Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Citizenship as Identity: Viable Alternative to Development, or Reproduction of Western Hegemony?

In the late 20th century, the prevailing development theory came under attack from a new approach named postdevelopment, inspired by the critical school of thought. Also, in the last couple of years, we could observe a proliferation of development initiatives that make implicit or explicit reference to the concept of global citizenship. How does the introduction of this new concept into the development discourse and practice look like through the lenses of the postdevelopment theory? Does it provide the sought-for alternative to development? Or is it just another way to maintain the western hegemony? This essay tries to provide a short answer to these questions.

1. Introduction

In 2012, the UN Secretary-General launched the new five-year Global Education First Initiative as part of an effort to reach the Millennium Development Goals. Also, 2015 has been labeled the European Year of Development, which is aimed at raising awareness of the public on development issues. Moreover, Slovak official development aid (SlovakAid) published a new National Strategy for Global Education for 2012–2016. These are just a few examples of implementation of the concept of global education into the development practise on different levels.

What these global education initiatives have in common, is that they all make implicit or explicit reference to global citizenship as an identity. Implementation of the concept of global citizenship within the framework of the development project is what this paper will be examining.

The concept of global citizenship can readily be labeled ancient, having been around since the antiquity. The Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope is often credited with being the first “citizen of the world” (Diogenes, 1925: 26), as he himself had put it. Since then, the concept hasn’t undergone significant changes, except for acquiring its modern expression: global citizenship. Global citizenship is one of the key ideas of liberalism in social and international relations and law theory1 . It is one of the prerequisites of Kant´s Eternal Peace (Kant 1975), and it has since been developed in the works of cosmopolitanists, such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, or Richard Falk (Appiah 2006, Falk 2001).

The concept itself refers either to a type of global identity, or to an institutional arrangement within the framework of a global government, or both. In this work, I will only analyse the global citizenship as an identity that defines the relationship to others in a way contrasting with the common notions of family, national, or ethnic identity. The reason behind this move is that the idea of global citizenship, as it is being introduced within the aforementioned initiatives, is not linked to institutionali­sation of global citizenship, it only makes reference to global citizenship as identity. That makes the concept of global citizenship as identity more rooted in the realities of the international relations, than the concept of global citizenship as an institution.

My aim in this paper is to show the possibilities and the dangers of introduction of the concept of global citizenship in the development practice, from the standpoint of the postdevelopment. Consequently I will analyse the concept of the global citizenship first on the level of discourse and then on the level of practice.

In the first part, I will show how the emancipative aspect of the global citizenship discourse fits within the framework of the postdevelopment theory. I will then examine how the current efforts in fostering a new global identity within the global education project deliver on this theoretical promise. In the second part, I will present a case for wariness about the global citizenship, stemming from insights of the critical strain of the postdevelopment concerning social change, and the actual practice of implementation of the concept of global citizenship within the framework of the global education project.

2. Global Citizenship as a Discourse of Emancipation

A perceived ineffectiveness of the development project, in the last quarter of the 20th century resulted in the emergence of a new theoretical perspective. Since the late 1980s, scholars from the critical school of thought, started to challenge the prevailing development theory, seen by these scholars as “a ruin in the intellectual landscape” (Sachs, 1992, 1). The critique was inspired by the critical theory and poststructuralist works of the likes of Derrida and Foucault. This new line of thought became known as postdevelopment, and its basic thesis is that instead of bringing about the improvement of living standards around the world, the project of development reproduces the existing western-dominated power/knowledge structures. By imposing the knowledge structures of the development discourse on the whole world, the West has produced a reality, in which the dominance of the “developed” “first world” over the “underdeveloped” “third world” is reproduced within the apparatus of the development. An example of the way, in which this reality production actually effects the international politics is the reduction of the space of possible social and economical action of the “underdeveloped countries”. The outcome of this line of thought is that the development must be abandoned in favor of a more emancipative discourse, based on the local knowledge structures (Sidaway, 2007). It is this emancipation criterion that the discourse of the global citizenship will be measured against in this part.

How does the concept of global citizenship fit within the framework of postdevelopment theory based on the emancipation criterion? The concept refers to a type of identity that covers the entire human race, as opposed to identities defined negatively towards “the other”, such as national identity, or personal identity. The concept of global citizenship discards the idea of a human “other” and introduces an identity that is defined positively, thus creating individuals deeply invested in the world as a whole. Fostering of this global identity as a primary collective identity is seen by the proponents of the idea as a crucial step in solving some of the world´s problems, such as poverty and national conflict.

This basic picture of global citizenship as an identity fits the emancipation criterion of the postdevelopment theory very well. The main reason being the fact that the basic definition of the concept does away with the dual distinction between the “developed”, “first world” and the “underdeveloped”, “third world”. It is this distinction, with the assumptions and connotations connected to it, that are at the heart of the development discourse, and that the critique of the postdevelopment theory is aimed at. The discourse of the global citizenship on the other hand, is inherently emancipative in character. It emphasises the common features of all the citizens of the world, and puts the universal humanity into the centre as a unifying element. The basis for development action thus becomes not the fact of underdevelopment, and related moral obligation, but the concern for fellow citizens of the world. The liberal idea of common interest is a crucial element, that further affirms the global unity in opposition to the concept of difference of interests, that clearly suggest the existence of “the other”. This shift in the discourse emancipates the current “third world”, and widens the range of the economic and social action, that the governments can undertake in order to improve the living conditions of those in need.

Not only does the discourse of the global citizenship dispose of the dual distinctions that the development discourse reproduces, it also doesn´t make any new explicit distinctions, which is the usual effect of new discourses. The postdevelopment theory (drawing on the poststructuralism) claims, that the identity formation based on the negative demarcation of the foreign and strange “other” is at the heart of every discriminatory discourse and practise. This problem is solved by the global citizenship discourse that introduces an identity defined positively and globally2 . We can therefore affirm, that global citizenship as a theoretical concept can be definitely seen as a useful alternative to development from the standpoint of the postdevelopment theory, because of the inherently emancipative character of its discourse.

To complete the argument, we will take a short look at empirical evidence to show that the discourse of global citizenship is emancipative not just on the theoretical level, but also on the level of the actual implementation of the concept within the global education project. This empirical survey is admittedly limited but sufficient, since it only serves to ground the preceding analysis in the reality.

Promotion of the global citizenship is explicitly one of the three priorities of the UN Global Education First Initiative. What is more important, is that the new education for global citizenship is seen in terms of abandoning the current education, that “reinforces stereotypes and exacerbate social divisions“ in favour of education, that produces global citizens “deeply invested in the world” (GEFI 2015). Similarly, In the the European Year for Development, education of European citizens on the development activities of the EU is seen within the framework of replacing “the traditional donor-recipient relationship” with “the world of cooperation and mutual responsibility”(EYD 2015). What we can see in these examples is that the negative references to “donor-recipient relationship” and the “stereotypes” and “social divisions” fits perfectly within the framework of postdevelopment theory´s critique of dual identity distinctions. Moreover, the “deep investment in the world” and the “mutual responsibility” further fulfill the emancipation requirements of the postdevelopment theory.

Thus, we can conclude in this part, that the discourse of the global citizenship meets the emancipation criterion of the postdevelopment theory both on the theoretical level, and the level of the actual implementation within the global education project.

3. Global Citizenship as a Potential Danger

Unfortunately, there are dangers in implementation of any new concept in practice. In this part of the essay, I will show in what way does the practice of implementation of the concept of global citizenship within the global education project diverge from the theoretical expectations of the postdevelopment theory3. In assuming a critical standpoint, we must recall the lessons of Foucault, that even a positive introduction of a new discourse and practice is never absent of power relations, it simply introduces a new and often unexpected way in which the power relations are brought into play (Foucault 1982, 781). It is of course very hard to speculate as to what specific power relations the discourse of the global citizenship could bring about, but I will try to show, that there are reasons to be wary of the global citizenship discourse potentially reproducing the existing power structures, criticised by the postdevelopment. I will do this by pointing out an inherent conflict between the ideas of the critical thought represented by the postdevelopment and the concept of global citizenship. I will use insights from the critical theory on top-down social change, to show that the approach to implementation of the concept of global citizenship, adopted within the framework of global education project, is potentially dangerous.

A very important lesson of the critical theory concerning social change is that progress in emancipation is generally only made from the bottom-up. It means, that to bring about a change in the power relations, the change has to be initiated from those levels of society that seek emancipation. On the other hand, when the introduction of a new discourse or practice comes from the top, meaning from the levels of society, where the power is concentrated, it always reproduces the existing power structures and social order. And it makes sense, since the interest of those in power will always be to conserve the existing power relations, albeit sometimes within a new discourse and new practice.

This idea is very well represented in the critical thought, and the empirical evidence supporting it is pretty strong. If we look at the history of social change, the important progress nearly always seems to come from the bottom, be it the worker´s rights or women´s emanci­pation. On the other hand, when the change is introduced from the top, the usual process is a regression to the previous state of power relations. The most relevant example corroborating this claim is the attempt to foster a global identity among the workers of the world. The example is especially poignant, since it refers not only to any social change, but to one aimed at fostering a global identity. In order to achieve this goal, the idea was institutionalised within the framework the International Workingmens´ Association (the so-called Internationals). The international workers´ movement was a movement for the emancipation of the workers all over the world, based on leftist ideas. The association was established by the elites, and thus followed the top-down logic. Despite the emancipative character of the discourse, in its third incarnation (the Commintern) the movement degenerated into a structure that served the interests of its most powerful member, the Soviet Union that used it to organise the communist parties all over the world to further its interests. This example further illustrates dangers of a seemingly positive introduction of a new concept in the practice. Another example of this negative development in social change is the French revolution. Once the revolution was removed from the hands of the people, and the army (as an existing power structure) took the reins, the monarchy was re-established and the previous power relations reintroduced under Napoleon4. From this point of view, the postdevelopment thinkers are right to stress the importance of grass roots movements in bringing about the dismantling of development (Ziai 2007: 100), and the global citizenship would be better served, if it followed this bottom up logic5.

The obvious problem and danger, is that the global citizenship is being implemented from the top-down by a UN elite. In the eyes of the postdevelopment theory, there is no democratic basis, that would legitimize UN to implementation of new development discourse and practice. Moreover, from the standpoint of the critical strain of postdevelopment, the UN is part of the institutional and discoursive structure, which reproduces the western domination. Therefore, any new discourse and practice will ultimately do the same – reproduce the western dominance, albeit within a new discourse and practice, as the aforementioned example show. From this point of view, the concept of global citizenship could possibly meet the criteria of an ideology, to use the Marxist vocabulary.

4. Conclusion

This paper 1) analyses the concept of the global citizenship from the point of view of the postdevelopment theory as an offshoot of the critical school of thought and 2) examines how this relates to the current efforts in fostering a new global identity within the framework of the global education project. The conclusion of the paper is twofold. On the one hand, the concept of the global citizenship can be seen as an alternative to development, on the level of discourse. This is due to the emancipative character of the global citizenship discourse, which makes reference to a global identity defined in positive terms. We can see the reflection of this egalitarianism in the discourse of the new global education project that is currently gaining traction within the development apparatus.

On the other hand, the practice of fostering of a new global identity within the global education project exhibits clear top-down tendencies, which runs contrary to the theoretical commitments of critical character of the postdevelopment theory. The top-down approach adopted here presents a distinct danger, because it might lead to emergence of a new discourse and practice that inadvertently reproduces the same power structures, as the current development apparatus, thus making the alternative to development just another form of ideology. This claim is based on the theoretical basis of the critical thought and empirical evidence of social change.

The lesson that this analyses brings to the table is that while we can see the concept of global citizenship as a potential centerpiece in bringing about the dismantling of development in its current form, we must be very sensitive to the kind of discourse and practice it might bring about. The only way to not repeat the mistakes of the past is to subject all new discourses and practices to a constant critical examination.

Martin Karas je studentem magisterského stupně oboru Mezinárodní vztahy na Masarykově univerzitě v Brně


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[1] This only goes for a particular form of liberalism, which is a notoriously diverse theoretical viewpoint. Some forms of liberalism in international relations theory would discard the notion of global citizenship.

[2] There is an important question to be asked here, which is to what degree are humans able to identify with the whole world. The evoltionary theory of inclusive fitness suggests, that this ability is limited in important ways. This line of thought is firmly outside the theoretical framework of this essay though, and thus will make no part in it. For an account of kin selection, as an evolutionary account of social phenomena, see: Dawkins 1979, Hamilton 1987

[3] Postdevelopment is a broad theoretical perspective. This critique comes its critical roots in the works of Foucault and the critical theory in general. The deconstructionist strain of the postdevelopment theory would not be interested in this argument

[4] That is not to say, that the revolution brought nothing in terms of emancipation. Even under Napoleon, some progress was made, e.g., within the new Civil Code.

[5] Again, outside the scope of this article, an evolutionary account of identity formation would suggest, that it is unlikely for a global identity to spring up from the bottom up, since the family and national identities are the ones, that will be naturally aquired and difficult to replace. That means that to aquire a global identity it has to be imposed on people (socially constructed), which implies a top-down approach.

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Martin Karas
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8. 6. 2015