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27 Nov 2014

Education Diplomacy - Towards a Common Understanding By Katharina Hone

By Katharina Hone, DiploFoundation.

Many of the participants in the Education Diplomacy Day in Geneva in October pointed out that they were not sure exactly what education diplomacy means. And then they proceeded to talk about their own work – which in each case was a good example of education diplomacy, in one of its many different aspects.

The Geneva event is a good starting point for mapping the terrain of education diplomacy. The term itself was suggested by the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) in 2009. ACEI began by describing education diplomacy as the “cross-disciplinary, intercultural sharing of theories, ideas, and concepts that advance the landscape of education and, thereby, enhance human development.” Putting this in the context of the theory and practice of diplomacy, I think education diplomacy is best described as what is often called “new diplomacy.” We find the term commonly used in connection with environment diplomacy or health diplomacy to convey “… that we have entered a new era of international cooperation and that the boundaries of traditional diplomacy – concentrated on national security and economic and commercial matters – are being extended to a much broader concern for global sustainability” (Kjellén, 2008). In this sense, new diplomacy describes the arrival of new actors and new topics on the diplomatic playing field.

Taking further inspiration from definitions of health diplomacy, we might describe education diplomacy as “a political change activity,” a “multi-level, multi-actor negotiation processes,” “the cultivation of trust and negotiation of mutual benefit in the context of global [education] goals,” and as “the chosen method of interaction between stakeholders engaged in public [education] and politics for the purpose of representation, cooperation, resolving disputes, improving [education] systems, and securing the right to [education] for vulnerable populations.” I suggest that applying these definitions to education diplomacy and critically analysing their fit and potential implications can be a useful step in further pin-pointing the concept.

However, given the importance of education on the global agenda, as exemplified by the second Millennium Development Goal and the proposed Sustainable Development Goals, it is quite surprising that the concept of education diplomacy has not yet received more prominence. Further, if we do take environment diplomacy and health diplomacy seriously, why is there an absence of engagement with education diplomacy?

In order to begin solving this puzzle, it is useful to start by asking what education diplomacy entails. Based on the Education Diplomacy Day discussion, I suggest three broad areas as a first attempt to map the concept. These are:

  • the normative aspect of education diplomacy;
  • education diplomacy as an activity spanning various issue areas, policy fields and types of diplomatic engagement; and,
  • education diplomacy as a multi-level activity.

Further, in addition to these broad areas, suggestions regarding the skill-set of the ideal education diplomat deserve further reflection.

During Education Diplomacy Day, Diane Whitehead and Yvette Murphy of ACEI emphasized that the term education diplomacy clearly carries normative connotations. For them, issues of greatest concern are improving access and quality of education, ensuring equity, and contributing to sustainability. Also emphasising the normative dimension of education diplomacy, Lichia Yiu of the Academy for Quality in Education and Training reminded us that education is crucial to promote social and economic development, support country development objectives, enhance sustainable lifestyles and practices, and strengthen civic conducts and engagement. Similarly, Raymond Saner, director of the Center for Socio-Economic Development put education at the core of attempts to achieve sustainable development.

These and other presentations also reminded us that education diplomacy is a cross-cutting activity. It touches upon global trade negotiations, human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development, to name just a few. It is part of development cooperation as well as humanitarian aid. The discussion on the day also highlighted that it can be part of other types of diplomacy such as public diplomacy, city diplomacy, and track-two mediation. Further, education diplomacy can also be seen as a key ingredient in developing so-called citizen diplomacy further.

Undoubtedly, education diplomacy takes place in the traditional realm of diplomacy: the relations between states as developed in bilateral contacts and multilateral encounters. Various international agencies such as UNESCO and UNICEF are also important players in the field. But, education diplomacy is also a transnational activity, directly connecting citizens of different countries. And most importantly, education diplomacy reminds us that the boundary between the international and the domestic realm cannot be maintained. In this spirit, many presenters and participants during Education Diplomacy Day emphasized the close connection between the local, national, and global levels and the need to understand how they work together and how they can be better integrated.

Having defined education diplomacy as part of “new diplomacy,” it is clear that education diplomats come from a variety of backgrounds and professions. While official state representatives take part in education diplomacy, they may not be the most prominent actors in the field. I think that education diplomacy is best understood as an activity that brings together the diplomatic practitioner and the education practitioner in order to achieve a common vision. This can take fundamentally different forms in practice. For example, a person engaged in trade negotiations under the GATS agreement and a representative of a grassroots organisation working to implement the Sustainable Development Goals on education can both equally be called education diplomats, if we follow the idea of a “new diplomacy.” Further, if we add transnational interactions and networking across state boundaries between those engaged in the education sector to the realm of education diplomacy, the circle of education diplomats becomes even larger. Hence, the specific demands on education diplomats vary considerably. ACEI suggests a number of broad core skills and dispositions for education diplomats. These include reflection, intellectual flexibility, global ethics, appreciative inquiry, negotiation, mediation, and cross-cultural communication. Toward visualizing the various tools an education diplomat would need to possess, Dr Jovan Kurbalija, director of DiploFoundation, started sketching what he calls the Swiss Knife of Education Diplomacy. This idea, which needs further development, incorporates these skills and dispositions with key areas of knowledge (such as the global education policy agenda, trade, human rights, sustainable development, etc.).

During Education Diplomacy Day, we surely made progress in mapping the concept. However, two key tensions that surfaced in the debate deserve closer scrutiny. NORRAG’s Laetitia Houlmann and Mònica Serlavós pointed to the potential conflict between education as a public good and education as a commodity and the potential friction between a global approach on the one hand and the national, cultural and local specificities of educational systems on the other hand. These issues are not inherent to education diplomacy, but education diplomats need to be able to navigate these tensions.

While this blog post expanded on some of the issues we touched upon during the day, the question still remains whether or not we should consider education diplomacy as a new type of diplomacy and, if yes, how we define education diplomacy and how we practise it.

Katharina Hone is a researcher and online course tutor at the not-for profit organisation DiploFoundation. Working with ACEI and Diplo, she will be developing the first online course on Education Diplomacy, to be launched in the summer of 2015. She welcomes further suggestions, comments, and critique. Email: Twitter: @kathone


Kjellén, B. (2008) A New Diplomacy for Sustainable Development. The Challenge of Global Change. London: Routledge, p. xvi also pp. 39-49.

Further information

For more information on education diplomacy, please see You can consult the Education Diplomacy Day event programme, presentations, further resources, and a photo album at

Follow the organisations on twitter: @diplomacyedu | @edudiplomacy | @acei_info

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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