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Voices of Future Leaders: 'Young people are tired of talk. We believe at the core of global citizenship is action.'

©UNESCO/ Husna Binti Zainal Abidi

UNESCO Forum on Global Citizenship Education – “Preparing learners for the challenges of the 21st Century”, 2-4 December 2013

BANGKOK, 4 December 2013 – Young people, it turns out, are a lot more fun. No huge surprise, you might think, but consider how many discussions about our way forward in the future that don't include the actual young people who will be charting the course.

The three-day UNESCO Forum on Global Citizenship Education, held 2-4 December at Marriott Bangkok Sukhumvit Hotel, has included young people and their perspectives every step of the way. A panel of more than 20 young activists from all over the world, every continent barring Antarctica, participated in each event.

Two youth leaders – Chernor Bah, 28, the Chair of the Youth Advocacy Group for the Global Education First Initiative, and Deepika Joon, 30, National Program Director at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development – also mediated youth-orientated seminars, brainstorming about tangible projects that could make a difference on the ground.

That emphasis on the concrete, on real solutions that could be implemented, was quite deliberate. "Young people are tired of talk," Mr Bah said. "We believe at the core of global citizenship is action."  

Again, not surprisingly, these seminars had an entirely different feel than that of a dry academic environment. Speaking to the youth panel as well as others attending the seminars, Mr Bah and Ms Joon began with a funny little name game to warm things up. From there, they broke the participants into four groups, and after every question everyone played musical chairs so each person visited each table, creating a dynamic, immersive interaction.

The Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, a partnership of UNESCO and the Indian government founded in November 2012, took a particular interest in encouraging youth participation in the forum. Kabir Shaikh, the institute's Interim Director, explained this rationale to the panel the night before the forum began: "Sustainability directly affects you, the youth. What we have now will not be there in 10 years time, 20 years time, 30 years time."

Mr Shaikh emphasized that this was true not only in obvious areas, such as environmental degradation and scarcity of resources, but also in the structure of society and the skill sets necessary in the future. While the participants were irrepressibly upbeat – the epitome of youthful optimism – there was an underlying awareness that this globalized citizenship education project was not optional. The status quo approach will not work in the future.

There was also a more edgy feel to some of the discussions. Participants were civil, certainly, but also willing to contradict each other when they felt it necessary and ask some of the harder questions. When queried about the success of GCE programs, one participant responded with a blunt question of his own: "Is UNESCO failing?" Another raised questions about the relevance of the discussions to people across the world in disadvantaged circumstances, using the example of a poor farmer in his native Zimbabwe: "If he is hungry, what does he care about education?"

The participants' responses to these questions were nuanced – UNESCO's role isn't to fix every problem unilaterally, but rather to identify and publicize the issues, and then harness partnerships and mobilize lend support and expertise to support people on the ground. The enthusiasm of panel members was itself proof that the forum was having a transformative effect.

The brainstorming sessions, and the subsequent presentation before the entire conference, resulted in a detailed set of definitions and recommendations (a summary will be available on the UNESCO website). They included different conceptions of global citizenship and global citizenship education, how youth could become more involved, existing programs that exemplify that involvement, and new ideas to broaden youth participation and influence. 

In that last category in particular, these young people were ready with answers. One plan was to set up social networks, online and otherwise, to strengthen cooperation and collective action. Another was to establish cohesive pressure groups to be brought to bear on government, particularly in cases where laws were made but never enforced.

This is all very familiar territory to Myra Faye F Fonte, 23, a member of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Foundation – Young Voices in the Philippines. She works to empower young people and let them know about their rights. The Philippines is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but implementation has been slow. "As a young person with the privilege to engage youth groups, I can make a difference for the entire community," Ms Fonte said.

This UNESCO forum has given these young people a voice just as powerful as that of leading academics, analysts and NGO workers. Crucially, it has also brought them together to unite their voices together. "We want people like you and many others to run away with it," Mr Shaikh told the panel. "When you start working with young people it's no good telling them what to do. They have to give you their perspective."

It was clear that these activists – representing 1.8 billion young people worldwide, in the words of one participant – were ready to take up that challenge. "You don't need to empower us, we already have power," said Luiz Carlos Guedes, 21, founder of the NGO Lute Sem Fronteiras (Fighting without frontiers), which seeks to empower poor communities in the Brazilian Amazon. "What we need from you is not only space but also trust."

The Event: UNESCO Forum on Global Citizenship Education

When: 2-4 December, 2013

Where: Bangkok Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit, 2 Sukhumvit Soi 57, Klongtan Nua, Wattana

Outcome Document of the Technical Consultation on Global Citizenship Education:

For further information and press queries, please contact:
Ms Akane Nozaki, Public Information Officer, UNESCO Bangkok (email:

For immediate release