The role of global education, 20-21 November 2013, Egmont Palace, Brussels, Belgium

Prof. Matt Baillie Smith, Director of the Northumbria Centre for International Development, UK, set the tone of the research conference in the first of the three opening keynote addresses. He challenged the still common misuse of conventional images of poverty 'in the South' to raise aid, while doing little against continued austerity programmes hollowing out institutions and services particularly for vulnerable and poor strata of the population. He invited scrutiny in relation to new 'development actors', such as the military, big accounting firms and others attempting to impose their norms and ideologies. Rejecting to reduce development to competing individuals out of socio-economic and political context, he was equally critical towards equating it with charity.

Instead, he suggested to frame development as solidarity and to shift from a primarily normative approach focused on technicalities toward a more politically informed process emphasising empowerment. As a result, alternatives to neoliberal orthodoxy warranted not only less stereotyped relations with poor people and their organisations in 'the South', but also grounding solidarity locally with urban poor in cities in 'the North'.

Jethro Pettit, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK, carried some of these reflections further. He focused his talk on the transformative power of education and teaching for global citizenship. In discussing the expectations of mostly northern citizens about rights-based approaches (rather than charity), he cautioned to expect as well unruly politics and dissent, as liberal, democratic values and principles might not be universally shared. Moreover, citizens might be constrained by power relations, ideologies, cultural hegemony and discourse creating socialised boundaries to aspirations. His research shows the importance of reality checks, such as the action research carried out for a Swedish NGO that involves researchers living in with marginalised families in three countries to test the hypotheses on the ground. Early results suggest seven recurrent concerns:

  • increasing monetisation of livelihoods reducing buffers through subsistence and the informal economy;
  • decline and commercialisation of public services;
  • youth unemployment and migration;
  • gender discrimination;
  • disability;
  • lack of access to education;
  • risk, vulnerability, phychological stress and trauma.

The implications for transformative education are to adopt critical approaches to reflective and experiential learning, emphasising creative and narrative forms of reflection, visual and aesthetic forms of expression and supporting mindfulness and methods of embodied learning, or put very simply, learning by doing.

The first plenary was concluded by Nélida Céspedes Rossel, General Secretary of the Latin American and Caribbean Council for Youth and Adult Education (CEEAL), Panama, who works in the tradition of Paulo Freire. Nélida discussed global citizenship as a movement where ethical, political and pedagogical visions converge and empower people to be and act as citizens. A successful methodology always starts from the people's own experience und understanding and then connects this to the collective experience of others. A successful methodology leads to action using also all kinds of artistic expression as a tool of social and political analysis and action.

She advocated weaving the four dimensions of sustainable development into education: economical, social, environmental and cultural. She ended her talk with a strong appeal to resist downgrading the access to education in the international debate at the UN about the Post 2015 MDGs (Millennium Development Objectives). As recently as September 2013, a coalition of civil society organisations had issued a 10 point statement about the human right to education that warranted support.

The remainder of the day and the next day saw an alternation of parallel panel sessions and plenaries to delve deeper into these concepts and, most importantly, engage in exchange about research and practical experience on the ground. The hybridisation between local and global - glocal -  reflected the multiple identities of each and everyone that needed to be acknowledged. Arie de Ruijter, Director of the Advisory Centre for Citizenship and International Cooperation (NCDO), Netherlands, said as much in his closing remarks of Day 1 and underscored again the fundamental importance of the access to education for the ability to act as a global citizen.

One of the striking features of the debates was the tension between the more reflective approach advocated by researchers in several panels and exemplified in their case studies and the more instrumental approaches government agencies and some of their NGO followers are adopting. While focus on results was understandable when public money is invested, the short time spans of most projects were at odds with the usually long periods needed to bring about lasting changes and simply led to frustrations on all sides.

Among the potential remedies a few enjoyed large consensus. Among them were listening to what was needed and expected, greater care in framing the process for improving learning, learning by doing, allowing for more time and developing less mechanistic indicators of success to satisfy the legitimate need for justification.

Many of the talks and panels had strong resonance with the work of Mundus maris in supporting schools in accessing the best available science in the public domain so as to teaching capacities and outcomes.Several examples presented during the two days of the conference confirmed the usefulness of our conceptual choice of blending sciences, arts and local culture as appropriate for realising the potential of people more effectively.

We also got valuable new insights into the principles of making positive change stick and the nuancing necessary in applying the principles in different contexts. Several panels addressed this from different angles. Taken together these will provide additional guidance as we work, e.g. with the School Inspection of Grand Dakar in supporting their efforts of strengthening environment and sustainability education in Hann Bel Air, Senegal.

The conference participants extended a big thank you to the organisers of the DEEEP Project led by Tobias Troll and his 'dream team' working relentlessly and smoothly with other co-organisers and participants to make the conference intellectually challenging and very productive gathering. The event closed - most fittingly - with a musical performance leaving participants elated and energised. 

A couple of references might be useful for further reading:

Northway, M.L., 1967. A primer of sociometry. University of Toronto Press, second edition, 58 p.

Fullan, M., 2001. Leading in a culture of change: being effective in complex times. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass / John Wiley & Sons, 166 p.