Constant and ever faster changes in international politics, not to mention the emergence of new actors and processes across the world, have rendered education a global concern. International conflicts such as the two World Wars encouraged the creation of formal organizations with the mandate to promote international cooperation over specific issue-areas. In this vein, education became an important topic to be dealt with, inside and between states, arguably as a byproduct of the efforts waged by the League of Nations technical personnel. Brilliant intellectuals of that time – Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and other somewhat liberal-minded fellows – have engaged in fruitful conversations about the role of education as an instrument to build peace, constituting one of the ways to mitigate destructive human tendencies.
In order to contain the seemingly unstoppable rise of exacerbated ideologies and put a halt on the occurrence of violent acts, which recurrently take place in the international scenario, educational and cultural policies started to be included in high-level debates of the early twentieth century, with a view at furthering to solidarity and peace. Against this backdrop, some initiatives conceived to bring about agreements on global education came into being. Although the negotiations on educational cooperation at the global level are reported to have been triggered in the beginnings of the twentieth century, the insertion of education as a central topic on the United Nations agenda was not a full-fledged reality until the end of San Francisco conference in 1945. Only in the end of 1945 would the United Nations for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO) be created under the claim that political and economic agreements alone were not enough for the world powers to reach a lasting peace. Besides promoting international cooperation, UNESCO emerged with the main goal to ban wars and tackle social inequalities.
Although officially entrusted with the task to promote education at large, UNESCO is not the one and only institution which operates within this all-encompassing international regime. Global education governance is comprised of a wider institutional network, in which several international institutions take a part, namely UNICEF, World Bank, UNDP, OECD, and numerous non-governmental organizations, a phenomenon dubbed in the literature as ‘educational multilateralism.’ The actors from this broad network act in different ways at diverse sectors of global education. UNICEF plays a role in child education, while the World Bank and UNDP foster educational policies for development, and the OECD works on educational policy agendas, especially for more advanced countries. UNESCO still covers a variety of aspects and topics, mostly related to security (promotion of peace), higher education, and cultural exchange.
Education is an important theme for current international relations, not only for its potential to prevent wars, as we have mentioned above, but also to create alternative pathways to challenge the globalization of capitals and its massive impacts on education, what could accentuate the existing social gap between developed and developing countries. The globalization of education in the 21st century brings along the treat of commercialization of education as an important and urgent issue to be dealt with. In the face of the globalization of capitals, the plurality of educational systems is jeopardized as education is treated like a commodity to be included in the portfolios of foreign countries and companies alike. The transformation of education from a public policy to a private service can generate consequences to the curricular structure as well as on the dissemination of ideological conceptions. By the same token, a set of non-indigenous values could directly influence the formation of critical conscience and considerably affect the opinions of students, the diversity of identities and of cultures around the globe.
In spite of all budgetary constraints, UNESCO remains a relevant actor in the field of global education, mainly for its inclusive features, being considered today one of the few international organizations which is relatively democratic at the procedural level. Against the background of neo-liberalization and its manifestation on educational systems and cultures, UNESCO confronts the pressures wielded by hegemonic countries in different ways: By funding programs and providing incentives to raise literacy rates, by qualifying teachers and coming up with policies destined to keep cultural diversity internationally, by fostering educationally inclusive patterns on the world stage etc. These policies stand as a counter-attack to the imminent trading of education and aims to challenge the homogenization of cultural values. In this sense, UNESCO, just like various actors who operate at the multilateral education network, has been trying to contribute to the democratization of global governance by engaging people who can meaningfully participate for the establishment of critical thinking in order to make education a more inclusive and affordable element in contemporary international relations.
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Jéssica Fernandes is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the Federal University of Minas Gerais – UFMG (firstname.lastname@example.org);
Dawisson Lopes is Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the Federal University of Minas Gerais – UFMG (email@example.com).