In an era characterised by globalisation, migration, and transnational organisations and movements, local and global issues have never been so tightly interconnected. In this context, the idea of global citizenship has emerged with the aim of creating a more inclusive global community by bestowing citizens of the world with the rights and responsibilities to confront global challenges (Welply, Taamouti and Bracons Font, 2019). Therefore, the idea of global citizenship leaves behind the traditional notion of citizenship geographically bounded to nation-states, and replaces it instead by a new understanding of citizenship as a fluid and heterogeneous concept which transcends national boundaries (UNESCO, 2015).

Based on these principles, Global Citizenship Education (GCE) has become increasingly acknowledged by numerous international organisations, NGOs, and researchers. As such, it has been incorporated as one of UNESCO’s 2014-2021 areas for education, and its importance has been recognised in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (UNESCO, 2018). Despite being a contested concept, different definitions of GCE agree that global citizens have the responsibility to think of local issues as global, not merely local, concerns. For instance, UNESCO (2018, p.6), a key player in the field of GCE, defines it as a model “to empower learners to engage and assume active roles both locally and globally to face and resolve global challenges and ultimately to become proactive contributors to a more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable world”. Based on these objectives, Oxfam (2015, p.8) encourages GCE to develop knowledge “about social justice and equity” amongst learners, skills such as “empathy” and “critical thinking”, and values such as “diversity and commitment to participation and inclusion”. But to what extent is this socially-just approach to GCE applied in practice?

Many countries have already endorsed GCE and adapted their educational curricula to meet its objectives. However, in educational institutions worldwide, “universal” values such as empathy, intercultural communication, social justice, and responsibility are often discussed through a paternalistic approach which situates Western nations as superior, sustaining and perpetuating a global hierarchy. This is what Vanessa Andreotti (2006) denominates a “soft” GCE. By maintaining the First World’s discourse of “sanctioned ignorance”, a “soft” GCE  places the responsibility upon poor countries themselves, overlooking how the roots of power imbalances between the Global North and South are in fact a product of the past history of colonialism (Andreotti, 2006; Marshall, 2011; Pashby, 2011). Although, this “deficit model” enables students to develop an understanding of the world’s problems, it does not address the causes of such power imbalances stemming from colonialism and perpetuated through the neo-liberal Western hegemony.

For instance, most countries which have embraced GCE now contemplate issues of global inequalities and poverty in the curriculum. Yet they do so through a superficial and non-problematic approach to poverty which unintentionally perpetuates a biased and unequal global structure by stressing the division between a powerful “us” – Western, developed nations – , and a stereotyped, deficient “other” – underdeveloped or developing countries in the Global South (Andreotti 2010; Pashby, 2011) –. Thus, GCE often reproduces the image of the West as the main agent of the “civilising mission to educate the world” (Andreotti, 2006), sustaining the “White man’s burden” ideology to fight global poverty. These unintended consequences are at odd with GCE’s main aims, including the promotion of knowledge related to social justice and equity, of critical thinking skills, and of values such as diversity and inclusion.

For GCE to reach its full potential, it must move away from such humanitarian approaches to a critical framework that challenges global hegemonies and critically analyses the unequal distribution of wealth, resources, and power (Andreotti 2010). However, this is not an easy task, since this approach is confronted by the reality of a market-oriented educational structure. With the democratisation of access to education worldwide, educational systems have become fiercely competitive. In countries such as China or South Korea, for instance, test-driven educational systems leave little instructional time and freedom to critically engage with some key tenets of GCE (Kim, 2019), including knowledge about social justice and equity, globalisation and interdependence, and power and governance (Oxfam, 2015).  In such high-stake system, these topics are only briefly mentioned as additional anecdotes at the end of the sessions, rather than being embedded in the formal curriculum. This is because the normative and ethical dimensions of issues concerning poverty and inequalities are based on values and attitudes that cannot be directly measured through quantitative indicators and standardised questions (Cho, 2016). As a result, “GCE may be unreflexively contributing to the production and reproduction of [global power imbalances] through [its] uncritical acceptance of the dominant ways of thinking about global interconnectivity” (Rizvi’s 2009, p.265-6).

A point of departure to implement a critical GCE which engages with the roots of global power imbalances is offered by Andreotti and Souza’s (2008) notion of “learning to unlearn”. This process involves deconstructing the dominant global imaginaries based on the assumptions of Western universality, and recognising that these are not neutral and objective, but bound to specific socio-political and historical contexts. This could enable the replacement of ethnocentric teaching and learning with a world-centric approach which acknowledges different narratives and representations. Since Western values and ideologies are deeply entrenched within political, social and cultural structures at an international scale, future lines of enquiry would benefit from exploring how, at a micro-level, educators could become active agents who challenge these neo-liberal and post-colonial paradigms with the aim of diminishing global inequalities (Kim, 2019).

In sum, when employing the term “global” in relation to GCE, we should critically examine what education is delivered, how it is implemented, and who receives it. Although GCE is based on universal values of respect for diversity, equality, and social justice, this does not necessarily translate into equal opportunities and consideration for all. With this, I do not aim to underestimate the potential of GCE. On the contrary, I believe that, if implemented through a critical lens, this framework could assist in transforming educational systems and making them more responsive to current global challenges and to the increasing interconnection between nations. Yet, unveiling the flaws of how GCE is being implemented at present can help us think about new ways forward to create inclusive educational systems based on global equity, solidarity, and positive intercultural relations.


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About the author of this article:

Marta Monedero Afonso

Marta holds a MA (Hons) in International Relations and Sociology and a MA in Intercultural Communication and Education. She is CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certified and is currently undertaking a Train the Intercultural Training Programme at the Academy for Diversity and Innovation. She is also a volunteer and member of SIETAR UK.

Originally from Spain, Marta has studied and worked in Scotland, England and France. Her international experience and intercultural relationships have fed her enthusiasm to keep learning about intercultural communication and international education. She is fluent in Spanish, English and French.

You can connect with Marta via her Linkedin profile.