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Citizenship: what does it entail and can it be global? With Mark Allinson

What is 'global citizenship'? In this video, Mark Allinson tries to answer this question, and talks about global goals and challenges faced by us all.
The question of citizenship is one that goes to the heart of this course, and to defining our communities and each of us as individuals. The notion of citizenship dates back to Ancient Rome and Greece; its central characteristics are personal freedom, individual rights and a responsibility towards the wider community. While subjects are bound to the whim of their ruler, citizens share in determining the nature of their society and its laws. I’m at City Hall in Bristol, which is the home of the representative local government, but has also been the site of political and social protest and demonstration.
Active citizenship holds governments to account and drives forward a democracy, either through the debate before regular elections, or in the emergence of citizens’ movements demanding broader change. These movements might arise with agendas for local improvements or services, greater regional autonomy, even independence, and sometimes to pursue much broader issues, like environmentalism, or to protest against human rights abuses at home and abroad. And this is perhaps the crux of the matter. Citizenship has often been associated with membership of a particular political state, because that’s where an individual enjoys personal rights and participates in elections.
Yet, the last 200 years have seen the world become more dynamically interconnected - through travel, trade, telecommunications - and through wars and global challenges on a far wider scale than ever before. After the Second World War and its industrial genocide the United Nations was established in recognition of the need for cooperation to avoid such damaging conflicts. While the UN has not ended wars and genocides, one of its early steps was the creation of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration respects the existence of individual states and nations, but also speaks of the ‘inherent dignity’ and ‘of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ as ‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.
The creation of the Declaration is a key moment. It creates an expectation that all individuals’ rights will be respected, and places a duty on every individual to ‘strive to promote respect for these rights and freedoms’ and to ‘secure their universal and effective recognition and observance’. And it is perhaps this concept which takes the duties which come with citizenship beyond the local and the national, and which creates the basis for a global citizenship.
In this sense, a global citizenship is one in which we take responsibility for our own society, but also look across borders to take a wider responsibility for our world. Organisations like Oxfam and Amnesty International, which channel activity across state borders, are major proponents of global citizenship. Since the natural environment takes no account of state borders, the sense of global citizenship also drives forward the environmental movement via local initiatives as well as international agreements and summits on climate change. In September 2015 the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to underpin progress across the planet. The 193 leaders who signed it spoke of establishing a global partnership to end poverty and inequality, and to create a sustainable planet.
Since states are ultimately the sum of their parts, their people, this global partnership will depend on the activity and initiative of citizens in each state, that’s us, thinking and acting globally. It can be hard to know what to do about big, often abstract ideas like these. Being a global citizen certainly involves taking active steps to become informed about
other cultures, other situations, other people’s politics: and when better to do this than when at university? It may mean learning another language, travelling or working in other countries, engaging with other communities in your own home town or city, and being culturally open. And it might also mean taking active steps to provide practical help to people in difficulty elsewhere in the world. A number of voluntary organisations are particularly dedicated to this work; to give just two examples, Médecins sans Frontières and Engineers without Borders. And these aren’t just distant, anonymous groups. Here at the University of Bristol, and at many other universities, there are active student societies running such projects.
So, we asked the University of Bristol Engineers without Borders group about what they do and why they think it’s so important. My name is Natalie, I am a 4th year Mechanical Engineering student here at the University of Bristol and I’ve been involved with Engineers without Borders for the entirety of my university career. Engineers without Borders is a UK charity and our vision is a world where everybody everywhere has equal access to the benefits of engineering. So our mission is to inspire, enable and influence global responsibility through engineering. At Bristol University we run a series of events and talks, so we can inspire our students to get involved with our society and a bit more about what we do.
And we run lots of different projects here that students can get involved and really apply their engineering skills in a globally responsible way. My real passion is where people and engineering collide. I think it’s really interesting the way engineering solutions can be really so much more effective when you understand the needs of the communities and the people that it’s trying to help. Like many great port cities, Bristol has engaged greatly with the world over centuries, particularly in trade. Just behind me is a replica of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, which set sail across the Atlantic in 1497. But this history demonstrates that not all global engagement is positive.
The absence of an ethical basis in universal human rights in previous centuries meant that Bristol was one of the cities at the heart of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was globalism as exploitation, not as partnership, and led to the systematic destruction of lives and liberties. Ensuring an ethics of partnership greatly depends on education, and one of the practical steps taken after the Second World War in much of Europe was to develop town twinnings so that people from different countries would make real human contacts and appreciate the ties that bind us all.
Bristol was in the vanguard of this, establishing twinning relationships with Bordeaux and Hannover in 1947, and now has close links with seven towns, including Beira in Mozambique, Puerto Morazan in Nicaragua, and Guangzhou in China, as we can see from this sign located here at the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s official residence at the Mansion House. Twinning, or ‘sister cities’, is now a worldwide phenomenon and an opportunity for everyday people to make connections and make a difference with others around the world. The watchword ‘think global, act local’ is particularly apt to twinnings. In today’s world, a number of states appear to be closing in on themselves and putting national interests first.
Yet, the global challenges caused by climate change, war, forced migration and poverty remain and affect us all, directly and indirectly. No country can simply ignore them, which is why citizenship has to be increasingly global, as well as national and local. It may be, as Hannah Arendt suggested, that we can only care for ourselves and our own countries if we also care for the world as a whole.

At the start of this course, we are encouraging you to consider in what ways you feel yourself to be a ‘global citizen’. Before we go deeper into the many complex ideas around global citizenship today, it’s first important to reflect on what the idea of citizenship actually entails.

Here, Dr Mark Allinson introduces some of the big questions we will be considering throughout this course, and gives some examples of organisations or projects which work on an international level. These main examples, including the UN and the Sustainable Development Goals, international organisations such as Engineers Without Borders and Médecins Sans Frontières, or initiatives like city twinning, will be explored in more detail through this week’s activities.

But when we consider these examples, we are also considering these more fundamental questions:

  • What does it really mean to say that you are a ‘global citizen’?

  • What responsibilities does that come with?

  • Can global citizenship sit alongside national citizenship?

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