A Message from UN Academic Impact: “Why We Care”

(Reposted from: UN Academic Impact.  July 16, 2020)

Until a few years ago, July was one of the quieter months at United Nations Headquarters, few meetings peopling the calendar of conferences. That changed in 2013 with the first annual meeting of the “High Level Political Forum” whose 2020 session ended Thursday. The “HLPF” is a remarkable innovation, doing something relatively unthinkable at the time its predecessor, the Commission on Sustainable Development, was established, that of being a forum where governments voluntarily presented a review of their national progress towards the sustainable development goals, sharing successes and concerns with each other. 51 countries did so this year, one of them, Benin, for the third time.

The HLPF came into being after the 2012 “Rio+20” sustainable development conference. The idea of voluntary international accountability for national actions had found reflection in human rights and disarmament treaties, committing those who chose to join, in 2000 it extended to what the Charter called “larger freedom” through the Millennium Development Goals accepted by the entire UN membership as a compact between governments and their citizens as much as between governments themselves.

Revolutionary though the “MDGs” were, and they were revolutionary indeed, there remained areas which were firmly outside its ken. Notable were absence of reference to resolving conflicts, ensuring human rights or, indeed, any aspiration to acquiring education beyond the primary school level. When the United Nations Academic Impact came into being ten years after the MDGs were fashioned, we had the advantage of having sensed the perception of elements that needed to be included, through continuing energetic debates the world over. Our own principles, designed in 2010, took advantage of this advantage.

We spoke of higher education as a means to peace and conflict resolution, to ensuring human rights, to sustainability as a whole (and not just environmental sustainability to which the MDGs limited themselves) and, deliberately, to all levels of education including, of course, higher —this specifically for “every interested individual” so that it did not simply seem platitude or appear to diminish other perfectly valid and socially important avenues of learning and accomplishment.

Within months of our launch, the “Rio+20” process began, and with it the elaboration and summing of what were to be the Sustainable Development Goals. The co-chair of those negotiations, Permanent Representative Kim Sook of the Republic of Korea, was ably supported by his deputy, Ambassador Hahn Choong-hee, who saw in our principles possibilities in that “summing” and their echo in the SDGs as they came to be defined. He convened a “group of friends” of UNAI, bringing together delegations to discuss and be briefed on the Academic Impact, and extend political energy to its reflection in that eventual definition. At least six of our ten principles which were not articulated in the MDGs found phrasing in the SDGs.

Would an organization of sovereign states accept the idea of “global citizenship” and even if it were to, would it want it to be a practically realizable objective through education, rather than be left as a pleasant but airy ideal?

Notable among these was a relatively new concept at the United Nations, the UNAI “commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education.” It was in a traditional sense doubly imperiled; would an organization of sovereign states accept the idea of “global citizenship” and even if it were to, would it want it to be a practically realizable objective through education, rather than be left as a pleasant but airy ideal? Ambassador Hahn was convinced it was a concept that needed endorsement and muscle and he worked to build consensus around what is now known as SDG 4.7, on “education for sustainable development and global citizenship.”

Its elaboration expanded upon two UNAI principles, education for global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity, the latter described by us as “a commitment to promoting intercultural dialogue and understanding, and the ‘unlearning of intolerance,’ through education.” To see these, in particular, go beyond a charter for higher education to an impulse for nations, their governments and their peoples, has been ennobling. Common to both is, I sense, the realization that it is only the reaching (and teaching) across borders, whether of geography or academic discipline, that can unleash solutions and possibilities our times desperately demand.

A global statesman whose birthday is commemorated by the United Nations as “Nelson Mandela Day” this Saturday put it so effectively when he spoke of how essential it was not to “deny students the creativity that in turn denies the world the boldness of their ideas.” That was, in many senses, our core premise and we are grateful for its adoption and adaptation beyond.

Ramu Damodaran
Chief, United Nations Academic Impact

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