A Three-Part Case for Education Diplomacy in Girls’ Education Leadership


Christina Kwauk,
Center for Universal Education, Brookings

Plan International’s Because I am a Girl, Girl Rising’s #62milliongirls, and ONE’s #GirlsCount are but a few of the global girls’ education social campaigns to have taken hold of hearts and minds in the Global North over the last five years. In a political ecosystem where girls’ education advocates are playing a key role as girls’ education policy- and decision-makers, implementers, and donors, one might wonder whether education diplomats might simply overwhelm an already crowded space. I would argue to the contrary: girls’ education diplomats are needed now more than ever. As high-level political champions, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, make public commitments to girls’ education and align their overseas development aid accordingly, they demonstrate what is at stake if girls’ right to 12 years of quality education is not a pillar of development politics.

How do we overcome barriers for girls to attend school without putting girls at greater risk?

The skills of education diplomacy are most relevant for the girls’ education ecosystem. Actors in this space are increasingly recognizing, if not also engaging with, the hard, political work[1] of gender norms change and mindset change among key gatekeepers that act as barriers for girls to attend school, including parents, teachers, boys and men, religious leaders, and custodians of tradition. It would benefit girls in the long term if actors working with such gatekeepers could do so without burning bridges or putting girls at greater risk. Feelings among religious leaders of distrust against programs targeting girls and acts of violence by boys and men against girls themselves are but a few examples of backlash that could erupt if actors working to change a community’s long-held beliefs and practices do not approach their work diplomatically.

Education Diplomacy has a role to play in achieving transformative system-wide change.

In this think piece, I contend that Education Diplomacy offers an important conceptual rethink of the skills girls’ education actors need to develop in order to achieve sustainable and—more importantly—transformative system-wide change for marginalized and vulnerable girls. I draw these reflections from my work at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, including leading the Center’s girls’ education research,[2] chairing Girls CHARGE,[3] and managing the Echidna Global Scholars Program.[4] Through this portfolio of work, I have come to see that Education Diplomacy has a role at three levels in the girls’ education ecosystem: 1) champions of girls’ education working to convert the non-converted, 2) grassroots leaders working with both girls and their communities and the national and global actors responsible for policymaking and decision making that affect girls’ lives, and 3) girls themselves as they build the competencies necessary to lead lives of their own choosing.


Before moving forward, it is important to lay out some conceptual groundwork, especially between girls’ education advocacy and girls’ Education Diplomacy. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines advocacy as “the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal,” and an advocate as “one who pleads the cause of another; one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group.” In contrast, diplomacy is defined as “the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations; skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility,” and a diplomat is “one employed in or skilled in diplomacy.”

What is Education Diplomacy? According to the Center for Education Diplomacy, it entails being able to:

Diagnose an education challenge
Understand the diverse stakeholders involved in an education challenge
Find common ground among different priorities about the role and benefits of education
Shape consensus on solutions to an education challenge
Lead the advancement of transformative agendas in education.[5]

Education Diplomacy is thus a distinct set of skills, including socioemotional skills, and attitudes employed throughout a process of negotiation or cooperation (more on this, below). Girls’ education advocacy, therefore, in its most basic form, is about raising awareness and inspiring action through, largely, one-way channels of communication from the advocate to an audience—think large social media campaigns, for instance. Although girls’ Education Diplomacy is also about informing and influencing, it accomplishes these tasks through the longer-term, one-on-one work of relationship building between the diplomat[6] and a specific (set of) stakeholder(s). This makes interpersonal relationships central to the diplomatic work of girls’ education leaders, and thus raises the importance of socioemotional skills like emotional intelligence, social perspective taking, understanding nonverbal communication, trust building, active listening, conflict mediation, and adaptability, among many others.

So, how is Education Diplomacy relevant for girls’ education leaders today?

The Girls’ Education Champion: Education Diplomacy as a Tool to Convert the Unconverted

Success in realizing gender equality in education relies on cross-section coordination—and thus on Education Diplomacy.

A core aim for many girls’ education leaders around the world is advancing transformative social and policy change for girls in and through education. However, achieving such outcomes can appear to be an impossible feat in the face of patriarchy or when working with gender-unaware stakeholders who do not believe girls should be educated or who do not see the benefits—or relevance—of educating the girl child. Moreover, because girls’ educational lives are interlinked with their lives outside of school in their homes and in their communities, realizing gender equality in and through education cannot be achieved by engaging the education sector alone. Rather, success depends on the buy-in and action of actors from the public health, transportation, energy and sustainability, and labor sectors, for example—many of which do not see that their decisions can have an impact on girls’ lives. The process and skills of Education Diplomacy (especially persuasion, negotiation, tact, and discretion) would be particularly important for engaging these “unconverted” stakeholders—be they unconvertible or yet to be converted, with the latter being more readily converted or influenced.


I have worked with such champions at different levels of decision-making and across sectors who have used Education Diplomacy to achieve a range of outcomes for girls. For example, in Jamaica, a Ministry of Education official employed Education Diplomacy with the Ministry of Finance and nongovernmental organizations in order to link the construction of a daycare center with national efforts to reintegrate adolescent mothers into secondary school. In Nepal, a girls’ education champion worked with community health workers to build trust among parents to enable girls’ participation in an afterschool life skills program that teaches girls about culturally taboo topics like menstrual hygiene management. And in Jordan, a social entrepreneur first focused on building consensus among private sector employers and male family members around the economic case for women’s participation in the workforce before advancing women’s underlying right to participate in the workforce and their associated right to receive an education that adequately prepares them for such a transition.

The Grassroots Leader: Education Diplomacy as a Process to Balance Global and Local Girls’ Education Leadership

The increasing presence of high-level political champions of girls’ education has led to an increasing role for bilateral (e.g., the UK Department for International Development, DFID) and multilateral actors (e.g., the G7 countries). At the same time, there is increasing recognition of the importance of “the grassroots leader”—local champions who are at “the frontlines” of work with girls and their communities and therefore have a better pulse on the challenges and barriers that the most marginalized girls face. These champions can generate context-specific, community-driven solutions with greater chances for lasting impact. The parallel platforms of global and local leaders can be complementary, building upon the synergies between their work. Or, they can be incompatible, pitting local leaders against funding timelines that don’t correspond with the life of a project or by prioritizing certain kinds of outcomes that incentivize certain behaviors and programming over others. Potential fragmentation and disorganization could mean the difference between getting all girls into school and learning or further widening of the 100-year gap in educational achievement.

Local knowledge and advocacy will be key to achieving transformation and supporting global agendas.

The collaborative processes of Education Diplomacy, however, promise to help girls’ education actors avoid business as usual by brokering important and innovative partnerships between global and local leadership. Former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama’s Global Girls Alliance, for example, attempts to do just that: bring together international actors in the girls’ education ecosystem in support of grassroots girls’ education leaders, their initiatives, and their impact on girls’ lives. While this is a particularly unique partnership created on the premise that the efforts of local grassroots leaders should be lifted up and celebrated, the challenge will be to ensure other “glocal” initiatives build similar coalitions. Indeed, for such initiatives to be effective in generating transformative outcomes and social change for girls, local knowledge of girls’ strategic gender interests must be balanced against the global political agendas driving new commitments and investments in girls’ education.


While girls are assumed to be at the center, grassroots leaders must employ diplomatic skills alongside technical skills, such as when communicating data for evidence-based policy advocacy that can capture the attention of bilateral and multilateral donors beholden to election cycles and to donor priorities and reporting procedures. DFID’s Girls’ Education Challenge is an example in which global and local girls’ education actors have attempted to build relationships beyond traditional donor-grantee partnerships to fund-wide learning clusters. Now in phase 2, this partnership will be worth tracking to see how diplomacy helps to balance out global and local priorities. A recent roundtable organized by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the topic of diplomacy in girls’ education suggests that the UK is open to a role for Education Diplomacy as they kick off their new Leave No Girl Behind initiative.

The Girl: Education Diplomacy as a Critical Life Skill

When reviewing the skills of Education Diplomacy above, implementers of girls’ life skills programming should immediately see parallels to their work. Indeed, marginalized girls face daily micro challenges that require them to diagnose the situation (or “read” their context), understand the stakeholders involved, find common ground among different and/or competing priorities, shape consensus on solutions, and lead action that transforms their lives. As much as Education Diplomacy is about skills like negotiation and persuasion, it is also about relationships, power, strategic thinking, and building trust so that one win opens the door to further opportunities, or simply future opportunities to negotiate again. This also means empathy and compassion are necessary—not to the point of adapting or internalizing the unhealthy beliefs and attitudes held by gatekeepers, but rather to identify opposition, take the conflicting perspective, and then advocate for their own interests with a degree of sensitivity and tact.

The work of Education Diplomats can be the necessary difference in achieving sustainable transformative change.

In this way, girls’ Education Diplomacy can be conceptualized as a critical life skill, or a competency comprising 1) knowledge about the benefits of education as well as knowledge about one’s immediate, context-specific options for pursuing an education; 2) skills such as those described above; and 3) a proactive attitude toward playing the long game and persisting in the face of obstacles. Because girls must negotiate their educational lives with family and community members with whom they will have to continue living alongside for years to come, Education Diplomacy can make the difference between a short-term win and long-term transformative social change. Negotiating terms for one’s continued education while burning bridges in the process may lead to retaliation and even potentially violent consequences for girls that erode efforts to advance systemic change. Therefore, Education Diplomacy has an important place at the most micro level of the girls’ education ecosystem: among girls themselves.


The three levels outlined above in which Education Diplomacy manifests in the girls’ education ecosystem make a compelling case for girls’ education actors to incorporate Education Diplomacy in their toolbox. In a way, girls’ education leaders must master the same skills to make progress in girls’ education policy and action as girls attempting to drive their own lives in lanes dictated by others. Alternatively, one could argue that girls’ life skills form the foundations of Education Diplomacy, adding to the rationale for life skills programming that builds competencies that can be translated into empowered action. Regardless, this think piece has hopefully provided actors with a sense of what is needed in order to better support girls’ education leaders and leadership development for girls. There couldn’t be a better time than now to begin focusing on Education Diplomacy in girls’ education, as the efforts of girls’ education advocates over the last five years have created fertile ground for diplomatic progress.


[1] This is not to say that politics is a new phenomenon in girls’ education. On the contrary, politics has been an ever-present component of girls’ education—from the struggle for power within the micro-decision made by a father regarding his daughter’s education to the macro-policies made by a government regarding girls’ right to 12 years of quality education. Rather, this is to point out the distinct shift away from a primary focus on eliminating physical or economic barriers to access, like hunger or school fees, to recognizing the need to address the social conditions at home, on the way to school, or in school that influence whether a girl goes to, stays in, or drops out of school.

[2] The most relevant research to the current topic of education diplomacy is the life skills framework that I developed with my co-author, Amanda Braga. This framework will be discussed in the third discussion on Education Diplomacy in girls’ education.

[3] Girls CHARGE is a community of practice committed to advancing girls’ secondary education through the sharing of knowledge, evidence, and best practices across more than 60 nongovernmental organizations and foundations.

[4] The Echidna Global Scholars Program is a visiting fellows program aimed at supporting the leadership development and policy impact of girls’ education leaders from around the world.

[5] Education Diplomacy is, in this case, not referring to the kind of activity organized by the US State Department or the foreign equivalent, where nations organize international education exchanges between students in an effort to achieve cross-cultural understanding. It is also not like other permutations of diplomacy, like “sports diplomacy” where sport is used as an instrument of diplomacy, or a form of soft power, in which athletes and international sport organizations serve as diplomats working in the interests of the nation-state.

[6] In this case, the diplomat would be acting on behalf of the interests of marginalized girls, rather than of a nation.