Article Global Ethics

Global Citizenship and Universal Values


Global citizenship is a concept which intertwines our identity with the interconnected, interdependent world of today. It seeks to transcend geographical limitations and expand the definition of our personalities. As expounded by the United Nations, global citizenship is a new and vital force, which operates beyond the traditional spheres of power. In some instances, it has also been described as “a way of life”, a set of guiding principles for a sustainable lifestyle.

The rise of globalization has implied that the ripples of an act committed in one corner of the world will be felt at another corner of the world. This has implored the human community to accept that we cannot live in artificial silos anymore. Instead, there is a need to connect with our larger identity and tap into a collective human experience if we want the future to be one with peace, prosperity and stability for all. In the end, we are one human family.

The characteristic of global citizenship as a universal concept renders it a degree of intangibility. The context of an individual’s environment and their trait of self-awareness impedes the realization of oneness with the global community. It has resulted in personalized definitions becoming the norm, wherein the individual links their personality with moral and ethical values.

Moreover, the task of seeing oneself as a global citizen is complicated in an increasingly nationalistic, separated, protectionist and xenophobic world. While global citizenship is an important trigger to overcome these restrictions, it remains confined to intellectual discussions amongst a relatively small number of people, giving it a halo of elitism. Hence, even though the task of popularizing global citizenship has been touted as institutional or international, it is, in fact, of personal origins.

The fundamental challenge is to transmit the sense of responsibility of global citizenship across locations, age groups, cultures, and generations. There exists a resistance to accept this responsibility as a consequence of widespread fear and misunderstanding. Stagnating socio-economic mobility and mistrust has conflated global citizenship with globalization’s underlying issues, creating a hostile environment. However, there is also great potential in promoting the idea of global citizenship, as it opens the way for collaboration across boundaries of place and identity to solve global challenges.

Given the difficulties to position the idea of global citizenship as a prime identity, we want to pose a series of question to advance the conversation:

  1. Is global citizenship a homogeneous concept? Does it have space for multiple identities to exist?
  2. How can global citizenship be grounded so that it applies to everyone? How can it shed its image of an elitist phenomenon?
  3. How can global citizenship be a universal guiding principle for collaboration and sustainable behavior?

The following deliberations set out to give some answers to these questions. After reviewing fundamental documents that shape the idea of global citizenship, we discuss the universality of the concept. We then touch on the Indian context as our conversation took part in South Indian metropolis Bangalore. We move on to look at ways in which we can promote global citizenship principles and while considering the challenges in our way forward, we draw final conclusions. (Read the full whitepaper on The State of Global Citizenship here).

Universal Context 

One of the first questions that arise is: Is there a set of universal values that all inhabitants of the world can subscribe to? Even though the UDHR establishes a solid foundation of shared principles, it is far from promoting a rigid set of universal values. While examining global citizenship from a universal standpoint, it is crucial to recognize the fluid nature of the concept. Fluidity refers to the multiple layers that overlap to form an individual’s personality, such as family, religion, ethnicity, and culture. The existing realities in different parts of the world differ vastly from each other. Global citizenship incorporates several dynamic elements, each synergizing to meet the current needs and aspirations of youth and society the world over. Therefore, global citizenship in no way means or endorses a homogeneity of opinion or consensus. In fact, it is the opposite. It indicates that there is a spectrum within which a range of opinions and values can co-exist even if they conflict with each other. This requires us to practice not only tolerance but compassion as well. At an individual level, this allows us to hold honest, sometimes heated exchanges that are entirely free of hate or malice. If we meet our differences with empathy and respect, there is a way for reconciliation and to find middle grounds that are acceptable with the prevailing community and its culture.

One way of articulating global citizenship as a universal concept can be its manifestation as an ethic of care for the world and each other. This understanding focuses on awareness, moral resilience, judgment, and action. It provides a sound moral background for any action taken and places a premium on responsibility and accountability. Even if this ethic of care calls for action, it does not necessarily relate to activism. The concepts co-inhabit some ideological spaces. However, if activism is about bringing attention to injustices, then global citizenship is about leading people to shared mutually beneficial conclusions on their own terms. This unbounded empowerment allows people to eventually reach a more developed and nuanced shared understanding of the world and cherishes the wellbeing of all people and the natural environments they inhabit.

A discussion about the universality of global citizenship has to acknowledge that the standard framework in which today’s world is organized are nation-states. Countries are basic entities in which rules are made, and their citizens should theoretically have all the same rights and responsibilities as they are all governed by the same laws. In that sense, citizenship and its attached benefits and duties are, under normal circumstances, universal concepts within a nation. The most common traits for granting citizenship are blood, soil, culture, and law. Blood indicates direct ancestry; soil points to the physical place of birth; culture alludes to their cultural integration within society, and the law is concerned with codified rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Rights shared by all citizens typically inspire broad agreement amongst community members, while responsibilities differ wildly based on possibility, opportunity, status, wealth, and several other factors. The opportunities structure within countries is often very unequally distributed. We cannot deny socio-economic differences and multiple forms of discrimination within and across nations. On a global level, we see even greater differences in economic development, political systems, and individual freedom. The nation-states remain the strongest denominator of identity. If we look at surveys such as the World Values Survey, people around the world first identify as a citizen of a country instead of thinking of themselves as a citizen of the world. However, global citizenship as an overarching and fluid concept is not in contrast to the narrower ideas of national citizenship. It is not related to passports or a critique of patriotism. Instead, it suggests another layer of citizenship that transcends nationalism and points toward the shared destiny we face as humans in this world.

The challenge to conceptually differentiate global citizenship from national citizenships is that global citizenship now seems beyond the reach of large sections of society because the concept appears mentally incompatible with our national identity. If your national identity is at odds with your ideas of citizenship and its associated rights, then global citizenship will remain a mirage. Global citizenship, though, is not aiming to compete with national, regional, or ethnic identities. Within global citizenship, there is even ample room for patriotism, however, not as one nation before others, but as a sense of responsibility towards the world departing from one’s own feeling of belonging. Global citizenship acknowledges origins and belongings but argues for an overarching idea of shared responsibility towards each other, transcending national borders.

However, global citizenship does conflict with strong nationalism. The growing nationalism of stagnating industrial economies was built on the back of pro-globalization and pro- immigration policies. These upsides have already been socially and economically absorbed over two or three generations. Still, the current task of equitable sharing of resources and opportunities has become a polarizing social and political choice in all advanced nations. This is because it would require these societies to recalibrate, and there is a fear of losing their worth and sacrificing their quality of life by being accommodative for the sake of others. The strong nation-first rhetoric we hear is in contrast with multilateralism and global collaboration. Understandably, governments need to fulfill their citizens’ needs first, but when nationalism leads to isolationism and hostility, it conflicts with global partnerships for addressing shared problems.

To counter such sentiments, it seems advisable to value and promote traits such as empathy, respect for diversity and collaboration across boundaries. However, these aspects of global citizenship are not yet institutionalized as universal values across the world. It is not part of the lexicon of politicians, parents, teachers, and caregivers. There is a whole generation of young people who are not taught what it means to accept diversity of thought. Remedial influences for such an audience remain unproven because they display monolithic thinking, which is extremely difficult to change without strong stimuli. For global citizenship to become a universal concept, we would need to agree with such fundamental values to be taught to younger generations to internalize the spirit of open debate and accept differing world views.

Often those who travel extensively or have access to multiple cultures are considered to be global citizens. This is because it is somehow implied that people who have visited different regions of the world are more open-minded than others. However, this cosmopolitan view lacks nuance and depth. It is an elitist concept which does not withstand a closer test. If global citizenship is interpreted only as a cosmopolitan attitude, it will rule out most of the world’s population. It implies that those belonging to lower socio-economic backgrounds who lack travel opportunities can never become global citizens. Experiences in other cultures may help form one’s own identity in relation to others. Still, traits mentioned such as empathy, care for the world and valuing diversity are not dependent on socio-economic status. If global citizenship is to be a universal overarching concept, then it cannot be tied to monetary resources but needs to be based on the common ground of all people being citizens of one planet that we need to protect and care for, foremost through local tangible actions that positively influence global developments.

Besides, global citizenship must acknowledge the diversity of people regarding their upbringing, their cultural, ethnic, religious, regional, and national influences when forming their identities. A starting point to understand cross-cultural variations of values across the globe is the World Values Survey (WVS). This global research project aims to identify and group people in different countries on several cultural parameters and analyze societies based on the data. It specifically asks for opinions and influence of markers such as the impact of globalization, the role of religion, culture, family, and the attitudes toward ethnic minorities, foreigners, and environmental conservation. The survey results can add to the framework of global citizenship by showcasing on a more macro level the major differences in prominent attitudes throughout the world. The data is presented on a national level, though, and therefore can only serve as the first point of orientation as national societies themselves can be highly heterogeneous.

One interesting outcome of the survey is the Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map (see graph no. 1). It plots societies based on their position relative to secular-rational vs. traditional values on the vertical axis, and survival instincts vs. self-expressionist instincts on the horizontal axis. Traditional values here associate with a nationalistic outlook in which traditional institutions are sought to be preserved. Secular-rational values associate with an opposite trend, accepting new institutions into its fold and destigmatizing taboo topics. The survivalist societies tend to exhibit lower thresholds of trust and tolerance and yearn for economic security. Towards the right of the spectrum lie the societies emphasizing self-expression, marked by greater democratization and tolerance.

Graph 1: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map 2020. Source: The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map – World Values Survey 7 (2020) [Provisional version].

It is an insightful exercise to place yourself on the Inglehart-Welzel map because your ascribed values-based identity may significantly diverge from your national identity. Culture is essentially institutionalized knowledge living inside of people. We gain fluency and nuance in this knowledge by interacting with everyone around us. True global citizenship should allow us to hold multiple cultures and realities within us with some confidence in our ability to switch and navigate between them instead of assigning to one-dimensional identities.

With the world map divided into cartographic regions of modern nation-states, the puzzle to be solved by the advocates of global citizenship is the accommodation of diversity under an overarching framework of inclusion within a broader society, characterized by a feeling of belonging to the global community. Placing oneself on the world map gives one a sense of control and enables one to assess situations from a bird’s eye view of prevailing conditions. Hence, a person’s global identity in the world, while uncontested, forms an integral part of global citizenship and allows one to view things from varying distances in a changing milieu.

In conclusion, global citizenship is not the opposite of national citizenship. Quite the contrary: as a universal concept, it embraces the diversity in nation-influenced convictions as much as religious, secular, traditional or modern values. Its universality lies in mutual respect and the willingness and ability to collaborate across boundaries to solve the global problems we humans face. It has a firm grounding in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a framework of action in the SDGs. However, the concept goes beyond that. Its universality lies in a familiar feeling and ethic of care for the world and each other. It is not uniform in terms of culture, religions, thoughts, and actions but on a responsible way of life where we take care of others and the environment within our spheres of influence.

Citation: The Melton Foundation (2021).  The State of Global Citizenship  Whitepaper about an emerging concept. Willington: MF.
Licensed under Creative Commons

About Melton Foundation

A leading proponent of global citizenship practice worldwide, the Melton Foundation looks back at over 30 years of shaping young minds through experiential learning, skill development, and intercultural exposure.

Through our fellowship and collaborative programs, we promote and enable global citizenship as a way for individuals and organizations to work together across boundaries of place and identity to solve challenges in an interconnected world.

The Melton Foundation is also an active part of a larger community aiming to develop and promote the understanding of global citizenship as an overarching framework for thought and action. In this context, the Melton Foundation has developed this Whitepaper.

The content and deliberations have their main basis in a focused discussion on the concept of global citizenship at a practitioner roundtable initiated by the Melton Foundation and the global intelligence platform egomonk. The roundtable took place in Bangalore, India, in the aftermath of the Melton Foundation’s Global Citizenship Conference. The conversation was recorded, transcribed, and developed into this Whitepaper. No quotes are attributed to a specific person. The discussion’s essence has been integrated into a more comprehensive narrative about the concept of global citizenship and its applicability subsequently.

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