Skip to main content

Citizens of a better world

The challenge is to help young people face up to global problems and break down the barriers, says Sir Nicholas Young

FOR me, the concept of global citizenship is hugely important - and very moving. Moving because it implies a sense of responsibility, not only for our own countries and peoples, but for all countries and peoples.

It is a move away from the idea that it is my country that matters, and a move towards the idea that it is our world that is important. Our world, and how we are going to live in it. For hundreds of years, the concept of "abroad" was built on the idea that it was a place where you went and did things to other people, or from whence people came and did things to you.

Colonies, wars, trade, even sport (perhaps especially sport): it was all about going "over there" and doing things (often rather nasty things) to a vaguely defined enemy - or having those things done to you.

The concept of global citizenship implies that we should move away from the rather juvenile idea of "my country right, your country wrong" and start trying to see things through the other end of the telescope - perhaps even through a different telescope altogether, a telescope that is about shared responsibility, common goals, the sum of the parts being greater than the whole, real understanding of other people and their needs (rather than their weaknesses).

The sad fact, though, is that, as fast as this glamorous idea of "global citizenship" has grown and become fashionable, so our world seems to be descending into an ever more challenging time when it is the differences between peoples and countries that seem more marked. The conflicts in former Yugoslavia, in the Middle East, in Iraq, in many parts of Africa show few signs that global citizenship is a concept that means very much to the people involved.

The widening gap between rich and poor, between those with easy access to food or water and those without, between those infected by HIV and those not - these also are gaps that suggest that the phrase "global citizenship" is not a cosy comfortable pat on the back for those few of us who have benefited from the age of the internet and mobile phone, but rather a very significant, look-you-in-the-eye challenge.

Well, are we really global citizens, or not? Do we really understand what that means? And are we prepared to act accordingly? Are we prepared to act at all?

The new Red Cross teaching resource, "What's going on in my world?", which we have just launched in Scotland, is an attempt to help teachers develop in the young people they are working with the ability to analyse world events, to see them as scenarios in which different perspectives are possible, to understand the complicated humanitarian impact of a conflict which, on our television screens at least, often looks like some kind of grand board game with fireworks - all clean and clinical and "black and white" and easy to understand.

We want to help pupils cut through the bombast, the bigotry, the bias, the bemusement we see every day on our screens and in our newspapers - and to help them get through to an understanding of what it's like for people on the ground; of how apparently innocent bystanders can become victims or perpetrators; of how perpetrators can also be victims and vice versa; of what it is that drives people like you and me to resort to violence against another community, or to travel halfway across the world to seek asylum in another country.

his programme started in Northern Ireland in 1999 following the Good Friday Agreement. Working with the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva), we decided to set up a programme designed to help develop a generation of young people capable of and willing to promote and defend the protection of human life and dignity - particularly when violence and conflict arise.

Following a lengthy period of consultation and discussion with teachers and students, teaching materials were prepared and widely piloted to more than 70 schools. The materials were designed to prompt group discussion (led where appropriate with dramatic reconstruction) on a wide variety of topics from armed conflict to personal responsibility, and with a wide variety of prompt material or scenes including portrayals of long-term isolation of detainees, gang rape and the use of child soldiers.

This is "tough stuff". These are situations the Red Cross deals with every day in every part of the world. We wanted to reflect the challenge we see in the phrase "global citizenship" and to ensure that young people here in Scotland recognise it for the challenge it is - not a trendy banner waving in the summer breeze at a pop concert, nor a cloak to be grabbed by politicians to cover up their multitudinous sins, nor the gimmick of a Big Brother swap between houses in England and Africa designed to show how small our world is.

This is about helping our young people see the world as it really is.

Helping them see that they have a responsibility for understanding it and helping others to do so in their turn. Helping them see that they have a real role to play in shaping it, perhaps better than we have done. Helping them make it a place where we understand the impact of what we do, and in which the phrase "I am a citizen of the world" is a proud and meaningful badge, not an empty and meaningless boast.

Sir Nicholas Young is chief executive officer of the British Red Cross.

This is an extract from his speech at the "Active Citizenship" conference held recently in Glasgow.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you