Why We Need Education for Global Citizenship

Girl Summit 2014.

Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development. Available free under the terms of Cro
Girl Summit 2014. Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development. Available free under the terms of Crown Copyright/Open Government License/Creative Commons - Attribution.

An upcoming UN Conference on Global Citizenship offers us an opportunity to reflect on its meaning, especially as seen through the eyes of youth.

In October 2012 Malala Yousafzai had already garnered international attention for her defense of girls' education in Pakistan's Swat Valley, when at age 15, she was shot in the face. In her December 2014 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Malala, spoke in defense of the world's children:

This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice... it is not time to pity them. It is not time to pity them. It is time to take action so it becomes the last time, the last time, so it becomes the last time that we see a child deprived of education.

In Malala's world, "education went from being a right to being a crime." Malala tells her story not because "it is unique, but because it is not." Millions suffer the same fate. For example, UNESCO estimates that 100 million children did not complete primary schooling in 2015. Risking death, Malala chose to speak out, not only for herself, but for all girls facing a similar fate around the globe.

When Malala says, "I am those 66 million girls who are deprived of education," she embodies the values of global citizenship. Don't we all thirst for knowledge and education, just as we hunger for food and water? Yet too many are denied their education when that ought to be their universal right. Malala's words powerfully echo Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail that, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Today, education for global citizenship is a necessary tool for building a more peaceful world that ensures every person has a right to clean air, clean water, food, shelter, and other basic human rights. According to UNESCO global citizenship education "aims to empower learners to assume active roles to face and resolve global challenges and to become proactive contributors to a more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure world." The UN Secretary-General's Global Initiative on Education has developed three core priorities: put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship.

But education alone will not dissolve hateful, ignorant, and oppressive individuals, institutions, and structures of power. Peace requires active engagement; it also requires commitments to reducing global inequities. Poverty is one major barrier to educational access, but it can be reduced in many contexts through simple strategies such as offering students free lunches, paying families small stipends for keeping their children in school, and by improving sanitation and healthcare. Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn found that "one of the most cost-effective ways to increase school attendance is to deworm students," which costs as little as $0.50 per student.

From May 30 to June 1, NGO leaders, technical experts, government and UN officials will come together to develop an action agenda focused on the theme: Education for Global Citizenship: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the 66th United Nations DPI/NGO conference this spring in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea. The Conference builds upon two UN milestones -- the SDGs adopted by the UN in October, 2015 and the December Paris Agreement on climate change hosted by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

While governments of the world have signed on to meeting the seventeen SDGs by 2030, the reality is that NGOs have a powerful role to play in advancing these goals. Many NGOs find that global citizenship frameworks enhance their institutional effectiveness. For example, universities are increasingly pursuing global educational missions. Health care providers are increasing international partnerships, and so on. The next challenge for many of these NGOs is to bring a stronger focus to new international partnerships that can empower the world's marginalized voices and cultures.