Global Citizenship – a tough weekend on a tough idea

This weekend I joined 50 people from around the world for the Global Citizenship Forum.

It reminded me how different the term “Global Citizenship” can sound depending where in the world you come from: the UK, Palestine, Colombia, USA, Zimbabwe, Pakistan or any other country.

Some attending the event don’t even have citizen rights in their own state. For others the term is implicitly linked to helping other countries ‘develop’. Particularly in this country where the term has so strongly underpinned the support for Millennium Development Goals. So it’s often used with the presumption that a Global Citizen mindset will support global development by inclining the richer countries towards a fairer distribution of the world’s resources. A way of ‘fixing the world’s problems’.

Some people shook their heads in disbelief at Westerners like me: that we might be naïve enough to think that this notion could catch on in Western cultures so palpably committed to maintaining their own lifestyles. Or Eastern cultures so determined to catch up with the carbon-guzzling lifestyles that have for so long consumed the product of their labour.

A Global Citizenship perspective reminds us that – if the world were a village and the civilisations of the planet were compressed into that village in representative proportion; it would be a very poor village. The richest would look obscenely rich by comparison, and would probably live in fear of the poorest forming some kind of citizen uprising. An ‘Arab Spring’ might find my home with bullet holes in the wall… and its supporters would have no basic healthcare if I struck back.

But one principle of Global citizenship, like all other democratic expressions of citizenship, would be a commitment to peaceful solutions and the maintenance of a single community under one rule of law.

Our multicultural village would spend most of its time in council: comparing cultural inheritances and assumptions and working out how they can occupy one space in peace and harmony with as little loss as possible to anyone’s treasured cultural rights. It would have endless discussions about economic justice and the pathways to some form of equality for all people.

At least, though, it would be a community. A single community. So it would have to find solutions. It couldn’t manage differences through boundaries and borders.

It reminded me that most of our learning for life in organised community comes in groups that have some form of boundaries and borders. These are the ‘given’ communities that we arrive in by accident of birth: be they our regions, countries, religious or ethnic groups. They are the places from which most people assimilate the nature of membership. “We are like this, not that”; “we behave like this, not like that”.

Such institutionalised learning within our fist experiences of life forms strong and instinctive reactions to life’s many differences. It creates what we feel to be the natural limitations of our freedom as well as the natural extent of our ambitions. It circumscribes the extent to which we’re bound to that community and should forfeit our own aspirations in order to maintain that community: or to which we might depart from our first communities and seek or autonomous path in life. The very thing that ‘network forming’ in western countries seduces us out of by helping to legitimise and then prioritise our ‘found’ identities over our ‘given’ ones.

Globalisation is forcing the world out of the most closed and entrenched versions of states as communities defined by their religious, ethnic and territorial boundaries. Such communities will find the greatest threat from the underground streams of trade or mass communication that mix up our values and demand their review.

But meanwhile, those who have the loudest voices in the room – the Westerners with the money that dominates the terms of economic interaction or the 50 years head start on producing content for the mass communication networks – have to recognise that like everyone else, we will lose as well as gain by being Global Citizens. We have to prepare ourselves to reckon with those losses if the world is to achieve a new equilibrium, or to absorb the losses involuntarily should the world demand it.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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