Value-creating global citizenship education and the Earth Charter: Integrating diverse perspectives within the UNESCO-led practice of GCE

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Invited plenary session paper presented at the International Earth Charter Education Conference: Leading the Way to Sustainability 2030

San José, Costa Rica, 29 – 31 January 2019

Given the wide-range of interests represented in this room on environment, political action, young people’s engagement in areas related to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I aim to keep my discussions focused on the education strand of the SDGs and discuss the broader role of education and the Earth Charter in meeting these goals.

In doing this I would like to pose two key issues. The first is “what is the conceptual framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its relevance to particular subjects, themes, or issues?” And the second is “how do these goals engage with the human/personal dimension?” These questions might be one way to further develop some of the important conversations for this week.

The rationale for my posing these questions is to develop a values-based framework for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Global Citizenship Education (GCED or GCE). In this regards the Earth Charter makes an important contribution as a model ethical framework (as Mirian and others have called it). Also, my long-term study on selected Asian thinkers offers suggestions for a more intercultural approach to ESD and GCE.

In addition, the Earth Charter, as in the case for my chosen thinkers, are also initiators of movements of people who have been enthused to act within their daily lives to create positive individual and social transformation. And as I argue through this paper, a broader engagement with the human/personal dimension is necessary for the success of education for global citizenship which is part of the United Nation’s 2030 agenda and its 17 SDGs which “seek to eradicate extreme poverty and strengthen universal peace by integrating and balancing the three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental” (UNESCO 2018: 3).  

Revisiting the conceptual framework

To begin, let us briefly revisit some of the key discussions taking place on the education strand of the SDGs, in particular, on education for global citizenship.

Global Citizenship Education (GCED) is one of the strategic areas of UNESCO’s education sector program for the period 2014-2021. UNESCO’s work in this field is guided by the Education 2030 Agenda and Framework for Action, notably Target 4.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 4 on education), which calls on countries to ensure that all learners are provided with the knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

There are however several existing and ongoing studies that suggest a wide range of emerging definitions of the term global citizenship. As well as there are gaps that are shown to exist between Western – non-Western perspectives (Wang and Hoffman 2016); religious – secular (Dill 2013); national – political – cosmopolitan education for global citizenship.

For example, there is a wide-ranging scholarship that challenges the Western dominated agendas and the underlying Western worldview in global citizenship education (Andreotti 2006, 2011; Andreotti and de Souza 2012; Bowden 2003; Calhoun 2002; Dill 2013; Gaudelli 2016; Jooste and Heleta 2017; Merryfield 2009; Tarozzi and Torres 2016; Torres 2017). The variety of analyses includes postcolonial critiques, studies on the existing pedagogical assumptions within global citizenship education, as well as the need to engage with alternative paradigms and non-Western perspectives.

Global citizenship has (for many substantiated reasons) come under scrutiny by several scholars who argue the associated education to be individualistic, hegemonic, and problematic in its attempts to universalize practice across local and national levels. For example, Jooste and Heleta argue that there are border walls and other realities that create inequalities and inequities between peoples and nations. In this scenario “whose values and norms will guide global citizens?” (Jooste and Heleta 2017: 44).

Notwithstanding its current predicament, global citizenship education does provide the discursive space that can allow a genuine intercultural understanding of particularities and specificities where universal assumptions are being made within education globally. One can argue that a key question that emerges from these discussions is, “Where and how do we fit in less widely known perspectives into the discourse and practice of GCE?”

Relevance of alternative paradigms and perspectives to the practice of SDGs in our daily lives

Let’s re-examine possible alternative paradigms, perspectives, and praxis in achieving the SDGs. There are two questions that I’d like to pose in relation to this enquiry.

  • Are there different ways in which we might approach issues of social justice? And tied to this question is
  • How can we expand our focus from individual empowerment to enable bold collective efforts?

It is no exaggeration to state that given the heavy dominance of neoliberal capitalism worldwide and its impact across various national educational policies, the efforts and plans to tackle the SDGs are largely oriented to empower the individual human being. While this is important, it also leaves out the particularities that are also equally important in meeting these goals, such as, the particularities of culture, of the individual’s needs, interests, and values.

One of the guiding questions for my work has been on how education can focus on the individual but not become individualistic. This to me is a serious concern that has emerged from the Enlightenment period, Western-scientific-industrial revolution, and modern capitalism. My long-term study of selected Asian thinkers shows that their engagement with particularities, values and beliefs have led to their own creative and distinct strategies and action to create positive change and sustainable communities within their respective geographical locales. These are the Indian political leader, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), and the Japanese educators, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) and Daisaku Ikeda (b. 1928). These thinkers were also influenced by and have impacted people globally as leaders. Gandhi is well known as the political leader who galvanized millions of people to be involved in the non-violent satyagraha (lit. “truth-force”) movement for India’s independence from the British regime. Makiguchi and Ikeda’s efforts for peace, culture, and education are now starting to be recognized worldwide. For example, through Ikeda’s annual peace proposal through which several suggestions continue to be directed to the various initiatives by the United Nations. Ikeda is the founder of several institutions promoting peace, culture, and education. This includes several kindergartens, primary, and secondary schools, and universities across the world. He is also the leader of the lay Buddhist organization, the Soka Gakkai, and the members of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) across 192 countries and territories have provided support to achieve the UN’s efforts to build a peaceful and sustainable world within their own communities, particularities, and daily life. We’ll be hearing more about such related efforts later during this conference from SGI representatives in this room – Ms. Joan Anderson, Mr. Tadashi Nagai, Mr. Hiro Sakurai who is the Director of the SGI Office for UN Affairs, and Monique and Tais from the Soka Institute in the Amazon.

Moving ahead, with regards to the discussions on the importance of particularities, in a previous co-authored paper on the topic of sustainable development in higher education it was suggested that whereas sustainable development has often been associated with environmental concerns (Morris 2008), an approach to issues of sustainability from an intercultural perspective can draw from diverse wisdom and understandings that is in line with UNESCO’s aims for ESD (Gundara & Sharma 2010). The Earth Charter is a great example of this. It’s worth noting that the success of the Earth Charter and its adoption by several schools is not only that it offers a comprehensive overview as an invaluable educational resource, but that as Steve Rockefeller (2008: 20), Mirian and Peter (Vilela and Corcoran 2005), and others have suggested, and as Ikeda also points out, “the manner in which this ‘people’s charter’ was drafted is significant…in the drafting process, efforts were made to incorporate the essential wisdom of cultures and traditions from all regions of Earth” (Ikeda 2002).

The practice of ESD and efforts to achieve the SDGs in general can similarly take strides forward through a more creative engagement with and an understanding that there are a variety of ways of thinking, acting, being, and living that inform people and communities and that there are important lessons that can be drawn from the vast repository of human wisdom.

In a lecture titled “Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship” delivered at the Teachers College, Columbia University in 1996 Ikeda proposes as an essential element of a global citizen “the wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life and living” (Ikeda 2008: 444). This wisdom, Ikeda notes elsewhere is a “living wisdom” that can be learned from various cultural traditions that appreciate the unity and connectedness of life, such as, the Desana people of the Amazon and the Iroquois people of North America” (Ikeda 2002). One of the consequences of similar worldviews has led some nations states, including Ireland and India, to give constitutional rights to trees and rivers as being sacred.

In a recently published book I have suggested that a shift in paradigm and perspectives will have a significant bearing on the practice of education for global citizenship (UNESCO 2015: 14-15). The title of my book is Value-creating global citizenship education (Sharma 2018) which emphasizes the value that can be created through bold collective efforts. The book cites the Earth Charter and draws lessons from the study of my selected thinkers to offer suggestions to achieve the UN’s 2030 education for global citizenship agenda. To summarize the many arguments made in this work, value-creating global citizenship education and the Earth Charter can contribute to this UN goal in at least two ways. First, as an educational resource through the several lessons learned from a study of alternative paradigms and perspectives of how we think about ourselves, society, nature, and the universe. This can add to the intercultural dimension of GCE and ESD. Second, through the lessons learned from a study of these movements that have inspired people worldwide to act based on their own values.

In the realm of education, one of the core challenges of fostering youth as future world citizens needs to be a focus on the values, beliefs, and interests of the individual learner. A broader engagement with the human/personal dimension is necessary for the success of education for global citizenship as mentioned before. These are 6 themes provided for the practice of a value-creating global citizenship education (Sharma 2018: 94) .

  1. A Sense of Interdependence, Common Humanity, and a Global Outlook
  2. An Awareness of Climate Change as Planetary Citizens
  3. A Commitment to Reflective, Dialogic, and Transformative Learning
  4. A Commitment to Sustainable Development through Intercultural Perspectives
  5. A Belief in the Value-Creating Capacity for Social-Self Actualization
  6. An Understanding of Peace and Non-Violence as being Central to the Human Rights Agenda

Within each theme a brief description is provided that challenges epistemic assumptions for the practice of global citizenship education that is currently often based on a neoliberal paradigm. One of the distinctions that can be drawn between the neoliberal paradigm and a more holistic approach to GCE is the shift in focus from individual empowerment to building relationships through the process of ESD, between the learner and his/her natural and social environment.

I won’t go into the detail of my in-depth study of these thinkers over two decades across India, Japan, the UK, and the US (Sharma 1999, 2008, 2018) which I’m happy to discuss over coffee breaks at this conference. To provide brief insights into these thinkers and their ideas, for example, Gandhi’s understanding of the natural world in spiritual terms, his values and beliefs, as well as creative strategies to use values, such as, non-violence in real world politics, and enthuse millions of people, including youth in the satyagraha movement, or movement based on truth force, for India’s independence from the British regime. Similarly, Makiguchi through his study of the Geography of Human Life arrived at the understanding of humanitarian competition, making human happiness at the core of education, that is, in developing the individual’s ability to live contributively, for the welfare of oneself, nature, and the humanism.

 In this presentation I would like to focus on the contributions made from a study on their ideas and modes of thinking to the important task of ESD and GCE. Overall, based on my study of Asian perspectives an acknowledgement of one’s common humanity I have argued, would give emphasis to perceiving the divisiveness and alienation that is present within modern societies. That is, it would place a strong emphasis within the curriculum to tackle stereotyping and foster the socio-emotional capacity of compassion towards all inhabitants of the earth whilst also recognizing the nature and forms of power structures in an increasingly globalized world and the unseen perpetuation of colonial perspectives. The behavioral response to solve global issues would be rooted in a non-dualistic belief system which perceives an inextricable link between the self-other-nature-universe. Through an intuitive examination of the depth of human life such belief systems subscribe to the view that an attitudinal change within each person can impact upon their environment (see Ikeda 2003: 106). The emphasis in the educational environment that subscribe to this way of thinking, such as in the Soka Schools in Japan, aim to develop and foster meaningful life-to-life connections among people – between students and teachers, schools and communities, and so on.

Let me elucidate by elaborating on one of the proposed themes in my recent book, taking the example of “An Awareness of Climate Change as Planetary Citizens.” One of the influences of the scientific-industrial revolution originating from the West is a mechanistic and reductionist view of life. On the other hand, a non-dualistic view, held by these Asian thinkers and also endorsed by the Earth Charter, perceives the dynamic relationship between the self and the natural/ social environment as being fluid and in a constant state of creative engagement and coexistence.[1] While the wisdom and energy to take action in tackling climate change are perceived here as being important, it should also be with an attitude of reverence for life as suggested in the Earth Charter that resonates with Makiguchi’s sentiments described in his work Jinsei chirigaku or the Geography of Human Life (Makiguchi 1983).

Moving beyond a cognitive approach, education for climate change should create a learning environment that can cause a socio-emotional response in students to develop a reverence for nature, and care and responsibility as citizens of this planet. Further, climate change is not just about the natural environment, but the human environment as well. A critical understanding is required of the causal relationship between human strife and suffering, and the destruction of natural and other forms of life (the Syrian crises and conflicts in the Middle East are among such examples). As a starting point the following references are suggested in my work as an approach these issues from a value-creating perspective: Henderson and Ikeda’s (2004) dialogue Planetary citizens; Makiguchi’s (1983) book, The geography of human life (Bethel 2002 for an edited English translation; also see Bethel 2000; Takeuchi 2004), the Earth charter initiative[2] (also see Rockefeller 2015), and UNESCO’s climate change education and awareness initiatives[3].

Let me recapitulate the recommendations being made from a study of value-creating global citizenship education and the Earth Charter for the UN 2030 global citizenship agenda:

  1. A broader engagement with the human/personal dimension is necessary for the success of education for global citizenship which is part of the UN’s 2030 agenda and its 17 SDGs. This would fill the present gap within UNESCO’s proposals for sustainable development (including SDG 13) by adding the personal dimension to the currently proposed economic, social, and environmental dimensions (see UNESCO 2018: 3).
  2. VCGCE as a complementary approach to the three key pedagogical approaches in ESD currently offered by UNESCO, which are, “a learner-centered approach,” “action-oriented learning,” and “transformative learning” (UNESCO 2017: 55).
  3. An emphasis on building relationships through ESD between the individual learner and her/his natural and social environment by engaging with the personal dimension.
  4. Lessons learned from movements inspired by the Earth Charter, Gandhi, and Ikeda to help expand the current focus within GCE and ESD from individual empowerment to enable bold collective efforts.
  5. Some efforts are being made to re-engage with ESD from more holistic perspectives of my three selected thinkers (see BRC 1997a & b; Sakurai 2010; Sarabhai, Raghunathan, and Modi 2010). These efforts need to be combined with more serious scholarly engagement that can draw the attention of policy makers and practitioners to explore the relevance of diverse perspectives to sustain human and universal life that exists on our planet.

Value-creating global citizens

To wrap up my talk I would like to propose three guiding notions to navigate a creative process of acting, thinking, and being a value-creating global citizen. This is something we can start by reflecting on and taking action at this conference and in the future.

  • An active citizen – there are a variety of ways in which we ourselves can engage with the SDGs as an active citizen. The various presentations and discussions within groups at this conference provide an invaluable opportunity to learn and be inspired by the amazing work being done by the attendees.
  • A creative citizen – I hope that in these ensuing discussions this week we can create the momentum through which the research and practice of the SDGs moves from the current focus on individual empowerment to a more collective effort to achieve these goals.
  • An inclusive citizen – to read/listen/experience what is beyond our usual spectrum of engagements.

On the third point of being an inclusive citizen, Ikeda in his 2018 peace proposal suggests that in this age of technology we are now faced with what the Internet activist, Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble.” That is, “data searches that return information already attuned to the user’s preferences, thus obscuring other sources” (Ikeda 2018: 11). “What is troubling about this phenomenon,” Ikeda mentions, “is the degree to which it can impact a person’s understanding of social issues” (ibid.) The last US Presidential elections and the political climate ever since has had worrying consequences, such as, the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2017, acts of violence, prejudice, and other anomalies that impact the practice of SDGs. Gandhi spoke of “ahimsa (non-violence) of the brave.”[4] There is much to be learned from the bold action taken to combat climate change by Costa Rica, such as, the efforts for land protection which is the one of the world’s best climate change practices, and also the country’s offer to host the COP25 – 2019 UN Climate Change Conference, and other such noble endeavors. And so, thank you once again for the invitation to contribute to and learn from not just the discussions at this conference but importantly, from the example and ethos of the ECI and this nation that is taking strides to create a more sustainable and peaceful world.


[1] See Sharma 2018, Chapter 4 for further details.





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