Why should our towns educate about global citizenship?

14 March 2022

Judith Muñoz (University of Barcelona) reflects on the need to promote Global Citizenship Education (GCE) in towns and cities as a determined attempt at mainstreaming and coherence, internal dialogue and integrity of municipal policies in their commitment to the main global challenges.

Taking on the challenge to build cities that will provide education about global citizenship means engaging with major global challenges: ecological transition, gender equity, the reduction in global inequalities, peace and respect for human rights. In turn, it allows us to understand how local and global elements are intertwined in people’s daily lives. The shops in our neighbourhoods sell products made thousands of kilometres away, we use technology that requires natural resources extracted from the other side of the world. Globalization has become part of our neighbours’ daily experiences, yet local governments rarely have the space to reflect about the implications and opportunities provided by this new economic, social and cultural paradigm.

Global Citizenship Education (GCE) provides a space for this, as it is a conceptual, procedural and ethical proposal that can provide the different levels of local government with content and political-pedagogical strategies to facilitate understanding of the global interdependence that characterises life on the planet and to promote processes of shared responsibility and social transformation in terms of local-global justice. In an interconnected world, Global Citizenship Education helps to understand the complexity of economic, financial and social globalisation processes and their interrelation with the ecological crisis and with different socio-environmental, labour or migratory conflicts. However, not only does it focus on the effects of social problems, but it also promotes a rigorous analysis of the causes of impoverishment, exclusion, gender inequalities or the climate crisis, providing arguments and tools to improve social cohesion, refute fake news or counteract the hate speeches that damage coexistence.

It also provides an opportunity to generate complicity between the government and citizens, especially with the younger generations and with those who take part in spaces that seek to influence social transformation. Indeed, more and more people across the globe understand that, regardless of where we are born, we share a collective future and that our actions and decisions have an impact beyond where we live. In this sense, the promotion of global citizenship or a reflexive cosmopolitanism facilitates citizen participation and involvement and is a great opportunity for the development and cohesion of cities, as it can provide value and conceptual foundations for the creation of a more habitable, supportive, sustainable and co-responsible city model, which takes into account the well-being of its inhabitants and also of those who live beyond the county’s borders.

Intertwining citizen participation with the idea of human interdependence and social responsibility makes it possible to guarantee and consolidate democracy and has an important educational function because it enables citizens to create links, deepen their democratic experience, become empowered and develop feelings of belonging to a local and global community. However, in line with new global and technological trends, people engaged in these issues often participate in non-traditional spaces, such as social networks or informal and ephemeral organisations. Therefore, a challenge for our cities is to make the concepts of participation more flexible, less bureaucratic and broader, and to design new instruments to accommodate the new emerging realities.

In order to make headway in all these challenges, we need to delve deeper into the idea that the city has a transversal educational function, which it exercises not only through its traditional institutions such as schools, libraries, museums, or civic centres, but also through regulations and ordinances, provision of services, support for citizens and, more specifically, leading by example. The city is a privileged space that offers multiple educational possibilities; local governments have public policy tools such as rewards, sanctions, permits, prohibitions, access or restrictions that provide incentives or deterrents for collective and individual behaviour and decisions. For example, subsidy policies are key to fostering global citizenship projects or interventions. But they are not the only alternative; recently there has been a growing interest in introducing nudge-type tools, an inexpensive form of institutional design based on cognitive studies, which makes it possible to stimulate or activate certain civic behaviours and social responsibility with small “nudges” planned from a global citizenship approach.

It is important to remember that cities educate as much by what they do as by what they fail to do; for example, the absence of a programme to support the social solidarity economy can send the message that such initiatives are undervalued. In another area, a waste management programme can have a negative, neutral or transformative impact on citizen reflection and involvement when it comes to issues such as climate justice, depending on whether or not it is accompanied by strategies that explain why and what recycling is for, considering the environmental impacts on a local and global scale.

Another educational element par excellence is public communication. This poses the challenge of constructing a narrative of the city with a language that is understandable and accessible, capable of generating empathy with the different realities and promoting the values of global citizenship. The social, cultural and political messages must explain the causes of inequalities, exclusion or environmental conflicts, integrating the local and global dimension. However, it is through example and in the coherence of policies that their potential can be harnessed and proliferated. Indeed, so as not to contradict the message and to make progress in global citizenship, it is essential to put an emphasis on issues such as public procurement, contracts and tenders so that they incorporate criteria regarding sustainability, gender equality and human rights.

As pointed out in a recent article on public procurement[1], many companies awarded contracts with public administrations operate in countries where they make significant profits, sometimes at the expense of the human rights of the local population or generating serious socio-environmental impacts. Therefore, educating also means promoting frameworks of responsibilities for private actors, defining ethical codes and regulations for companies that establish limits and conditions that, at the same time, favour ethical and local industry and trade.

In the province of Barcelona, there are several experiences and good practices of global citizenship in large and small city councils, such as the application of the circular economy, the promotion of the leadership of migrant communities, education in environmental justice linked to waste treatment, or buying ethically or locally. Experiences that have a favourable impact both globally and locally and that, moreover, are coherently integrated into the city’s narrative as an added value. However, there are also many similar initiatives that unfortunately fail to make an impact, either due to fragmentation between areas, lack of coordination between departments, or simply lack of support. In other cases, experiences overlap or lack visibility because the city council has not yet integrated global citizenship as a transversal axis of its management, which thus prevents or limits its transformative potential.

However, these difficulties also represent a challenge and an opportunity, especially for small and medium-sized municipalities. Indeed, integrating global citizenship education in a municipality does not require extra resources or specialised staff. It actually implies reinforcing what is already being done and relying on internal and community synergies to build city projects in a participatory manner, making full use of the technical potential of the administration and the citizens’ knowledge. This new framework implies making progress in the renewal and redefinition of the dimension and scope that international relations and cooperation programmes implemented by city councils should have. The current challenge is to join forces, network and establish mechanisms that make it possible to work transversally on the social, economic, environmental and gender aspects that can contribute to the sustainable and equitable development of the planet.

Global Citizenship Education is a firm commitment to transversality and coherence, internal dialogue and the comprehensiveness of municipal policies. Cities and towns are the closest relationship between administration and citizens, the place where daily life is intertwined with public management and where local policy has a visible and specific impact. In this sense, local councils, regardless of their size, have the opportunity and responsibility to lead transformative educational processes, both internally and externally, at a local-global level.

[1] González, Lina M; Talvy, Judith i Castro, Miguel. (2021). La compra pública socialment responsable. Sud 25 Magazine.

(Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash)

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