What does it mean to be a global citizen?

As technology advances and governance is increasingly conducted beyond the parameters of the nation-state, the concept of global citizenship remains mysteriously absent. What does the term mean in historical terms and what practices might help its evolution into a coherent and democratic political practice? 

A global citizen is someone who identifies with being part of an emerging world community and whose actions contribute to building this community’s values and practices. Such a definition of global citizenship is based on two assumptions which this article explores: (a) that there is such a thing as an emerging world community to which people can identify; and (b) that such a community has a nascent set of values and practices.

Historically human beings always have organized themselves into groups and communities based on shared identity. Such identity gets forged in response to a variety of human needs - economic, political, religious, and social. As group identities grow stronger, those who hold them organize into communities, articulate shared values, and build governance structures that reflect their beliefs.

Today the forces of global engagement are helping some people identify themselves as global citizens, meaning that they have a sense of belonging to a world community. This growing global identity in large part is made possible by the forces of modern information, communication, and transportation technologies.  In increasing ways these technologies are strengthening our ability to connect to the rest of the world: through the internet; through participation in the global economy; through the ways in which world-wide environmental factors play havoc with our lives; through the empathy we feel when we see pictures of humanitarian disasters, civil conflicts and wars in other countries; or through the ease with which we can travel and visit other parts of the world.

Those who see ourselves as global citizens are not abandoning other identities; such as allegiances to our countries, ethnicities, and political beliefs. These traditional identities give meaning to our lives and will continue to help shape who we are. However, as a result of living in a globalized world, we find we have an added layer of responsibility. We have concern and a share of responsibility for what is happening to the planet as a whole, and we are members of a world-wide community of people who share this concern.

The values being proposed for the world community are not esoteric and obscure. They are the values that world leaders have been advocating for the past 100 years. They include human rights, religious pluralism, gender equity, the rule of law, environmental protection, sustainable worldwide economic growth, poverty alleviation, prevention and cessation of conflicts between countries, elimination of weapons of mass destruction, humanitarian assistance, and preservation of cultural diversity.

Since World War II efforts have been undertaken to develop global policies and institutional structures that can support these enduring values. Such efforts have been made by international organizations, sovereign states, transnational corporations, NGOs, international professional associations and others. They have resulted in a growing body of international agreements, treaties, legal statutes, and technical standards.

Yet, despite such efforts, we have a long way to go before there is a global policy and institutional infrastructure that can support our emerging world community and the values it stands for. There are significant gaps of policy in many domains, large questions about how to get countries and organizations to comply with existing policy frameworks, and issues of accountability and transparency. Most importantly, from a global citizenship perspective, there is an absence of mechanisms that enable greater citizen participation in the growing number of institutions practicing global governance.

Governance at the global level, for the most part, is in the hands of the representatives of sovereign states and technocrats. Global governance organizational leaders are usually distant and removed from those that their institutions serve. Therefore most people feel disconnected and alienated from the global governance arena, making it difficult to build a sense of grass-roots community at the global level.

There is an urgent need for a cadre of citizen leaders who can play activist roles in forming world community. Such global citizenship activism can take many forms, including: advocating, at the local and global level, for policy and programmatic solutions that address global problems; participating in the decision-making processes of global governance organizations; adopting and promoting changes in behavior that help protect the earth’s environment; contributing to world-wide humanitarian relief efforts; and organizing events that celebrate the diversity in world music and art, culture and spiritual traditions.

Instinctively, most of us feel a connection to others around the world facing similar challenges to ourselves, yet we lack adequate tools, resources, and support to act on this emotion. Our ways of thinking and being are still colored by the trapping of old allegiances and ways of seeing things that no longer are as valid as they used to be. Nonetheless, there is a longing to pull back the veil that keeps us from more clearly seeing the world as a whole, and finding more sustainable ways of connecting with those who share our common humanity.

The Global Citizens’ Initiative seeks to bring together people and organizations to promote the practice of global citizenship and the building of world community. For more information visit: www.theglobalcitizensinitiative.org

This article is part of the series, Re-birth of the nation? Challenging 'global citizens'

About the author

Ron Israel is co-founder and a Board member of The Global Citizens' Initiative (TGCI), a member based organization that seeks to strengthen the practice of global citizenship.