What Global Citizenship Is Not

In recent months, I have had dozens of conversations about global citizenship. It is a theme that permeates much of my work, values, and vision for the future. In these discussions, I have been surprised by the diversity of opinion about what global citizenship is, is not, and ought to be. This is an attempt to distill those distinctions and hopefully clarify some of the confusion.

I tend to be an optimist, so framing anything as what it’s “not” feels inherently uncomfortable. But the issue of global citizenship itself makes many people feel awkward, so perhaps there’s some resonance already.

My purpose here is neither to condemn nor to criticize. It is, however, very much to boost awareness, provide a frame of reference, and catalyze more conversations about the topic.

I have often found that it is equally if not more important to know what one does not want to [do, be, strive for, etc.] as what one does want. At a minimum it provides a kind of guardrail for making wise decisions and remembering what matters. This rule applies to individuals as well as organizations, families as well as governments and so on. For example, many cities do want economic growth but do not want inequality — this leads to very different policy outcomes and, ultimately, different levels (and even definitions) of success and well-being.

Within this context, let’s consider global citizenship. Previously I’ve shared some thoughts about what it is; those ideas represent but the tip of the iceberg. To help frame this space more comprehensively, what are some of the things that global citizenship is not? Here are four different takes.

(1) Traveling a lot or having a lot of passport stamps

International jet-setters do not automatically have global citizen status. Sadly, some of the best-traveled people I know reflect the antithesis of global citizenship. And air travel is our worst individual assault on a clean footprint, something I wrestle with often.

Travel is an activity; global citizenship is a set of shared values and an understanding of shared responsibility. Travel is a destination; global citizenship is not only the journey, but how it is undertaken (and I don’t mean whether you’re staying in a five-star hotel or an Airbnb homestay). Passport stamps are Instagram posts that elicit envy; global citizenship embodies actions that elicit compassion. Please do share images and stories that help others understand cultural diversity… not to inflate your ego.

(2) Being a “globalist” or a multi-national corporation (MNC)

One of the most common misconceptions I have encountered is that globalization and global citizenship are the same thing. Definitely not. Many MNCs are terrible global citizens, abusing workers, nature and local economies, often made easier by globalization treaties.

Globalization is about business interests: widgets sold in overseas markets, outsourced labor, corporate lobbying and an occasional trade deal. Sure, we’ve had some companies (such as Unilever, Nike and Danone) raise the bar for corporate hiring or partnership or sustainability metrics. And we have initiatives like the UN Global Compact which outlines principles for human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption, by which signatory corporations agree to abide.

These are steps in the right direction and to be applauded. But global citizenship goes far beyond this: it’s about instilling an ethos into a company that transcends quarterly earnings and places the planet’s well-being on a par with profits. To this end, I consider signatories of the UN Global Compact (as well as B Team members, B Corps and so on) to be on the right track, albeit with a longer journey ahead.

One corporate community for which global citizenship is particularly relevant — and yet remains largely missing — is tech startups. The notion that Silicon Valley can solve the world’s ills, when the majority of startup founders have never set foot in an urban slum in India, or spent time with a small-scale farmer in Africa, or shadowed a female sweatshop worker in Vietnam, is both astounding and depressing. I often wonder about how much better companies could be, how much greater the positive impact and how much more inclusive the model, if they had a first-hand immersion to the interdependencies that bind their supply chain (and so-called “value chain”) together.

(3) Speaking a lot of languages

Global citizens are able to translate conversations across sectors, cultures and perspectives. But they are not necessarily multi-lingual in the traditional sense of the word; they are far more complex, nuanced polyglots.

Global citizens are “global bridgers” and “boundary spanners,” as Ángel Cabrera described in his book Being Global: How to Think, Act and Lead in a Transformed World. According to Cabrera: “Global leaders act as citizens of the world, pursuing challenges and opportunities in a way that brings benefits to everyone involved… [they] are not defined just by their mindsets or by the entrepreneurial opportunities they seek out and create, but by how they contribute to improving the context in which they operate.”

This kind of being global requires a special set of skills, foresight and a keen sense of shared responsibility. It comes from noticing the impacts and implications of your actions on others, and factoring those into your decision-making process as if they were your own.

Illustration: Joaquin Gonzalez-Dorao.

As educators, philosophers, linguists and scientists have reminded us, there is a gulf between knowing the name of something and actually knowing something. Someone who can define global citizenship does not become a global citizen as a result. Rather, it takes deliberate care and focus to develop global citizenship, transcending geopolitical borders and cultural barriers in the process.

(4) A buzzword

As the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent, global citizenship’s importance grows. We owe it to ourselves and one another to take it seriously. I have been surprised — and candidly disappointed — by people who toss the term around carelessly, or equate it with Instagram passport posts and “going glocal.”

While in some ways global citizenship is an emergent concept, in other ways it is as established as human rights. (The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is both a wonderful read and intimately connected to global citizenship values.) Regardless, it is a phrase that carries real weight and significance.

We are entering an era in which “layered identity” is not only possible, but increasingly taking root. Individuals can be connected city-zens, national citizens, e-residents and global citizens simultaneously. These different layers serve different needs and ends; they are complementary, not exclusive. Not surprisingly, they also prompt a range of questions and tensions about corresponding rights and responsibilities, as well as new channels for agency, community-building, innovation and impact.

Today offers a huge opportunity to bring global citizenship more authentically into neighborhoods, classrooms and companies of all sizes. We are a long way from that reality today, but the time has never been more ripe — or more urgent — to reshape our mindsets and our actions to reflect the kinds of global footprints that are worthy of the world.