation, and Devers-Kanoglu [7
] suggests that municipal partnerships are a valuable area for learning. However, learning and knowledge formation within mutual municipal partnerships is still an unexplored research area. Researchers have raised concerns regarding mutuality [8
] and conceptual clarity, besides other challenges, such as differences in enabling critical reflections and turning learning into improved practice [9
To find out the state of the art of the researched phenomenon, we performed a strategic and systematic literature search of previous research. We then used this to analyse the results, process quotations and empirical interpretation, as well as conclude the findings in various adequate contexts. Initially, several keywords were identified and considered possible—also in different combinations. Through continued systematic search strategies, we investigated earlier research across several databases. When keywords were combined in various ways to focus the research field of this specific case study, the results showed that there are only a few relevant research studies on the phenomenon. These are introduced below as a framework for learning.
Municipalities play a central role and are key actors in urban sustainable development. They also have the responsibility to transform ambitious national and global goals and visions into local practices [11
]. In Sweden in recent decades, stakeholder participation has turned into an important prerequisite for municipal activities. With a long tradition of public ownership and municipal autonomy, along with a high level of spatial planning, the municipalities adopt working methods and approaches that include external stakeholders in their processes [13
]. Municipalities can use both traditional forms of authority and new partnerships or processes to achieve effective governance [12
] and ensure sustainable development.
Municipal partnerships may sometimes be identified, explicitly, as relevant learning contexts i.e., in the field of ESD, global learning for sustainable development and global citizenship education [14
] besides global competence development education according to [15
]. Every municipal partnership is unique, and some have verified to be significant also for individual learning [7
According to Johnson and Wilson [19
], the formation of North-South/South-North partnerships between urban municipalities often focused on knowledge transfer of approaches, techniques, practices, tools and skills from North to South. However, for “authentic partnership” to develop, Fowler [20
] suggests a practitioner to practitioner partnership between municipalities. These are described as “mutually enabling, inter-dependent interaction with shared intentions”. In civic groups and local governments, Fowler called for horizontal partnerships to promote such mutuality between teams and organisations with comparable interests. The municipal partnership in this study could be seen as one of this horizontal type since the aspiring assumption is that there would be learning benefits to both North and South. Johnson and Wilson [19
] analysed knowledge transfer and learning in partnerships in-depth and summarise the main issues regarding intended and mutual partnership outcomes. They concluded that learning is promoted both as an outcome and as a process in the partnership.
According to Devers-Kanoglu [7
], there are at least two sites for interaction and learning. First is inter-municipal cooperation materialised through interactions in workshops, meetings and partnerships between two municipalities—and individuals involved often found this fruitful (see also [21
]). This may also result in the development of, the second site, intra-municipal cooperation catalysed to take place through interactions and partnerships among individuals and groups on a local level (see also [22
Two dimensions of informal learning, intended and unintended, are roughly identified [8
] when applying definitions of learning in municipal partnerships in a systematic research review focusing on the context of activity and the groups that are involved. Devers-Kanoglu´s [7
] investigation criteria emphasised “mutual or unidirectional learning/exchange activities, whether there is a focus on individual or organisational learning/improvements and what types of learning (formal, non-formal or informal learning) are explicitly or implicitly” ([7
], p. 205). The category of informal learning asks, as a standard procedure, for the possible learning benefits, whereas the “real” learning below the surface of these perpetuated assumptions remains largely unnoticed—whether they mainly refer to intended learning or account for unintended learning as well. In particular, intended and unintended learning as a framework, given that mutual learning and learning in the South seems to be favoured against the learning of the Northern partners, is explored and defined. Challenges in one-way communication have been addressed by Anderberg, Nordén and Hansson [23
]. The researchers argued that what is provided from the North might not be appropriate or respond to the authentic needs identified among the learners in the South when building on concepts of “charity”. To combat such a predisposition, it is important to ensure that partnership benefits do not flow in only one direction, with the Southern partner as the only beneficiary and the Northern partner as the sole contributor [24
]. Accordingly, they have—in the field of international adult education partnerships—criticised that the learning benefits on the part of the Northern partner are not balanced equally, but frequently solely focus on the benefits an international partnership brings to the Southern partner.
According to [7
], non-formal learning is not provided by an education or training institution and could consist of visits, orientation sessions, workshops, seminars, mentor training and courses. Still, non-formal and formal learning are intentional from the learner´s perspective, but they do differ as formal learning leads to certification, e.g., school and higher education, whereas informal learning is distinguished from these concepts since it occurs accidentally [25
] and is open for more insightful deliberate framing and complexity [26
]. Devers-Kanaglu [7
] recognises the high potential to conceptualise informal learning—especially when moving towards a blended pedagogy [27
] in which non-formal learning is combined with informal learning while focusing the novelty of various situations. According to Dillon [27
], our understanding of learning is that it is cumulative and, if initiated in informal settings, one needs to go beyond formal learning. This learning might be seen as self-directed learning [28
] or as blended non-informal learning, as it incorporates several influences, not least the impact of novelty. Also, the lack of an externally imposed curriculum, but with special facilitation, permits the freedom of following one’s own choice [29
Most importantly, in contrast to other learning outcomes that could be identified, improved municipal performance appears in various forms. Learning can arise as surface learning or deep learning [28
]. Many ESD contexts present several potential challenges for learners. Sometimes these might not have sufficient maturity to adopt what Biggs [31
] and Entwistle [30
] have termed a “deep approach to learning”. Bigg’s definition suggests that deep learning involves intention, meaning, innate curiosity and the feeling of a “need to know” [28
]. By contrast, a surface approach to learning is about reproducing knowledge and thereby leads to difficulty in making sense of new ideas, feeling undue pressure and seeing little meaning or value in courses and tasks set, according to [30
]. Related to Schugurensky’s [32
] interpretation of additive and transformational learning, deep learning approaches most likely arise with conceptual similarities and differences in focus.
Mutuality concerning partnership learning outcomes could be grounded on interactions between understanding and experience, old and new knowledge, seeing learning as an experiential and transformative process. Different types of learning form part of the whole spectrum of learning practices—instrumentally copying or reproducing, adapting new knowledge for strategic purposes, as well as challenging old ideas and old knowledge in a transformative sense. These particular categories are derived from Entwistle’s analysis of approaches to learning [30
]. Considering learning communities for sustainability, whether global competence is established or not, partnership members may fail to properly communicate. Cultural diversity could then fuel tensions, misunderstandings and conflict [17
] even though the partners do talk to one another. Referring to Dasli [15
], pointing to the potential for dialogic meeting discussions, it is urgent to allow the partners—as learners—to voice their differences, biases and culturally determined beliefs, so that the differences unfold [33
Joint learning starts from the different knowledge that the actors bring to the learning, which is not necessarily equally valued. For deeper joint learning that challenges and re-thinks practice, there must be an even stronger commitment to valuing different knowledge equally. Each partner needs to be aware of the urgency in learning how to learn [34
]. The participating partner organisations must nurture the development of a learning culture by recognising the value of differences and diversity [19
]. Then, when the inherent differences between the partners are seen as opportunities rather than constraints, the mutuality gap is avoided and the partnership can be seen as an endeavour of joint interaction (see also [12
]). Johnson and Wilson [19
] emphasise that learning through partnerships needs to lead to learning in the partnership organisations, which is maybe the most challenging aspect.
1.5. Critical Knowledge Capabilities
By applying the knowledge capability theory [35
] a perspective on the degree of mutual learning developed, particularly in different ESD projects, can be investigated. For example, the critical knowledge capabilities described by Nordén and Anderberg [36
] highlight learning experiences and educational changes found to give rise to educational development and the implementation of supporting democratic processes on individual and collective levels. Their research shows the necessary readiness that must be established among all participants to proceed with an international ESD project. To do well, certain critical knowledge capabilities must be encouraged in advance for a successful project: (1) taking command (project leaders must conduct the project and fully take the lead), (2) collaborating within a team (every team member must actively take responsibility), (3) leading to a holistic understanding (sense the local vs. global), (4) acting in a transdisciplinary manner (across all boundaries avoiding silo thinking), besides (5) being prepared (to strengthen the project from the very start and not lose valuable time). These are mandatory for achieving fruitful and mutually beneficial global learning for sustainable development [23
] and the management of a municipal partnership project with many different actors in a society.
Global learning and transformational learning both recognise changes in the learner’s perspective and not just the acquisition of facts. This approach to education is often seen to involve a holistic, learner-centred way of knowing. Accordingly, Barker [37
] characterises global learning as “transformational learning”, being (1) emancipatory in redefining the learner’s perspective on the self, (2) interpretive using cognitive-rational processes to reach understanding, (3) developmental in using experiences i.e., life narratives and mentorship embedding learning in personal transformational contexts, and (4) evoking extra-rational ways of knowing and a spiritual mindset (see also [23
]). By using an analytic lens on the mutual goals of transformational learning, global learning and indigenisation, Barker [37
] illustrates their synergistic characteristics, challenges and trends. This synergy results in a learning maturity model that would support the measuring of “an organisation’s readiness to implement” global learning in local contexts [28
] (e.g., indigenisation) and transformational learning (p. 8).
Educators worldwide have little support and training for the work that sustainability implementation processes imply, according to Högfeldt et al. [38
]. Expectations of higher education teachers are on strengthening the abilities to rethinking learning progress, challenging power relationships in learning and “digesting how sustainability thinking and practice articulates” in different contexts and professions [38
] (p. 5). Accordingly, rather than focusing mainly on theoretical lectures on the SDGs and ESD, teachers should be encouraged to undertake didactical work with educational development to transform education in practice. Further, Mulà et al. [39
] conclude that a co-developed professional development programme is required among experts and newcomers, with mentoring as a core activity to become a part of the change towards ESD and the fulfilment of the SDGs.
] investigated how education for sustainability assumptions apply to an active citizenship education programme. The inquiry found that while graduates did develop the active citizenship capabilities desired by Australian governments, systemic blocking factors prevented the graduates from being able to put these capabilities into practice (see also [12
]). The assumptions did not hold for the programme since graduates did not actively participate and take decisions in change processes nor were able to influence systems change (Principal Conclusions of this Work).
The findings show that the project team experienced several challenges in terms of understanding the project plan, the concept of ESD and the purpose and reciprocity of the collaboration, as well as in the implementation of project activities. Recurring reflections, constructive discussions and study visits, as well as exchange and sharing of material and methods on ESD, contributed to insights and a common understanding. Through constructive solutions to challenges, joint learning processes and knowledge formation were developed within the mutual municipal partnership. The project team experienced learning at both the individual and municipal levels and a local anchoring of global issues concerning sustainability (see also [23
]). The capacity of the future included professional knowledge and experience, a rethinking of education, developed ESD networks in both municipalities and a South-North understanding.