Johanna Helin building a system for development education in Estonia


Her first contact with the so called developing world was at the age of twenty, when she joined her grandfather in Namibia drilling wells. Johanna was the translator because her grandfather could only speak Finnish. They drilled dozens of wells there and taught the Namibians to continue the drilling after the project finished. After that Johanna went to Guinea to study the effects of micro credits on women’s groups in a local community. A Finnish organization Indigo had offered loans with minimal interests to women in Guinea to help them improve their lives. It turned out that microcredits is an efficient way to help people that are willing to help themselves. Johanna wrote her dissertation on this project at the Helsinki University. Then she joined UNICEF child protection team in Ghana which supported projects where e.g. girls were taught how to sew, knit and do other crafts providing them the ability work at their home villages instead of being forced to search for jobs in the slums of cities.
Johanna’s relations with Estonia date back to the time when she was an exchange student at the Tartu University. Since then she participated in several Estonian-Finnish joint projects. She also worked for two years at the OSCE Mission to Estonia monitoring the situation of minorities in the country.

Watch and change!

Now settled in Estonia Johanna has taken as her mission to promote development education here. The need for this is actually great as Estonians have lived for a long time behind the „iron curtain“ and are far less accustomed to the problems of globalization and multiculturalism than for example people in England. In England even kindergarten teachers are given books about issues such as identity and diversity, own culture and multiculturalism, difference and participation, patriotism and integration. In Estonia there are no such materials even for schoolteachers. The organization Mondo that carries out development cooperation, humanitarian aid and development education projects was founded in Estonia only last year, with the help of Johanna. This year, another Estonian NGO, Jaan Tõnisson Institute, founded a Global Education Center and Johanna became the director. She is also coordinating Centre’s first EU-funded DE project which is called „Watch and Change!“. This project provides schools and student-led film clubs with documentary films and film-based study materials on various global issues including sustainable development.
This project is a joint project between Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. The target groups are schoolteachers and volunteer film club leaders wishing to use documentary films to organize discussions about global issues and sustainable development. The films are subtitled into Estonian and in the future also Russian, if necessary, and supporting background materials and methodological aids are developed for most of the films. Johanna is also offering training to teachers and film club leaders on how to use films in an educational way.
For showing the films in schools, Johanna gets help from different volunteers. For example, twenty young Estonians have visited the developing countries in the framework of GLEN project. Now they visit schools teaching about different global issues sharing also their own impressions and experiences. For teaching their topic which can be e.g. climate change, fair trade or women and development they are using the documentary films from the „Watch and Change!“ archive.

Estonians are interested in cultural diversity

Within a few months over fifty educators have participated in the trainings of development education: mainly teachers of civics, geography and languages. Both teachers from Estonian and Russian language schools have attended the trainings. One of the most popular themes has been global trade and consumerism – how and where are the goods we consume here in Estonia produced (fabric from Asia, chocolate, coffee and spices from Africa, toys and electronics from China etc.) and what happens with the waste we produce. Teachers have also been interested in documentaries about the ecological footprint and the impact of climate change in various parts of the world.
But most of all Estonians are interested in cultural diversity and the dialogue of cultures. A very popular film is „First Lesson in Peace“ by the Israeli director Yoram Honig documenting the situation in a mixed Arab-Jewish primary school and the questions and problems joint schooling raises. Many teachers are also using the film „Stranger“ by the Estonian director Kert Grünberg. It raises the issues of racism and immigration and refugee policies, picturing an Estonian living in Kenya and a Nigerian trying to get a residence permit in Estonia. „Watch and Change!“ also has a film by Karsten Kjär „Bloody Caricatures“ dealing with the reactions to the publishing of caricatures about Mohammed.
There are also shocking films in the collection such as Hupert Sauper’s „Darwin’s Nightmare“ but the majority of the material has a more optimistic world view showing that it is always possible to change situations towards the better. A good example for this is „Iron Ladies of Liberia“ by Daniel Junge and Siatta Scott Johnson which asks if women are perhaps more democratic than men and shows the positive developments in a country where women have taken the lead. Johanna has collected many remarkable documentaries and the full list can be found at
The „Watch and Change!“ project also lets students borrow movies on their own initiative. The aim is to encourage them to found their own film clubs to discuss global issues through films among themselves of with an invited expert. They are also supported in making their own short films. “Watch and Change” project organises a yearly summer school for youngster in Czech Republic where the most active film club leaders can learn how to make films with a Czech film director and make future plans for the films clubs. Five Estonian young people participated in the summer school this year and are now starting the film club activities in their own schools.

Collaboration of projects

There are currently three major development education and sustainable education projects in Estonia funded by the European Commission: Johanna’s “Watch and Change!”, NGO Humana Estonia’s “Solidarity School” project and the Estonian Green movement’s fair-trade and sustainable consumption project. These projects collaborate with one another in producing materials and organising trainings and other activities. They are also sharing a new global education internet portal: targeted for schools and teachers. There teachers can easily find background materials on global themes as well as study materials and lesson plans. Films and photo exhibitions can also be borrowed to the schools through the portal. This collaboration between projects is raising the quality of each single project and the global education as a whole.
Together with the other global education promoters in Estonia Johanna is also involved promoting the inclusion of development education into the new curriculum which is being reformed in Estonia at the moment. The present Estonian curriculum and school practice is dealing with sustainable development in a limited manner, linking it only to environmental issues and nature conservation. The aim is to get a broader understanding in to the new curriculum that puts more emphasis to the social, ethical and cultural aspects of sustainable development and includes also issues like global justice, North-South relations, universality of human rights, cultural diversity as richness, solidarity, fair trade etc.