By Manssour Bin Mussallam
January is always a most peculiar month.
It marks new beginnings, and yet, despite our farewells to December, once the celebrations give way to silence, we never quite seem to completely start anew – whether it is because we still find ourselves unconsciously typing in the previous year’s last digit as we date documents, or because we gradually come to realise that our resolutions for the New Year are much harder to implement than we had initially thought.
The end of January is more peculiar still.
Within a month of our brave, new beginnings, through the clamour of human affairs and the exigencies of life, long gone are our new year resolutions, with our old habits quietly reclaiming the seats from which they had been displaced, and we soon start looking forward to the chance for yet another new beginning at the start of the next year. At the dawn of February, in the most human of paradoxes, we find ourselves neither having surrendered to the old, nor are we still militating for the new – limbo appears to be quite a comfortable residence, after all.
When it comes to education and, in fine, to development – as conferences have, over the years, succeeded conferences, and declarations have repeatedly risen from the ashes of their predecessors –, it appears that we have collectively been oscillating, in a perpetual loop, between the beginning and the end of January, with February remaining a promised land on which we never quite disembark.
Perhaps it is because there is no such a thing as an entirely new beginning, for the past, ironically, refuses to die. Or, possibly, because we are, regardless of our firm belief in the contrary, too attached to the past to truly let it go – the devil you know, as they say.
Yet another probable diagnosis is that we may simply need a gentle reminder, without the pressures of a midnight change of year, and a tender push towards the new.
This last conclusion, in any case, was the noble motivation of the Organisation of Education Cooperation’s (OEC’s) General Assembly of Member States and Associate Members in proclaiming – through a resolution of its own, in December 2021 – every 29th of January as the International Day of Balanced and Inclusive Education (IDBIE).
This annual commemoration is not an occasion for celebrations glowing with the blinding light of excessive optimism, nor is it designed for commiserations proper to those who have been vanquished or have resigned before the struggle itself. No – the IDBIE is an opportunity for us to collectively take stock of our progress and lucidly recognise where our efforts have proven fruitless (the gentle reminder), and with this balance of accounts, to engage in true exchange and dialogue, ratifying our commitment and resolve to remedy our shortcomings (the tender push).
Much like balanced and inclusive education (BIE) itself, in fact.
As a transformative vision – adopted by leaders and organisations from across the Global South, on the 29th of January 2020, in the form of the Universal Declaration of Balanced and Inclusive Education –, BIE does not accept the prescription of settling for the good enough that the reality of the past few years has come to impose, nor does it seek to do away with the history of our past, of which it takes due and respectful note. For in the words of the Declaration itself, “Humanity’s conflicted history informs and guides it, but its future is not condemned nor pre-determined by its past.”
As a paradigm, balanced and inclusive education recognises the paradox (yet another) of education: it is both the bearer of the promise of a better future, and, in the present, an industrial factory reproducing our societies with all their injustices and inequities. The transformative potential of education, it legitimately affirms, is only confirmed when it is itself transformed.
As a conceptual and technical framework, BIE provides us with the tools to build the education we need, if we are to shape the future we want. And this education we need is one that recognises our cultures, identities, and experiences – who we are as peoples and individuals, as well as our millenary interdependence with the rest of Humanity –, so that we may become who we strive to be; one that prepares us for the complexity of reality – not one that transmits fragmented knowledge through segregated disciplines, and hence fragments our understanding of the world –, so that we may transform it; one that devolves to both educators and learners their humanistic vocation – not one that dehumanises the former into obsolete information-sharing instruments, and the latter into empty receptacles to be filled with cold facts and data –, so that we may all truly contribute to the continual reconstruction of society; one that adapts to our planetary imperatives, national priorities, local realities, and individual aspirations – not one that alienates us by indiscriminately imposing a one-size-fits-all model –, so that we may all move forward, differently, yet together.
Finally, as a collective construction, BIE demands from us to emancipate ourselves from the inherited status quo and its siloed initiatives. It recognises that, at the national level, to speak of education requires speaking of health, of the economy, of social cohesion, and of everything that living in, and making, society entails. At the international level, it demands a renewed, vibrant multilateralism, imbued with the spirit of equality (amongst parties), equity (in their relations), and solidarity (rather than charity). In sum, it is – with unwavering devotion to the human dimension of our universal ideals – a resolute pledge to return Humanity to its rightful place at the centre of all our collective and individual initiatives.
In other words, balanced and inclusive education is – and I dare write it, unashamedly – a revolutionary undertaking by countries from across the Global South, which – guided by the noble aspirations of their Peoples – founded and found in the OEC their common, solidary instrument.
And accordingly, on this upcoming International Day of Balanced and Inclusive Education, as Governments, civil society organisations, youth movements, and communities enter into revived communion to renew their commitment to this humanist edification, we are keenly aware that revolution is not everything that has already been achieved – impressive and noble as that may be –, but everything that is yet to be achieved.
For ours is the multilateral effort, of which the OEC is only the platform and servant, to transition from planetary sleepwalking towards a future that seems as remote from our aspirations as it is bleak in its promise, to one that heralds a third way of development, materialising the future we want, and that we deserve. Ultimately, our choice is between shaping the future, or passively allowing ourselves to be shaped by it.
The choice is clear: we must collectively ensure that this 29th of January marks a true, new beginning – for education, and beyond.
**Sheikh Manssour Bin Mussallam is the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Educational Cooperation (OEC), an international intergovernmental organisation founded by countries across the Global South– Latin American,Caribbean, African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islands– in January 2020. The OEC’s objective is to contribute to the equitable, just and prosperous social transformation of societies by promoting balanced and inclusive education, in order to attain fundamental rights to liberty, justice, dignity, sustainability, social cohesion, and material and immaterial security for the peoples of the world.