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Peace Education as a Catalyst for SDGs 4.7 and 16 in Guatemala

For decades, the term “peace education” has been applied to various types of programs around the world, including:

  • International education
  • Human rights education
  • Development education
  • Environmental education
  • Conflict resolution education (Harris, 2004)

Today, peace education is promoted as part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 4 and 16.  The intended outcome of SDG 16 is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”  SDG 4, Target 7 (4.7) is more specific, promoting six areas collectively termed “Global Citizenship Education” (GCE) and “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD):

  1. Sustainable development & lifestyles
  2. Human rights & gender equality
  3. Promotion of a culture of peace & non-violence
  4. Global citizenship
  5. Appreciation of cultural diversity
  6. Culture’s contribution to sustainable development

In this article, we highlight examples of structured peace education, GCE, and ESD initiatives (both formal and nonformal) implemented in the context of Guatemala, and examine their relationship to SDGs 4.7 and 16.  In subsequent posts, we will dive deeper into some of the questions and challenges facing those involved with peace education in Guatemala.

Guatemala’s current context stems from a long legacy of violence and civil unrest. From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala experienced a traumatizing civil war which included human rights violations and genocide of indigenous populations inflicted by government troops (Oglesby, 2018). Today, there are ongoing trials for these violations, as well as, a controversial stand-off between present-day Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales, and the International Commission Against Impunity awaiting to proceed with anti-corruption investigations (Lakhani, 2018). Guatemala faces challenges of extreme poverty, government corruption, violence predominantly perpetrated by drug traffickers and gangs, and an emigration flight to the United States (Nixon, 2018). Rural Guatemala has been severely impacted by factors such as food insecurity, government negligence, and low economic opportunities; as is the case in the western highlands of Guatemala, where poor harvests and the decline of coffee prices has weakened the coffee industry (Miroff & Sieff, 2018). While Guatemala’s homicide rates have been in a downward trend, as part of the geographically labelled Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), it remains one of the most violent regions in the world (McEvoy & Hideg, 2017).

Guatemala’s national education curriculum was put in place in accordance with the UN-brokered peace accords ending Guatemala’s civil war. Part of the peace agreement mandated that the educational system be designed to develop a national culture of peace and democracy. The traumatic civil war impacted different regions and ethnic groups differently though, and the nature and extent of the impact influence schools’ values and how they define peace education.  After visiting a number of schools in the country, Beth G. Rubin of Rutgers University found that the civics components of the curriculum are implemented in very different ways in different communities (Rubin, 2016).  In these communities, students’ and teachers’ need to come to terms with the profound historical and continuing violence in their lives does not always produce outcomes that match SDG 4.7’s GCE and ESD formulations. Rubin’s research calls into question the efficacy of top-down approaches to peace education. In reading her study, it is reasonable to ask whether such approaches to encouraging “global citizenship” might sometimes even be counterproductive, by creating the impression that those creating curricula are out of touch with those they seek to educate.

Like that of Rubin, Bellino’s ethnographic research in Guatemala (Bellino, 2015) delves into youth civic development and the role schools play in instilling civic efficacy and agency in their students. In her observations, Bellino made distinctions between the models schools use to implement formal and nonformal civic education. Some schools use a “justice-oriented model” which empowers their students to feel obligated and responsible for driving collective action towards a more just and equitable Guatemala, while others foster youth who strive for individual character development and participate in community service projects. In a case study published a year later (2016), Bellino contrasts the widening gap between civic education in urban and rural settings. Bellino’s findings suggest inconsistency of curriculum facilitation across Guatemala. This inconsistency calls to question the quality of national teacher training and the need to provide a more cohesive and uniform civic education curriculum.

In contrast to those implemented as part of the national curriculum, Play for Peace’s initiatives are examples of nonformal peace & non-violence education. In Palencia, Guatemala, the American non-profit focuses on community-led violence prevention among youth, notably through “experiential adventure learning.” Gass et al. (2016) identified experiential adventure learning, along with community, group learning, norms, and peace as the essential elements of the Palencia program, which community members describe as contributing to the establishment and maintenance of a more peaceful and non-violent community.

The array of challenges facing Guatemala–environmental and economic sustainability, structural violence, corruption, rampant violent crime, national and social cohesion, and the persistent scars of war and trauma, among other things–make a prime example of why SDGs 4.7 and 16 were adopted. Research such as that of Rubin, Bellino, and Gass et al. shows not only that there is much work to be done to achieve those goals, but that efforts in support of them frequently manifest in very different ways, and depend in large part on the resources, experience, needs, and values as perceived by the particular individuals and communities involved. These various factors are also the source of contradictions in the real world pursuit of SDG 4.7 and 16, confronting development professionals and educators with dilemmas as to how to best reconcile such local realities with UN norms (especially when it comes to issues of funding), while ensuring local agency.


Bellino, M. J. (2015). The risks we are willing to take: youth civic development in “postwar” Guatemala. Harvard Educational Review. 8(4), 537-561.

Bellino, M. J. (2016).  So that we do not fall again: history education and citizenship in “postwar” Guatemala,” Comparative Education Review. 60(1), 58-79. https://doi.org/10.1086/684361

Gass, M., Gough, S., Armas, A., & Dolcino, C. (2016). Play for Peace as a Violence Prevention Model: Achieving Voluntad y Convivencia. Journal of Experiential Education, 39(4), 412–426. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825916674978

Harris, I. M. (2004). Peace education theory. Journal of Peace Education, 1(1), 5–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/1740020032000178276

Lakhani, N. (2018, September 14). Guatemala on knife-edge after president moves to end anti-corruption body. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/13/guatemala-jimmy-morales-corruption-cicig

McEvoy, C. & Hideg, G. (2017). Global violent deaths 2017: time to decide. Retrieved from http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/U-Reports/SAS-Report-GVD2017.pdf

Miroff, N. & Sieff, K. (2018, September 22). Hunger, not violence, fuels Guatemalan migration surge, u.s. says. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/hunger-not-violence-fuels-guatemalan-migration-surge-us-says/2018/09/21/65c6a546-bdb3-11e8-be70-52bd11fe18af_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.555097582695

Nixon, R. (2018, October 7). U.S. campaign against migration goes unheard, unheeded, in Guatemala. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/world/americas/guatemala-immigration-usa-mexico-border.html

Oglesby, E. (2018, October 2). Acknowledging genocide, a Guatemalan court withholds justice for survivors. World Politics Review. Retrieved from https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/26189/acknowledging-genocide-a-guatemalan-court-withholds-justice-for-survivors

Rubin, B. C. (2016). We Come to Form Ourselves Bit by Bit: Educating for Citizenship in Post-Conflict Guatemala. American Educational Research Journal, 53(3), 639–672. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831216646871

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