For decades, governments in the global South, including in sub-Saharan Africa, have been officially adopting international development goals and, therefore, education goals. From 1990 to 2015, along with the Millennium Development Goals, the well-known Education for All agenda focused on the mass enrollment of students at the primary level. Although there has been clear progress in the number of students enrolled in schools worldwide, the fact that too many children and young people are out of school and lack basic literacy skills has prompted the international community to continue its efforts.
Thus, the international agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was adopted in 2015. Unlike previous agendas, the SDGs are universal in that they also concern the countries of the global North. Another particularity is that these goals are much broader, emphasizing both access and quality at levels of education other than merely primary. In this article, based on research conducted over the past two years, we question the relevance of this international agenda considering African national realities, using the specific example of global citizenship education (GCE).
This concept is explicitly reflected in the SDG 4.7: “Ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development” . UNESCO, the institution that has propelled this concept onto the international stage, outlines the concept: GCE aims to “instill in learners the values, attitudes and behaviors that support responsible global citizenship: creativity, innovation, and commitment to peace, human rights and sustainable development” .
First challenge: before addressing the global nature of citizenship, should national citizenship not be stabilized on the African continent? Indeed, this citizenship, with its colonial legacy (in terms of the arbitrary distribution of national territories), has been increasingly contested since the end of the Cold War; and has been a source of violent political and democratic struggles throughout the continent. More recently, in Mali, for example, the fragility of the state and the ethnic tensions fueled by jihadists have led to violent attacks on Dogon, Fulani, and other villages.
Second challenge: citizenship education, whether national or global, must be able to bring about changes in the students, who will be the citizens of tomorrow. This requires a certain quality of teaching and learning. However, due to large class sizes and teaching practices that emphasize recitation and memorization, it is difficult to actively engage students in complex tasks. Moreover, many people interviewed in the field, including at UNESCO, recognize that among all the SDGs’ education-related targets, Goal 4.7 is not necessarily a priority for Africa: there are higher priorities like teaching and learning issues. This also raises questions about the choices made in terms of the language of instruction. In many African countries, the language of the former colonial power is still the one taught in school. However, without mentioning the socio-cultural dimension that is flouted, here, it has been widely demonstrated that students tend not to master this language. This underlines the importance of teaching in the mother tongue, at least partially, to effectively implement education for active citizenship and to train students capable of reflecting on what it means to be a citizen in their own contexts.
Third challenge: behind the concept of global citizenship lies the idea of the place and role of citizens in an increasingly globalized world. We believe that the concept of global citizenship makes sense in Africa, given the challenges that this continent faces: population growth, urbanization, the climate crisis, and socioeconomic inequalities. However, we know that in the context of globalization, there are winning and losing countries—and that the balance is tilted against Africa, which generally does not fully benefit from the supposed advantages of the new global economy. So, can there really be a sense of belonging to a global community that leaves many by the wayside? Even in Northern countries, GCE is viewed within a minimalist framework that considers global citizenship, at best, a Band-Aid solution to the social and ecological challenges of globalization (e.g., via learning to sort one’s waste, exchanging letters with students in distant countries, etc.), but certainly not one that enables deep societal changes.
Fourth challenge: the ‘global’ nature of GCE implies not being locked into merely local issues, but also being open to the rest of the world. However, we note a gap between what the curriculum suggests in terms of student decentration and classroom practices. Our research in Senegal shows that most teachers mainly cover issues related to that country because they are not sufficiently trained or informed about foreign issues—including what is happening in neighboring countries. This would require the availability and mastery of digital tools to research issues with a global scope—in particular, the Internet or social networks—as well as the ability to operationalize them at the local community level. This is far from being the case at present.
Beyond these challenges, it is important to note that the concept of GCE has not remained solely at the international level. It has already been integrated into numerous reports and declarations at the national and regional levels in Africa. Indeed, it appears that the discourse around GCE has been systematically taken up in the key texts of national education policies since 2015. Could one say blindly? A detailed examination of these policies shows there is no explicitation of the concept or precision as to how it is perceived in specific national contexts. At the regional level, the concept of GCE is found in the Kigali Declaration of the Ministerial Conference on Post-2015 Education for Sub-Saharan Africa. Also, a recent UNESCO report, Global Citizenship Education: Taking it Local, demonstrates that there are national/local/traditional concepts that aim to promote ideas reflecting those at the heart of GCE. This is the case, for example, with the Charter of Manden in Mali .
 UNESCO, Republic of Korea, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women et al. (2015). Education 2030: Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4