Russy Sumariwalla was as old as the United Nations now is when I first met him, in his glorious home state of Oregon in the United States, home to a gentle river misleadingly called “Rogue” and to its grand watershed, or Gorge. For many years he had led the United Nations Association in Medford, an activity he continues and cherishes, and my first conversation with him, and his gracious author wife Anita, revealed how much more about my Organization he knew than I did. That realization was rekindled last week when I opened a letter from him, yes, a physical postage stamped letter and not an e-mail, addressed to “dear Fellow Residents of the Planet Earth.” 

The letter looks at the United Nations in its 75th year, snapshots in Russy’s lucid style of its “all embracing agenda” including peacekeeping, climate change, assurance of food and the situation of refugees. And in its closing thoughts, the letter makes clear its preference of the word “residents” rather than “citizens”, which has different implications.” Having been so long a votary of global citizenship myself, and cherishing it as one of the core founding principles of the Academic Impact, I was not immediately persuaded but, over the last long lingering weekend, thought it over and wondered if there might not be a case for both, even if that choice depends upon the inclination of each individual. 

Citizenship clearly commands a greater sense of belonging, expectation and exercise of duty by the human person; residence a sense of particular location at a particular time, with an assurance extended by the geographical space within which it occurs. In the context of “Planet Earth”, that assurance premised the very first principle of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development which stated “human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.” 

That sentence, with its echo of the governing phrase of the United Nations Charter on the “dignity and worth of the human person”, was crafted thirty years ago when the preparatory committee for the Rio conference began, under the wise and genial chairmanship of Ambassador Tommy Koh of Singapore, as close an approximate to the quintessential United Nations diplomat as the Organization has been fortunate to see. Coincidentally, I had thought of Ambassador Koh just the day I read Russy’s letter when I joined a meeting hosted by the Asia-Europe Foundation, whose first Executive Director he was, at the invitation of its gentle and cerebral Education Director, Leonie Nagarajan. The meeting launched the eighth ASEF Regional Conference on Higher Education (“ARC8”) which is being conducted, online and onsite, till the end of 2021. Remarkable to the conference is its bringing together of researchers and experts, students and teachers as well as higher education administrators in a single forum, under the overall theme “Outlook 2030: Inclusive and Diverse Higher Education in Asia and Europe.” 

Its four sub-themes rest on principles of inclusion and equity; one is on inclusive international mobility of people and knowledge”, its impulse so eloquently captured in Leonie’s affirmation that “we need to agree on core tools in our global dialogues. We need to speak the same language for global policy dialogue and this requires constant research and constant practice;” the very first ,on inclusive learning and teaching in a digital world, captures both how “inclusion” brings into education’s folds other values essential to our residency on this planet and their magnification digital opportunities provide; as Darren J.McDermott, named team leader of the European Union’s Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region (SHARE) Programme, says, citing recent research, “the value of universities lies not just in the education they provided to students, but in a host of other additional areas. These include expanding the economy, supporting democracy, and advancing equality and sustainability.” 

A further sub-theme speaks of “inclusive and flexible lifelong learning pathways”, opportunities essential to what Dr Seamus O TUAMA of the University College in Cork, Ireland calls “identity capital,” which is about who we are as a person and how we see ourselves; the more comfortable we are with our identity, the better we are able to be positive actors within society,” a flashback to Russy’s choice of terms as well. Another, on improving access and success rates of under-represented and vulnerable groups in higher education, spoke also to the need for community reach and engagement ,mirrored in what Josep M. Pep Vilalta of GUNI describes as “a new framework to support greater societal impact of universities in Europe - the TEFCEproject Toolbox” which begins with setting up a team of university and community representatives to determine the nature of such engagement.  

The launch of ARC8 came just a few days before the EU and ASEAN elevated their relationship to a Strategic Partnership. As I read that news, I thought of an article Tommy Koh had written with Lawrence Anderson in June, where they argue that “the world is simultaneously faced with three crises: a health crisis, an economic crisis and a global governance crisis. To tackle them effectively will require countries of the world to work together to find practical common solutions. Asia and Europe have a major role to play in this endeavour. We wish to argue, in this essay, that by acting together, the leaders of Asia and Europe can provide the world with the leadership, resolve and policy ideas. They should also enlist the support of like-minded countries in other regions of the world.” 

Education has proven key to our efforts to resolve all three crises and to devising common solutions. Geometry defines “arc” as a set of points on a projective plane, a plane two rich continents have projected to each other, a plane upon which the vast majority of residents of Planet Earth encounter each other, capturing the philosophy of the sage and poet Rumi,  who lived and wrote on both continents, that our task is not to seek for love, but to merely seek the barriers we have instilled in ourselves against it. Or, in the elegiac words of Anita Sumariwalla, in her dedication to her jewelled “Alexa-Alexandra, “love can transcend nationalities, races and religions, triumph over injustice to develop into tolerance, understanding, forgiveness and the freedom of spirit.”

Much like education itself. 

Ramu Damodaran
Chief, United Nations Academic Impact