Global Citizenship Education and Liberal Democracy
Evan Saperstein and Daniel Saperstein
In recent decades, a growing number of organizations, scholars, educators, and practitioners have advanced the idea of “global citizenship” (Carter, 2001; Diaz et al., 1999; Noddings, 2005; Oxfam, 2015; Reysen & Katzarska-Miller, 2013; UNICEF, 2013; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2015). The premise behind this concept is simple—there are, or at least should be, a set of universally recognized values and priorities that bind peoples and nations in common cause (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2015). It is through such unity of purpose that countries (and their citizens) can come together to solve problems which transcend the nation-state and require a sustained, international response (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2014). This includes addressing poverty, education, climate change, equality, peace, and several other pressing prerogatives recently articulated by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (2015) in its 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).
The UN, and a number of other governmental and nongovernmental institutions, have taken steps to address these SDGs and promote the goals of global-minded citizens (detailed further below). As the notion of global citizenship has gained interest and acceptance in institutional and scholarly circles alike, it has spurred a nascent discipline aptly known as global citizenship education (Brigham, 2011; Fernekes, 2016). Through this emergent area of study, a small, but growing, number of countries have sought to develop and incorporate global citizenship education into school curricula (Bickmore, 2014; Brown et al., 2009; Chong, 2015; Davies et al., 2005; Evans et al., 2009; Motani, 2007; Myers, 2020).
How the term global citizenship is defined will affect how global citizenship-related course content develops. Several leading organizations (including UNESCO, UNICEF, and Oxfam), as well as a number of scholars, have defined and (through such definitions) helped to set the priorities of global citizenship (Carter, 2001; Diaz et al., 1999; Noddings, 2005; Oxfam, 2015; Reysen & Katzarska-Miller, 2013; UNICEF, 2013; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2015). While these definitions have varied, they generally highlight commitment to diversity, the environment, conflict resolution, social justice, and the responsibility to act. These are indeed critical global issues that require ongoing focus and action. At the same time, there is a notable omission from too many definitions of global citizenship—the commitment to liberal democratic values. Indeed, too often, there has been too little focus on key freedoms and rights that undergird liberal democratic society—from due process, to equality, to the freedom of speech, religion, and the press.
This is at a time when democracy is under acute strain around the world (Repucci & Slipowitz, 2021). Earlier this year, the world saw the shocking revolt against the citadel of American democracy, the U.S. Capitol, by thousands of insurrectionists seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election (Mascaro et al., 2021). Additionally, there have been several challenges to democracies across Asia (e.g., Hong Kong, Myanmar, Taiwan, Thailand) this past year, resulting in a wave of pro-democracy protests and the formation of an online solidarity movement (Milk Tea Alliance) (Frayer & Suliman, 2021). Over the last few years, the world also has witnessed democracy in retreat in growing parts of Europe, ranging from Austria to Hungary to Poland (Repucci, 2020). At the same time, authoritarian states have actively sought to undermine democracy around the world by intervening in elections and spreading disinformation (Repucci, 2020).
Recent studies and surveys are further evidence of these troubling anti-democratic trends. In the most recent report from The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (2021) Democracy Index, only 23 of 167 countries were deemed “full democracies.” In fact, a Freedom House report issued this year indicated that political rights and civil liberties have been on the decline for the past decade and a half (Repucci & Slipowitz, 2021). Other studies have shown democracy losing favor with popular opinion. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Democracy found that the next generation of leaders (millennials) have less faith in democracy and are more open to non-democratic ideas (Foa & Mounk, 2016). In a 2019 Pew Research Center survey of 27 countries, a majority of the individuals surveyed were dissatisfied with the workings of their democracy (Wike et al., 2019). And, in a Democracy Perception Index (DPI) study conducted by the Alliance of Democracies (2021) and Latana, thousands of survey respondents across 53 nations considered economic inequality and Big Tech companies (e.g., Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft) as grave threats to democracy.
These trends have not been lost on leading international figures. In former U.S. President Barack Obama’s (2016) final address to the UN General Assembly, he urged the need for democratic leaders to “make the case for democracy.” In 2018, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres (2018) cautioned that “[d]emocratic principles are under siege, and the rule of law is being undermined.” That year, French President Emmanuel Macron (2018) also bemoaned the “attacks on democracies through the rise of illiberalism.” Earlier this year, President Joe Biden (2021a) forewarned that “your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy.” And during his address to a joint session of Congress, Biden (2021b) elaborated: “We have to prove democracy still works — that our government still works and we can deliver for our people. . . . If we do that, we will meet the center challenge of the age by proving that democracy is durable.”
Yet, the purpose of global citizenship is to forge common bonds and identities (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2014; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2015). Given that most countries are not liberal democracies, the exclusion of non- or anti-democratic countries could (or would) serve to divide the global community and impede work on important issues such as climate change and trade. It is indeed true that, since the turn of the 21st century, democratic and undemocratic countries alike have worked together to achieve notable global agreements and breakthroughs. For example, in 2001, many members of the international community signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Halewood, 2013). Additionally, in 2015, nearly two hundred nations representing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into the Paris Agreement (Streck et al., 2016).
It is also true that liberal democratic governance has its flaws, and can and should be subject to criticism. Too often such societies fail to live up to their promise, and too often minorities do not enjoy the same privileges as the majority. From socio-economic disadvantage to discrimination, there is much to be done to right the wrongs that still exist in liberal democratic countries. But this is a debate that democracy allows. There is only so much that can be improved or achieved under autocratic governments which, by their very nature, stifle dissent and deny basic rights and freedoms.
Those who define the agenda of global citizenship should examine, if not recognize, the importance of liberal democratic governance and principles to achieve the goals of global citizenship. According to a 2018 report from The Economist, the growing tide of semi- or anti-democratic governments has led to: “declining popular participation in elections and politics”; “weaknesses in the functioning of government”; “declining trust in institutions”; “dwindling appeal of mainstream representative parties”; “growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies”; “widening gap between political elites and electorates”; “decline in media freedoms”; and “erosion of civil liberties, including curbs on free speech” (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2018, p. 3). Whatever one’s views on liberal democracy, such governance does more than any other form of government to advance the agenda of human and civil rights (Strege, 1994).
When global citizenship is taught in the classroom and elsewhere, such instruction should explore the role of liberal democracy in promoting global citizenship. We cannot lose sight of the effects of systemic, cross-national deprivation of human and civil rights. It is hard to see how we can achieve all of the aspirations of global citizenship—including diversity, non-discrimination, and social justice (to name a few)—without the success and acceptance of core liberal democratic values for generations to come.
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