Global Citizenship: Where the Burden of Legacy Ends, Where Our Future Begins

We don't have to say we take certain things for granted when we do - we do so by being okay with the status quo when we know change is urgently needed.
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This blog post is based on the author's remarks at the United Nations Academic Impact Fifth Anniversary held at the United Nations in New York on November 10, 2015.

Thank you, Mr. Ramu Damodaran, for graciously inviting me to this important event.

Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It's a great honor and pleasure for me to be here today and to share with you my humble experience and insights as, if I should say, an aspiring global citizen. My name is Meicen Sun; I am a Ph.D. student of political science at MIT where I focus on international security and peace-building. As a native of China where I was born and raised, I went to Singapore for high school before coming to the U.S. for college. When I was in college I also studied abroad in France and worked in Togo - in fact with the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa.

Despite currently being in a Ph.D. program I think most of my learning so far has not taken place in a traditional classroom setting. And I daresay that the most transformative things I've learnt I've learnt them in the real world at large. But ultimately, what I feel from years of being an aspiring global citizen is that global citizenship really should not be a privilege but a right. It should be a right because it's becoming a necessity to achieving cooperation and to avoiding conflict in today's context. Whereas some people would think of themselves as world citizens by vacationing in "exotic" places while hiding behind thick Instagram filters, the life of a true global citizen is anything but that - not as an apathetic outsider simply taking what other cultures have to offer, but as a concerned and engaged member of the global community whose inclusiveness and prosperity we collectively share a responsibility for.

Thus in this regard, global citizenship as defined in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Goals truly marks, I think, a watershed change in concept, into one that emphasizes responsibilities before rights, so that those who have been left behind can start partaking in things that many of us have so far taken for granted.

If I could put on my academic hat for just one second, when we talk about international cooperation we almost inevitably have to deal with the problem of collective action. In other words, "how do we get everyone to work together, especially when we're so different with our respective preferences, identities and beliefs?" In particular, there are two issues that often make international cooperation very difficult.

The first is the so-called uncertainty due to a lack of information. Put simply - "I don't know you, so why should I be working with you?" But what's really being left unsaid here is "I don't know you, so I'm going to assume the worst of you." And the solution? We might need to start first by actually connecting people.

This need to connect people calls for a kind of globally oriented education for the next generation. As Ambassador Hahn Choonghee here beautifully put in his vision, the kind of global citizenship education we need is one that teaches us to "learn to live together," one that is "sensible to tolerance, mutual respect and understanding, and cultural diversity," one that embodies "a sense of empathy and shows the importance of sharing, caring, and serving the most marginalized and isolated groups." Global citizenship education therefore aims to connect people rather than to further isolate them into little enclaves of "us versus them." And importantly, it aims to instill in the next generation early in their lives a desire to connect with those different than themselves. Only through genuine connection and never through prejudiced guesses can we obtain the information we need so that we won't have to make the worst assumption about one another.

The second issue that often complicates international cooperation is the word "barriers" - "I know who you are, but we are too different." Again, what's being implicitly said here is "we're too different because we may have too much disagreement to work together on anything."

The funny thing here, though, is that those who are the most opposed to cooperation like to talk about things like "cultural differences" and "political mistrust" as if these things were simply being imposed upon us. While it is true that we inherit many such differences from the past, in so doing we inevitably reconstruct these differences, and that's where our agency, and not just our legacy, begins to matter - even though some people are either ignorant of it or try to deny it. By simply saying we're too different we're already making a choice not to understand each other better. By remaining silent on something that is clearly wrong we're already making the choice of inaction. If those before us had lacked the imagination and determination to break the barriers that were once considered unbreakable, we wouldn't even be here today; and, if not for Secretary-General Ban and his colleagues' vision, their ability to think ahead about what's possible rather than what already had been, we literally wouldn't be discussing these issues here and now.

Of course, good things never happen by themselves. They never just fall from the sky into our open arms. The first step toward achieving global citizenship should start with us feeling personally responsible for creating the favorable conditions. We ought to realize and reaffirm our agency in shaping the future.

Believe it or not, by simply living in this globalized and interconnected world, we are all playing a multitude of roles even without our realizing it: By using a mobile app we're consumers of the technology but we also generate data that informs; by interacting with someone from another country - in person or virtually - we're all playing the role of an unofficial diplomat, because as we are interpreted by the other person we're also shaping their perception of the social, cultural and political group that we represent.

Having worked on the issue myself, I would now like to briefly take the example of armed violence and arms proliferation to illustrate the multidimensional challenges we face on the one hand, and the multidimensional solutions we have available on the other.

Four years ago when I was at the UN Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, I learnt first-hand that disarmament is never just about the supply side of weapons. It's also about the demand side of violence. We'll most certainly never be able to snatch the guns from these young, often undereducated and often unemployed men and women - sometimes boys and girls - as fast as they get ahold of another gun when there is no legitimate alternative means to survive. So whereas a status-quo-oriented arms control 1.0 approach focuses exclusively on the supply side of weapons, a change-oriented arms control 2.0 approach pays equal attention to the demand side of violence. Here, education would clearly have a critical role to play in shifting this demand curve.

The second takeaway from the example of armed violence and arms proliferation as might be relevant to today's discussion is that in tackling these traditionally political issues, we ought to think outside the box, about creating synergy between governments, NGOs, the civil society, academia and the private sector.

I'm speaking of this now, four years after my work with the UN, not only as a political science Ph.D. student but also as the Director for Political Affairs of a New York City-based African startup that uses technology to control small arms in Africa. I'm happy to see some of my colleagues in the audience here as well. When the problems themselves defy national borders, such as transnational arms proliferation, we'll likely find the current means to be insufficient for addressing these problems. Interdisciplinary partnerships therefore become all the more necessary as different sectors bring with them different comparative advantages.

Technology has transformed the way we live in at least the social and the economic aspects - it helps us manage our finances, get transportation, make friends and so on. Political issues, however, have always been the high-hanging fruits that technology has consistently shied away from. But with ever more formidable technologies in our hands, we have to muster the will and wherewithal to pick these high-hanging fruits, so that we can start tackling with full force the whole range of endemic problems from corruption to armed violence, through enhanced communication, monitoring, and data analysis.

While all this might sound ambitious, what I've just said merely reinstates the UN's recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. Notably, Goal 17 on partnerships sets as an explicit target the enhancement of "North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation."

We don't have to say we take certain things for granted when we do - we do so by being okay with the status quo when we know change is urgently needed. Ironically perhaps, speaking from an academic perspective myself, people in academia can sometimes be the most prone to err on the side of inaction: As we become more acutely aware of the odds against us, we become too afraid. We used to speak of world citizenship as if it were a fact that just happened, as if our role were minimal. In contrast, the global citizenship that we are envisioning together today is ultimately a choice, a reality that will only come into being through our collective and proactive efforts. We've progressed because we were first able to imagine something better, and then we took concrete steps to get closer and closer to that imagination.

And to this end, please allow me to conclude my intervention in a typically social scientific fashion: Being able to imagine is not sufficient, but it is necessary.

Thank you very much.