Education Diplomacy

Mar 17, 2015

by Kenneth Weisbrode

Our friends at the DiploFoundation blog have published an interesting thought-piece about education and the New Diplomacy:

‘New diplomacy’ has become somewhat of a buzzword. In its current form it mainly describes new actors becoming more visible in the diplomatic process. We have also seen new terms such as health diplomacy being used more frequently. Here, I am wondering about the potential of so-called education diplomacy.

DiploFoundation and the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) are working together to develop an online course which is scheduled to run this fall. Having been inivited to speak at ACEI’s Global Institute for Education Diplomacy (March 5-8, Washington, DC), I presented some thoughts on the nature of diplomacy and the emerging concept of education diplomacy. In the following, you can find my remarks at the panel. Further comments are more than welcome.

Someone once said that “[e]ducation is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I am sure most of you know which important global leader I’m quoting here. Let us take this as a first point of motivation when critically engaging Education Diplomacy.

The first and most obvious question to raise is: what is diplomacy? For a scholar of diplomacy, one well-learned and often rehearsed answer immediately springs to mind: diplomacy is the management of international relations by negotiation. It is undertaken by designated state officials who enjoy privileges and immunities when abroad.

While text book definitions such as this one are designed to make the world look simple, we all know that it is rarely that simple. But moreover, for practitioners and those interested in change, it is paramount to not only question the received wisdom, but to eventually move beyond it. The parameters of diplomacy are enshrined in international law, most importantly in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. However, first and foremost, diplomacy is a practice. And it is only through its practice that diplomacy comes about, is sustained – but also changed. This is an occasion to reflect on this practice and its changing nature.

Over the last two decades we could see many examples that can be taken as a challenge to the definition of diplomacy I just gave. We have seen the emergence of non-state actors on the diplomatic playing field and the rise of so-called soft issues – such as health, the environment, and education to name a few. Some have coined this ‘new diplomacy.’

One of the questions in this regard is to what extent non-state actors can influence global agendas, decisions, and implementation. This needs to be carefully analysed on a case-by-case basis. And I would like to raise a first point of caution here. While non-officials and non-state actors have become more prominent, more visible in the diplomatic process, we need to wonder to what extent they influence decisions. Non-state actors are often associated with technical and specialised expertise. They are seen as partners in setting the agenda and in implementing decisions. However, we need to wonder: to what extent can decisions be influenced by these ‘new diplomats.’ ‘New diplomacy’ can all too easily become a buzz word that hides that not much has changed, that the game in town is essentially still the same – a game dominated by officials representing powerful states. That is why we need to be careful not to mistake facades that are painted in friendlier colours with real change.

Keeping that in mind, there is a second highly important point of departure for those interested in education diplomacy. In addition to asking ‘what is diplomacy,’ we need to start by asking about our motivations and goals with regard to developing and using education diplomacy.

I would argue that education diplomacy has a very strong normative dimension that takes us quickly beyond national interests, narrowly conceived. We cannot escape this normative dimension when speaking about education diplomacy and frankly we should not try. To do so would hollow out the concept and practice before we have even begun to embrace it.

I am sure many of you will agree that education is the foundation, the foundation for many other positive achievements. Education is a fundamental human right. At the same time education is fundamental to human rights – their enjoyment, their defence, and calls for their actualization. Education is part of many development cooperation initiatives, yet it is also the foundation for development. I am sure this hardly needs to be emphasized before an audience like you. Rather, my point is that this normative dimension, and maybe the more institution-specific and even personal goals we have, cannot be written out of an understanding of education diplomacy. On the contrary, they need to be embraced. But let me also point out that what I have just said does not square well with the more traditional perspective on diplomacy I alluded to earlier.

So far, we have two ingredients: an understanding of diplomacy and an understanding of the normative dimension of education. Now, I would like to add a suggestion why bringing the two together matters. Hence, why education diplomacy matters.

From my perspective, it matters because decisions are taken at a global level that influence the work on the ground, that influence the possibilities within classrooms everyday. The Millennium Development Goals are one example familiar to many. The second Millennium Development Goal sets the ideal of universal primary education. This specific focus of MDG 2 on primary education has profound consequences. Many efforts, many successful efforts, have been made to increase enrollment rates and access to primary education – especially in the global South. However, critical voices argue that this came at a cost. The cost was that the focus shifted away from the quality of education to the quantitative measure of enrollment rates. Further, education after the primary level tended to be put on the back burner. This means that as we move from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals in the post-2015 development agenda, these problems need to be addressed. To me, it seems that education diplomacy will be crucial here.

This brings me to my last point. I would like to conclude by asking the most important question: what is education diplomacy?

Once we start looking, as I began to do more closely in October last year, we begin to see education and its relevance everywhere. If we are interested in developing the concept and practice of education diplomacy, this is a challenge.  Everywhere very quickly can mean nowhere. This is where I would like to add my second point of caution for today. When we speak of education diplomacy we need to use the term carefully and deliberately. It is clear that the term goes beyond traditional understandings of diplomacy. Yet, we need to take care in delineating it in some way.

One way to start is by listing practices we can consider education diplomacy.

Suggestions I came up with include:

  • activities of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF),
  • various world summits such as the World Summit for Children [and the World Conference on Education For All in 1990, the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, and the 2000 World Education Forum],
  • the negotiation and implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (especially goal two calling for universal primary education) and the work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (especially goal four),
  • negotiations within the World Trade Organization (WTO), in particular as they relate to education as part of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS),

I am sure, from your own experience, there is a plethora of examples to be added here. It will be great to debate these and enrich the list over the next days. However, looking out there in order to find examples of education diplomacy is one thing. As I said in the beginning, we need to keep in mind that we are talking about a practice. This means that our very own actions sustain it but can also change it. In a sense, we create education diplomacy through our very actions.