During the Civil Society Week celebrated in Colombia in April 2016, activists from around the globe gathered in Bogota to discuss the changing role of civil society in democracy in the 20th century.   The World Bank, the regional development banks (e.g., Inter-American Development Bank), bilateral donors like DFID and other donors are also focusing on analyzing the evolution of participatory processes.  In some circles more than others, there is now a constant reflection and discussions on the role of citizens, civil society and civic engagement in democratic governance.

Over the past decade the world witnessed a new level of civil society activism, linked to the renewed transition to more, democratic societies around the world, as well in more established democracies.  From the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia to the anti-corruption movements in India, Guatemala and Brazil and the “occupy” movements in the United States and other countries, citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) went to the streets to demand greater political participation and economic opportunities.  CSOs also increased their engagement and discourse with governments, corporations and international organizations, stepping up efforts to influence policies and policy dialogue.  However, we are also witnessing a moment at which relationships between governments and the governed is no longer monolithic, and a number of unique movements are flourishing, many challenging the conventional and more romantic visions of civil society.

It has been already two decades since Samuel Huntington argued that the world was becoming more “multipolar” and “multicivilizational.”  According to Huntington, as humans have more contacts with other civilizations, the most important distinctions among people would not be ideological, political or economic, but cultural.  Whether one agrees or not with Huntington, two decades ago he laid down a new hypothesis to understand citizens and collective action in the modern more democratic world.  Today while many citizens are still getting together and exercising their right to participate and influence policies, others are promoting nationalistic movements of various stripes, often against existing basic principles like inclusion, tolerance and collaboration and even calling for more autocratic, authoritarian and exclusionary approaches to governance.  Moreover, in some corners in the world, religion is being used as a political tool to promote hate, advance exclusionary and even extremist governance positions.

At the same time, in most democratic governments, citizens find themselves increasingly divided and skeptical of the possibilities of collective action under democratic governance.  Not only does it seem that they feel less connected to each other, but also that they feel less connected to their governments.  As equality and social safety nets seem more vulnerable and trust in government dwindles, there is also a lack of confidence in the collective capacity to influence policy and political reality.  Socio economic trends and mobile technology seem to have become more responsive to individual than to collective expectations, and democratic governance seems to have grown less responsive to collective actions by citizens.  Alain Touraine analyzed this trend  and pointed to a growing gap between the tendency toward globalization of economic relations and mass culture and the increasingly sectarian nature of social identities as members of ethnic, religious, or nationalistic groups.

Reconciling the global trend of being a citizen of one big community sharing and living in one planet, with a more inward trend that still places value on  being a citizen of a territorial space has been a challenge.     Benjamin Barber has called this the “boundaries of citizenship” to help explain competing levels of citizenship (global, national and local) and overlapping civic responsibilities (global vs. national obligations).  This tension is driven not so much by where boundaries are drawn, but more on how they are drawn and by who draws the boundaries.  This determines the space to maneuver for citizens, and thus the level of flexibility, rigidity, and rationality of governance arrangements.

The international boundaries for associational and participatory life for CSOs is rooted in a number of legal instruments that protect the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, as well as freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.  For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,  the United Nations General Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, to name but a few.  This international body of instruments that articulate the boundaries for participation are complemented by other regional instruments, such as:  the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties, the Arab Charter on Human Rights, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

A plethora of national and local instruments further delineate the boundaries of citizenship within states.  An important reference local document is the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which in its preamble it says that: “The right of citizens to participate in the development of public works is part of the democratic principles common to all member states of the Council of Europe” and goes further by suggesting that the direct realization of this right is more possible locally.  While the nation-sates remain the principal actors of the global stage, the spaces for citizens to actively participate in democratic governance have multiplied in other stages (regional, national, local, community).   Nonetheless, as the European Charter of Local Self-Government alludes, local governments are where citizens may have more opportunities to influence the adoption of decisions that affect the environment they live.

Unfortunately, the quantity of international, national and local instruments that were exemplified above do not seem to have translated necessarily and/or automatically into an expanded  participation.  As can be seen in Figure 1 below, beyond elections citizens do not seem to be actively participating now a days in a number of important policy-making processes, many guaranteed under the plethora of legal instruments mentioned above. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is that it is a cause and an effect of the very same paradoxes and dilemmas of democratic governance. After all, democratic governance in practice is by nature adversarial characterized by competition, conflict, and power struggles among elected representatives. It also includes citizens voting in elections and through the election entrusting “citizens’ representatives” to make the best decisions on their behalf.  In principle participation is voluntary and that choice is given to individuals and organizations. Many citizens are understandably frustrated by the outcomes of these processes, which often do not deliver representation, accountability and pubic goods.

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Another explanation has to do with political parties. There is a strong case against them, in terms of how they do or not represent the will of the people. Political parties are not only the least trusted of democratic institutions in a majority of countries, but they also control so much of the democratic governance process.  At the same time, they seemed to become ineffective in basic political party activities, such as legislating, reaching consensus, and using power to benefit broader constituencies.  In the most extreme cases, people question whether narrow party interests are put first over more broad country interest. In this context, the so called “outsiders” (usually demagogues operating outside the political party structure) take advantage and try to fill the “representation and expectation deficit.” There is no definitive evidence that these outsiders perform better that others who belong to political parties.  To the contrary, in an effort to fulfill their outrageous promises with which they captivate the voter, once elected outsiders tend to circumvent basic democratic principles and tend to govern autocratically and with authoritarian approaches.

This paradox also highlights the capacity of institutions in democratic governance to effectively represent and/or hear citizens and constituencies, and promote citizen participation.  It is so interesting to note that, it was Nicolo Machiavelli that noted that whether democratic institutions succeeded and/or failed depended on the character of their citizens or the civic virtue.  Such notion begs the question, what shapes the character of citizens in democratic governance?  A number of factors, beginning with how engaged and informed they are about the policy and political processes.  This simple answer is more poignant, in light of the fact that mass media is no longer a trusted source of objective information.  Television (cable and/or regular) in particular has ceased to be a trusted source of political and policy information.  Entertainment and often ideological content supersedes informative and deliberative content now a days, and less people seek information from alternative sources such as newspapers and investigative journalism.  Social media has become an alternative and mixed blessing for democratic governance activism, as it can be used as an effective tool to inform, mobilize and protest.  However, two additional arguments about social media.  First, it can also be an empty space of mediocrity and banality used for self-adulation and/or a tool to spread hate and insults under the cover of virtual reality; and second authoritarian governments have quickly learned to control and limit the potential of social networks.

It is clear that from the perspective of democratic governance theory, governments are expected to be responsive to citizens as a consequence of citizen participation, through elections, public deliberation, policy-making and others.  The main premise here is that if participation occurs citizens should have the opportunity to influence decisions.  In reality, however this is not automatic, and that fact creates a gap in expectations and an eventual disillusionment, apathy and sense of disenfranchising among citizens.

No doubt that the expectations we have about participation in democratic governance are influenced by Robert Putnam and others who have written about civic engagement, associational life, social capital, and civic attitudes.  Even donors and international organizations in their desire to assist emerging democracies have promoted participation in line with Putnam’s and have further added social accountability, media strengthening, and coalition building. After a number of countries around the world made the transition to more democratic forms of governments three decades ago, there were growing aspirations and expectations about citizen participation using Putnam’s (and other similar) framework as a benchmark.  Participation to elect national and sub-national representatives so they can perform the business of governance on behalf of citizens, is but one aspect of citizens being involved in the democratic governance process.  How to engage with elected officials, demand accountability, communicate preferences and find solutions collaboratively are other dimensions of democratic governance, where citizens as individuals and or as part of collective action can play a huge role in the decision-making process.

Societies are evolving quickly before our eyes, and in ways that are new and unconventional.  We found out we are part of territorial spaces that may have periodic elections, but are often devoid of any other meaningful democratic action.  Either we get seduced by entertainment television as a source of information and analysis or get bogged down by the simplicity and mediocrity of social media as a source of opinion and participation.  Touraine called this the era of introverted communities. While all of us are part of a more globalized world, at the same time we are not equal and we do not necessarily share the same social and cultural values.  In this era, it would seem that our differences are being heightened.

We still idealized that democratic governance is about acting together in benefit of all. But this no longer holds in reality, in spite of the fact that the State still has a monopoly to determine the form of governance within its territory.  Today the territorial integrity of the State seems to matter less to citizens, more so when governance has dispersed or diffused vertically and horizontally away from the national/central State. While this situation is a challenge, it also presents an opportunity to re-calibrate the role of citizens in democratic governance.  There is evidence that when people mobilize they can hold the State and the elected officials accountable.  The policy space can also be influenced by civic engagement, in particular in local key processes like budgeting, social audits, and access to information.  Civil society cannot replace the functions of government, but can remain a key actor and provide an alternative to political parties in terms of representation and voice. Moreover, many non-governmental agencies can be means to close the gap between society and the State, and in many cases can be an effective service delivery mechanism.

Challenges persist, for example in how to ensure the citizens’ dimension of democratic governance remains relevant in today’s complex context.  No question that strengthening and building more-effective and sustainable State institutions remains a key goals for democratic governance. But focusing on capacities for building a strong resilience and effectiveness for participatory and civic engagement is also another key aspect of democratic governance. Upgrading needs to take place in both, the governmental and citizens’ dimensions of democratic governance.  For both we need to imagine institutional reforms that build on broader socio-political reforms, including electoral, political party and institutional renovation and upgrading, as well as investing and promoting in areas of advocacy, engagement and systems performance.

At this stage, there might be more questions than answers, and only fragments of answers.  For example, we know that localized policy participatory experiences may have more potential that national ones.  But we do not know how to scale up these local experiences to nourish the national policy arena.  We also know that policy dialogue and deliberation can be healthy for democratic governance. We do not know, however, how to translate those efforts into meaningful institutional changes and upgrades.  We also know that civil society and citizens’ participation can be a conduit for voice and in promoting public action.  However, we do not know how to further strengthen the enabling environment and space to sustain their resilience.   We know that democratic governance is both about government and society, but we do not know how to strengthen the symbiotic relation between the two.

As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is an ongoing and interesting debates about the role of citizens in democratic governance.  Discussions focus on participation in the market and the State, about how governments should reconcile community and collective needs with individual rights, and even about how intrusive or unobtrusive the government should be in the lives of people. However, in addition we as citizens of democratic governance need to spend more time understanding how to make democratic governance work, and the conditions needed to strengthen democratic practice and culture, as well as democratic citizenship.  This requires closely examining barriers, and devising new and creative models for civic engagement and citizen participation.  Institutions have to be (re)designed to be more sensitive to information and accountability, more deliberative and participatory, and more inclusive and diverse. But ultimately the tissue between institutions and society needs be strengthen and renewed in a way that strengthens the exercise of democratic governance and eliminates any possibility for non-democratic and violent solutions.

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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