Global Learning for Obama – an open letter to the American president

Maybe you saw the victory speech of Barack Obama after winning the US elections. He proved again to be a charismatic and inspiring speaker, but he seemed a little, hm, obsessed, by “the greatest country in the world” – America of course. Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti, professor of global education in Oulu, Finland, wrote an open letter to Mr. President to point to the missing global dimension in the speech. This is Vanessa’s second guest post on this blog (after the HEADS UP checklist). Thanks Vanessa, and tell us if you receive an answer!

Dear Mr Obama, 44th President of the United States,

I would like to congratulate you on your election tonight. For the past few months I have acted and watched friends and family from (literally) all over the world and across generations campaign for you, grounded on a sharp recognition of our global interdependence. However, it was this recognition that I believe was lacking in your first speech as re-elected president tonight. I acknowledge the pressures you were under to focus on ‘the American people’, who you called ‘ your own’ and ‘your family’, after all, you are ‘their’ president. However, other people who have campaigned for you may have done so because they realize that for ‘our family’, which is much larger than America, dismemberments and forced artificial separations (be it in nationality, citizenship, religion, gender, race, sexuality, identity or ideology) have caused enough damage and trauma already. Therefore, in my professional capacity as an educator and in what you may call ‘wishful idealism’ or ‘blind optimism’, I urge you to do something I know is impossible in your polarized political climate: to change your speech a little to make it a bit more globally sensitive.

First, I noticed you nobly emphasized the need to reach out (to the opposition in this case), I urge you to direct your reaching out to the global sphere by prioritizing the poor and the vulnerable not only at home, but everywhere USA leadership has (historically and continuously) contributed to the impoverishment and oppression of ordinary people – let this be driven by an idea of  justice based on complicity in harm, not on ethnocentric and depoliticized charity.

Second, please do not offend our intelligence with the slogan that ‘America is the greatest (and richest) country in the world’ as this can be interpreted as patronizing, arrogant and out of line, given USA’s world impact and record, and the shadow of local and global violence in the source of its wealth: I noticed that Native Americans were not meaningfully mentioned in your speech, please acknowledge the enormous sacrifices and wounds of indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere – again, offer them justice, on their terms, not only ‘inclusion’, listen and let them teach you.

Third, please introduce the notion of ‘radical hope’ by daring to speak of the possibility and necessity of a much more ethical economy that does not rely on fossil fuels (national or foreign), rampant consumerism (and unrestrained waste production), profitable militarism, (subsidized) competition, the commodification of life, the financialization of the globe, the relentless destruction of the environment, the exploitative division of labor at home and abroad, siege consciousness, or the elimination of dissent.

Last, please choose a song for your next speech that does not invite parochialisms and dangerous forms of patriotism, but that fuels our internal drive to build bridges of solidarity, to reach out to others beyond geo-political borders, to expect and act towards bright prospects for ALL children (and elderly people, and adults) EVERYWHERE (regardless of place of birth, faith, biological differences, inherited circumstances or life choices), a song that may remind us of the power and indispensability of plurality as an integral part of collective futures we share – together in one finite and fragile planet.

I, and the millions of people who were not born and who do not live (or aspire to live) in America, who have supported you in this campaign, understand that you are only human and that there is only so much you can do within the difficult constraints of your political and existencial context. So we wish you well and expect you to take the privilege and responsibility of your mandate with the recognition that, at this point of our inter-connected present, you are not just accountable to your country, as, with you, we ‘rise and fall together’ – all of us, not just America.

All the best, Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti, professor of global education

Overcoming Empowerment

Let’s hope, once empowered, the events will get out of poverty.

Empowerment is one of the buzzwords in the development discourse. From World Bank to NGOs, one would hardly find someone who is against the promise to empower the poor to develop themselves. Even more, empowerment as a catch-all term has even left the realm of poverty in order to empower anyone and everything: a DEEEP roundtable at the Rio+20 people’s summit promised to “empower future”, a meeting place in Brussels proposes to “empower events”.

Empowerment implies that someone receives power from someone else – it is not the result of an autonomous struggle against oppression or exploitation, or the negotiation of resources and power between equal parties. It is based on the merciful permission to exercise power to a certain degree, and not on an active conquest of power, which necessarily challenges the power of someone else.

It is no coincidence that Paulo Freire didn’t use this term and rather used the word emancipation for the role of education in relation to power:

“Problem-posing education, as a humanist and liberating praxis, posits as fundamental that the people subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation. To that end, it enables teachers and students to become Subjects of the educational process [..]. The world [..] becomes the object of that transforming action by men and women which results in their humanization. Problem-posing education does not and cannot serve the interests of the oppressor. [..] [O]nly a revolutionary society can carry out this education in systematic terms” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Moving from charity to justice in development should imply that we stop talking about empowerment and move to alternative terms, such as emancipation, which point to the quest and struggle for power rather than proposing a harmless, well-meaning and meaningless empowerment of everyone and everything.

(This text is a modified extract of a recent essay “The question of Power in educational Partnerships“, for which I owe some inspiration to the blog post „Time to move beyond Participation and Ownership?“ and personal exchange with its author.)

The question of Power in educational Partnerships

Everyone thinks linking schools in “North” and “South” is a great think to do: It opens minds, supports intercultural learning, and with a little fundraising, we can even help those poor guys far away to set up the so desperately needed library/lavatory/computer room… But what if such educational partnerships actually contribute to perpetuate stereotypes and neo-colonial relations? Research shows that schools links can have – and often have – no or even negative learning outcome. In order to set up school links which contribute to create a more just and sustainable world (the thing education is about, after all, isn’t it?), the question of power seems to be the crucial one.

In another essay for my MA Development Education, I try to examine the question of power in school partnerships. This includes a critique of a certain vocabulary we are so used to use, i.a. “North-South” and “empowerment”. I also try to set up a typology of partnerships based on charity, participation or emancipation.

The essay concludes:

Addressing power in school links is not an easy task: The complex and irritating questions challenge the comfort zone of well-meaning philanthropy, which often is the starting point of a linking initiative. The challenge is to channel the energy of an approach driven by exotism and charity carefully into a meaningful, equal dialog between the partners, not without omitting the ultimate aim of any critical global citizenship education: To question viewpoints in order to come to a more informed, responsible, ethical and political transformative action. This emancipation of students and teachers through joint and dialogical learning is highly subversive, and thus difficult to embed and justify in an institutional programme and a learning context, which mainly aims to enhance skills and competences of learners to survive in an even competitive economic environment. However, without challenging this very environment we are living in, global learning is meaningless. The question of power is the central question, not only for school links and other educational partnerships, but for any relevant political reflection and action.

You can download the full text here: From Charity to Emancipation – The question of power in international educational partnerships

Feedback and comments are welcome, as always!

Seeding without gardening in Norway

Norway“North-South Educational Partnerships” is the third and last module of my Development Education Master at the Institute of Education in London. I am very sceptical towards “North” and “South” as categories, which reinforce a two-world dichotomy and omit complexity and differences within “North” and “South”, instead of striving for a one-world vision (Helen Young wrote a very good essay on this for the development education review Policy & Practice: “Naming the World: Coming to terms with Complexity“). Nevertheless – or for this very reason – the module led to interesting discussions about power, culture and learning in international educational partnerships. As one assignment, I tried to analyse a Norwegian school linking programme through a reflection on how they treat questions of power and discourse, similarities and differences and joint learning. The conclusion is that the programme contains interesting elements such as a ban of aid and charity, but does not sufficiently systematise follow-up and learning:

Power and domination cannot be deconstructed by simply banning charity. A systematic and proactive approach to these questions would require facilitation and training for the participants in Norway and partner countries, but this is not part of the programme. [..] By limiting the approach to funding mutual visits of a very small and limited number of school members, without embedding these in a boarder and long-term school partnership development, the programme seeds possibilities for something bigger and possibly more meaningful than a two weeks trip South or North, but what emerges from these seed remains random and largely unknown to the institutional agency.

You can download the full essay here: Seeding without gardening – A critical reflection on a Norwegian School exchange programme

HEADS UP or thumbs down? A postcolonial analysis of the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development

Is it possible to analyse a complex and multi layered initiative as the UN decade on education for sustainable development through Vanessa Andreotti’s postcolonial inspired HEADS UP checklist, which was featured earlier in this blog?

Such undertaking has certainly strong limitations, as the respective hermeneutics of the two approaches – a longterm, multilaterally negotiated UN process, and a short and experimental checklist aiming to stimulate doubt and questioning – are pretty much incompatible. Nevertheless, despite obvious shortcomings, the exercise proved to produce some interesting findings:

“The questions of the HEADS UP checklist provide evidence that there is a general lack of systems thinking in the texts on the decade, omitting, in a almost systematic way, questions of power, ideology and history (colonialism). These are, however, key elements for understanding and eventually achieving sustainable development. It is questionable how the DESD should achieve its objectives and make a meaningful contribution towards a more just and sustainable world without addressing these questions in an open and ambitious way. One could even argue that the absence of these questions reinforces the current unsustainable system, and the evidence that today, in year eight of the decade, the world hasn’t really become more sustainable, might support such an argument. [..] It seems that the decade has provided a powerful framework for a broad range of states and actors to advance the ESD agenda, to put questions of education on the national negotiation tables and to mobilise resources around the topic. However, considering the dramatic situation of the world and the lack of progress in challenging the current, deeply unsustainable system, we have to ask if this is enough, and if the DESD wouldn’t channel energies of well-meaning actors to address questions of sustainability and justice into an institutional setting were they don’t question the system as such.”

You can download the full essay, submitted as assignment in the “Development Education in the Era of Globalisation” module of the Development Education Master at the Institute of Education in London:

HEADS UP or thumbs down.pdf

Your critical comments are welcome, as always!