By A.D. McKenzie
Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in September, global citizenship education has been receiving increased attention for the role it can play in both sustainable development and in keeping youth from joining the ranks of “violent extremists”.
“Many countries are increasingly aware of and concerned about violent extremism, and (UNESCO’s) approach is to provide support to member states through global citizenship education because it puts an emphasis on values,” said Christopher Castle, chief of UNESCO’s section for Health and Global Citizenship Education.
He told IDN in an interview that it was important for children who are in school to learn about respect for all and to have the opportunity to think about values such as “solidarity and cooperation”.
With the SDGs – which maintained universal education as a key objective – many governments emphasized that young people’s voices must be taken into consideration for the implementation of the goals, and one way for this to be achieved is to strengthen global citizenship education.
Concerns about violent extremism came up “very strongly on the agenda” of various countries, Castle told IDN, as governments examined ways to prevent this movement through education.
“Through GCED, we can improve critical thinking skills so that learners see the benefits of respect for (one) another,” Castle said. “We were delighted that the final version of the SDGs … retained the target about education for sustainable development education and GCED.
“But I think what the SDGs have really done is to underscore a growing interest in and consensus among member states that access to education, which had been a rallying cry under the Millennium Development Goals, is no longer enough,” he added.
“That continues to be important – and obviously we’re very concerned about the 57 million children who’re still not in school and should be – but we’re also aware that once children do have an opportunity to exercise their right to education, we need to start thinking more about the type of education that they can achieve while they’re at school.”
According to UNESCO, the aim of global citizen education is to “equip learners of all ages with those values, knowledge and skills that are based on and instill respect for human rights, social justice, diversity, gender equality and environmental sustainability and that empower learners to be responsible global citizens.”
GCED also gives learners “the competencies and opportunity to realise their rights and obligations to promote a better world and future for all”, and it is aimed at all ages: children, youth and adults.
Although global citizenship education can be delivered in a variety of ways, the main method in most states will be through the formal education system, UNESCO says. As such, governments can integrate the concept either as part of existing programmes or as a separate subject.
The values of “global citizenship” have been in consideration for some time, but it gained momentum with the launch of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI) in 2012, which has identified ‘fostering global citizenship’ as one of its three priority areas of work, along with access to and quality of education”.
Castle said that UNESCO’s next forum on global citizenship education, scheduled for 2017 in Canada, would focus on both GCED and education for sustainable development.
The organization is working as well with tertiary institutions, such as UCLA in the United States, where it has established a chair. UCLA plans to offer a summer-school programme in global citizenship education, bringing different sectors of society together, Castle said.
Universities play a critical role
In the area of learning about health and sexuality, universities have a key role to play too. UNESCO experts say that “universities are critical because they hold the next generation of leaders”.
Teaching about certain issues needs to be international because diseases such as HIV and ebola “don’t pay attention to borders”, Castle told IDN.
For female students meanwhile, it is “vitally important that they receive sexuality education to avoid early and unintended pregnancy”, he said, as becoming pregnant can disrupt their schooling, affecting their future.
UNESCO has created a clearinghouse on GCED, in cooperation with the Asia-Pacific Centre of Education for International Understanding and, in addition, the public has access to a health and HIV clearing house that is organized through the Paris-based International Institute of Educational Planning.
This is an extensive repository of information, policy documents, curricula activities, action plans and government documents.
UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bokova says that the world needs to “harness the energy of young people” as countries make the transition from the MDGs to a sustainable development agenda.
“By the time we reach the deadline for the SDGs in 2030, the population of young people will have increased by 7 percent. It is therefore vital that we engage them now if we are to stand a chance of achieving these goals,” she stated.
Stressing the “humanist” aspects of learning, Bokova has argued that education is not just about transmitting information and knowledge, but also about providing the values, capabilities and attitudes that can contribute to a more “peaceful, just, inclusive and sustainable” world.
She said that education could help foster greater respect and understanding between cultures, give learners “tools to make the most of diversity” and also “harness the energy of young women and men for the benefit of all”.
But UNESCO experts concede that education alone is not a “magic bullet”. Countries need to work on reducing youth unemployment, eradicating inequality and fostering inclusion.