Why Human Identity is Central to the Sustainable Development Agenda
Melody Mirzaagha, Daniel Perell and Saphira Rameshfar
Baha’i International Community Representatives to the United Nations
New York, 22 July 2019
The environmental movement is known by many for its encouragement to “think globally, act locally.” That adage sought to bridge the gap between intellectual agreement and concrete action. But it also provided the rudiments of a framework that would allow people to synthesize two contrasting realities: their embeddedness in the particularities of a given place and context, and their membership in an all-encompassing global family. It touched, in other words, on the vital issue of identity.
Refining conceptions of who we are, both individually and collectively, will be central to making progress on a range of global challenges, not least those addressed by 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This was on display at the recent High Level Political Forum, where issues of identity permeated discussions on various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Amongst thinkers who are exploring the enabling conditions that foster peacefulness in societies (SDG 16), an overarching identity that unites groups across their differences has been recognized as a critical component of communities that are able to resist violence and radicalization, even in the face of other risk factors. Those devoting their efforts to economic justice are aware that inequality (SDG 10), as well as marginalization and oppression, frequently runs along lines of cultural, religious, ethnic or national identities. And SDG 4 (quality education) addresses the topic head on, promoting an approach to education that fosters within young people an identity grounded in norms of global citizenship.
At a moment when xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise, the need for clear and constructive conceptions of self is vital. Yet, as various peoples and groups struggle to define themselves, their place in the world, and how they should act, it could increasingly be said that humanity is facing a crisis of identity. Without a vision of shared identity and common purpose, we can all too easily fall into competing ideologies and struggles for power. Seemingly countless permutations of “us” and “them” define group identities ever more narrowly. And over time, this splintering into divergent interest groups weakens the cohesion of society itself.
As processes of globalization become ever more pervasive, the relationship between the universal and the particular will become critical. What does it mean to be a local citizen in a globalizing world? What does it mean to be a global citizen in a local community? These questions are not easily resolved, as broader and narrower conceptions of identity are often placed in opposition. Some reject the concept of universal values, seeing them necessarily as tools of hegemony, and assert the primacy of local community and culture. Others emphasize the need for global norms and standards, and are perceived to be forgetting the role of local customs, tradition and knowledge.
It seems clear that a constructive path forward must avoid extremes in either direction. Toward this end, one values-based educational program highlighted at the Forum sought to inculcate in village students a deep appreciation for local customs and practices, culture and community as a subset of their love for and connection to humanity as a whole.
In this light, the development of one’s local community and the promotion of its ways was presented as a contribution to the cultural diversity of humanity as a whole.
There is broad agreement that humanity’s most pressing challenges respect no border or boundary. As a result, effective action to overcome them should transcend the independent nation-state, whether that be through coalitions and partnerships or transnational institutions and agencies. As effective governance takes on greater global character, our conception of ourselves—of our identity—must similarly expand, if we are to not fall prey to challenges made insurmountable by limitations of our own thinking and perceptions. In the final analysis, it will be through genuine concern for all people, and by subordinating lesser loyalties to the best interests of humankind, that the advancement of a global civilization can be realized and the infinite expressions of human diversity find their highest fulfilment.
Last updated 24 September 2019